Thoughts from Theo: Efficiency Isn’t Always King

At the playground the other day, Theo gave one of his trucks a ride down the slide. He found that pretty entertaining and decided to do it again with another truck. That one was across the playground in his stroller, with the rest of his trucks, so he went to retrieve it. As I walked with him, I suggested we take all of them over to the slide so we wouldn’t have to make additional trips.

Theo, in typical form, said, “No, this truck,” and took one from the stroller to roll it down the slide before trekking back across the play area to repeat the entire process several times.

This can be tough for me to watch. I want to say, “No. There’s a better way. Maximize the efficiency of your trips and you’ll spend less time walking and more time sliding.” Or something like that. To me, there’s a goal–getting the trucks down the slide–and there are direct and roundabout ways of accomplishing that goal. Direct is better.

To Theo, there’s play. At one moment, it involves rolling a truck down the slide. At another, it involves climbing through the playground to retrieve another truck. One is not a higher priority than the other. One is not the endgame. As long as he is enjoying himself, he doesn’t care too much what amount of work is getting done. It isn’t about accomplishing anything for him.

I’ve gotten better about letting that go, allowing him to figure out his own method even when it is the slowest way I could possibly think of. In part, I do this because it is good for him to come up with his own problem solving process. In part, I do it because there often isn’t an actual problem to be solved. It’s just all experimenting and learning and playing.

Or, I should say that I’ve gotten better at letting that go with Theo. For myself, it is difficult for me to approach a problem without first considering, at least in some way, how it might best be accomplished. I want to eliminate waste, look for repetitive or unnecessary tasks. I think some of that is my personality and some is my (limited) background with programming. I’m a process guy, a systems guy.

This is sometimes to my advantage. By spending a little time thinking about the end result, and the steps needed to reach it, I can save myself some time or effort. I can speed up a process like washing the dishes by putting like things together, fitting as much as I can into the sink to maximizing soak time.

Other times, though, this planning and thinking part of the process actually just keeps me from taking any action. Worried that I might not have the best way, I run through more possibilities and end up taking longer than if I had just jumped in. Or, I exhaust all my energy thinking about what to do and ultimately don’t do anything at all.

Besides, the fastest way isn’t always the best. The most efficient process might not actually produce the results I want. This is particularly true when approaching a craft like writing.

Sometimes, our time is not best spent thinking about the quickest way to solve a problem. Sometimes, we should just be writing through it. We should allow the exploration to happen on the page rather than in our head. We should acknowledge that it is all part of the process. We might enjoy some parts more than others, but it is all writing, and we have to embrace it.

Otherwise, we might be so afraid of inefficiency that we’re scared to write multiple drafts. We might not want to cut unnecessary scenes because we already put in the time to write them. We might not be open to the possibility of changing a story’s point of view because that would mean lots of tedious rewriting.

Look, we all like watching the truck glide down an incline, picking up speed until it flips off the end of the slide and tumbles through the dirt. But retrieving the truck is part of the process too. So is walking to the park and stomping in the puddles along the curb.

The more we can embrace all of it, the better our chances of getting some terrific crashes at the bottom of the slide. And more importantly, the happier we’ll be when the truck doesn’t even make it to the bottom. Because that is part of it too.


  1. Gary says

    It’s beaten into us to be efficient like somehow that is a goal of life. Then one day you find yourself brushing your teeth while urinating to make the most efficient use of your time and realize you forgot to live.

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