5 Ways Efficiency Undermines Productivity

May 4, 2017 // Articles

Matt Perman is the author of What’s Best Next, and one of the driving forces behind Desiring God ministries.  He has a lot to say about how productivity relates to leading a Gospel-saturated life. Perman will be teaching us at our next Gospel and Work Forum on Productivity. Come join us!


When most people think of productivity, they think of efficiency—getting more things done in less time. It seems logical. If you have a lot to do, your tendency is to speed up.

Surprisingly, if efficiency is your first and primary goal, it might actually undermine productivity. Here are five reasons why:

  1. You can get the wrong things done. If you don’t give thought to what the “more” is that you often unconsciously take on, you might end up being incredibly efficient at the wrong things. Or at least not the best things. If my wife asks me to go to the store to get a carton of milk, and I get there and back in record time with a carton of orange juice, I haven’t been productive. More important than how much we get done and how fast we do it is whether we are getting the right things done at all.
  2. Efficiency doesn’t always solve the problem. In many cases, efficiency doesn’t even alleviate our hectic pace. It is good to exercise control over our environment. In fact, it’s one of the purposes God gave us (Gen. 1:28). Yet it’s important to recognize that we can’t control everything. Sometimes there are simply more things we could do than humanly possible. Sometimes we make mistakes. Our approach to getting things done has to acknowledge our God-given limitations. We can’t require ourselves to keep up with everything perfectly, to know everything there is to know, to be in more than one place at one time, or to see everything go precisely the way we intended it to. We are not God. If we continue approaching our work with these kinds of expectations, it will only multiply our frustration.
  3. The quest for efficiency can undermine people. Many organizations suffer from the myth that the best way to make a profit is to be militant about cutting costs. This approach tends to undermine employees—making their work more frustrating, lowering morale, and decreasing the organization’s overall productivity (not to mention increasing turnover). Worst of all, when employees are viewed as “cost centers” rather than the true source of value in an organization, they are treated like interchangeable parts. Organizations end up hiring the most cost-effective employee rather than the most qualified employee.
  4. Efficiency is the enemy of innovation. There is an inverse relationship between efficiency and innovation: the more you focus on efficiency, the less innovative you tend to be. In may not seem efficient to slow down to brainstorm, dream, strategize, or reevaluate when you’re looking at your already crowded weekly planner. But it will make you more productive in the long-run.
  5. The quest for efficiency overlooks the importance of intangibles. Intangibles are arguably the main source of value in our knowledge economy. Technology, hardware, and capital can be copied easily. What can’t be easily replicated is the culture and human capacity that create those in the first place—and does so in a way that engages not just functionally with people but also emotionally, so that people want what your organization offers. Effectiveness is more about the intangibles because effectiveness comes from people first, not things. Things are replicable. People aren’t.

Here is the great irony: defining productivity mainly in terms of immediate measurable results undermines measurable results in the long run. So productivity is not first about getting more things done faster, it’s about getting the right things done.

What steps do you need to take to prioritize productivity over efficiency?

Post reproduced with permission from Matt Perman’s website.