I recently read this post in The New York Times about Charles Duhigg, who was working on his book Smarter Faster Better that focuses on productivity in life and business. The author cites the example of using “The Five Whys” philosophy rooted in Toyota’s production practices to become more efficient in his own home. In this piece, he was writing about his desire to have dinner with his family, but his and his wife’s work always kept them from coming home at a decent hour. Applying these “Why” principles and “working the problem” helped them realize that, if they could change their nighttime routine to have their kids pick out their clothes for the next day, they could make better use of their morning time, which would end up helping them finish their workday faster to be home more often for family dinners.
There was a part of me that was impressed with this, particularly the counterintuitive realization that your nighttime routine would get better if you improve your morning routine. I was also marveling at the way that over one-hundred years after Taylorism that came out of the first industrial revolution, we are still finding ways to apply time-saving principles to our personal lives.
While it’s hard for me to put my finger on why, I’m troubled by this story. I might apply the “The Five Whys” here myself to what bothers me about this modern-day Taylorism. Why does his applying these time principles bother me? I certainly don’t have a problem with him laying out his kids’ clothes the night before. I’m way ahead of him there. In fact, I even bought the weekday clothing sorter, and we sort our clothes out on Sunday so as to be even more efficient during the week (it was so awesome I have one for myself). In fact, I also prepare all my children’s snack bags each weekend so that I don’t have to make them during the week. It’s not the author’s time saving practice that bothers me, but more the length he had to go to dissect his day in order to spend more time with his children. Why does that bother me?
I certainly strive to be efficient in my work environment. I have arranged for my assignments in advance as much as possible. I was even marveling at some faculty member who shared with me their grading templates with standard paper comments preloaded that they could paste so they don’t have to write “you need to work on your run-on sentences” over and over again. I dream of that level of efficiency I write about run-ons all the time (lol).
If analyzing and streamlining my workday is not the problem, than why am I bothered? I’m thinking it’s because I’m not sure his method would work for me because I can’t make everything efficient.
First, in an academic life, the work never ends. Even as an administrator, I can never complete my to-do list. At home, there is no clear division between work and personal life. There is always a paper to write or a student email to respond to. So, maybe the answer is that I don’t think it will work, but I feel there’s something else.
The answer came to me during an asynchronous interaction with my youngest daughter. She likes me to write her a note on the mornings when I’ve left for work before she wakes up so she can read it. The other day, trying to think about efficiency, I wondered whether writing the note takes up too much precious time in the morning and that maybe I should just take an hour once every month and write up all the notes for the next month. This made me realize why his method would not work for me (though I’m happy that he gets to spend more time with his family, and I like that he didn’t privilege his own work over his partner’s).
It’s that efficiency seems to breed more efficiency. I’ve spent some time reading the work of Jacques Ellul, who wrote about the problem of the pursuit of technology, technique, and efficiency. At the end of the day, Ellul argues that we lose humanity when we succumb to efficiency as an end goal. When I considered writing out all my notes in advance, I was missing the point of the endeavor in the first place: showing my daughter that I was thinking of her during a morning when I can’t be there in person. In other words, my notes would lose my humanity.
I’ve decided for that one moment a day to be the opposite of efficient. I’m now writing more elaborate notes and using colored markers and different types of paper. I write poems now (bad ones, but my daughter doesn’t care). Sometimes, I even get a note back from her. We can’t be efficient all the time, or at least we shouldn’t. I’m looking forward for someone to write a book on the times when it’s okay to be human at the expense of efficiency. Why not?
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