catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 20 :: 2012.11.09 — 2012.11.22


Lawn mowers and business letters

Two stories I picked up along the way frame my understanding of the tension between efficiency and inefficiency.

The first is related to Americans and lawns. Many years ago someone invented power lawn mowers: the perfect solution to simplify a process and save time so we could do fewer chores and more living, recreating or whatever we were longing for. What actually happened was that we made our lawns bigger.

Now, maybe we don’t mind mowing (and when I say “we” here I am not talking about me — I love the winter days when the whole thing sits dormant and does not need my attention). Maybe we find our sense of worth in having the biggest, most neatly trimmed lawn possible. And why hasn’t someone done something to make the artificial turf from sports fields a viable option for homeowners? Or maybe we’d rather spend our day pushing a noisy machine and sucking carbon fumes than relating to people.

The second story involves the business letter. When computers and word-processing arrived, we were going to save millions, if not billions of work hours. Untold dollars would be plowed back in to profit as we no longer purchased carbon paper, not to mention the soap, hot water, paper towels and lost time working to clean the smudged ink from our hands.

But the real story was different. A letter, with very little room for error, was produced and mailed. Then we word-processed and re-word-processed. We fussed over each sentence and paragraph. We’d edit, proofread and edit some more. The reality was that we spent unaccounted hours tweaking our efforts until, again, more was spent than saved. Then along came the next great thing: e-mail, which is now being pummeled as the current time-eating beast of the work world.

It may be something of a spirit vs. the law thing. We want to be efficient, have a clear system of right and wrong, get it done and then move on. But in the moment when we are in the flow, we default to our personality and nature. The clichés kick in; doing the best we can, trying to keep our heads above water and so on.

No matter how we slice it, we all waste time. When I was an organizational leader, people would say they wanted to talk with me, but knew I was too busy. My response was, “Please, I am not that busy. I actually waste time every day. Let me tell you how much mindless TV I watch.”

If being efficient means finding better ways to do things to have more time and energy for life and people, I’m all in. If being efficient means showing off our brilliance in order to one-up others or steam-roll people for our personal gain, no thank you.

We live in a complex world and I doubt we want to give up all the fruits of the industrial and technological revolutions. In reality these shifts have created a life with more options than our brains and time can manage. Survival — better yet, living — demands we find a balance. We need to know what is most important and commit to making the choices to live into that which we see as best.

I could say “Good luck,” but will close as is my habit: may God have mercy on us all.

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