The Burden of Efficency.

Today’s workplaces value the appearance of being productive rather than actual productivity. This seemingly nonsensical behaviour stems from the inability of many companies to accurately define performance metrics or other assessable criteria on which to judge someone’s productivity and thus they rely on the appearance of someone being busy as a judge instead. This is what leads many to engage in activities which, on the surface, make you appear busy but are either outright wasteful or horribly inefficient. As someone who has spent the vast majority of his professional career working himself out of a job I’ve found this behaviour particularly abhorrent, especially when it comes back around to bite me.


You see for anyone who is highly effective at their job there’s a tendency to get through your work faster than what would be usually expected and, consequently, they will often seek additional tasks to fill the rest of their working week. The trouble is that once their baseline job functions have been satisfied the tasks remaining are usually the low priority ones that either don’t really require the attention of a highly effective worker or won’t produce any meaningful outputs. Indeed I found this out the hard way many times as my investment in automating many of my routine tasks would often see me doing mundane things like updating documentation templates or reorganising file structures. Such tasks are a killer for highly effective workers and new research from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado finally adds some scientific evidence to this.

First the researchers looked at how people would assign tasks to different workers based on a single attribute: self control. Predictably the participants in the study assigned more work to those with better self control with the rationale that they would be more effective at completing the work. Whilst that might not be a revolutionary piece of research it sets the foundation for the next hypothesis: does that additional work burden said efficient worker? Because for a work environment where all are rewarded at the same level doing more work for the same benefit is a burden to efficient workers and that’s what the second piece of research sought to find out.

In a study of 400 employees it was found that effective employees were not only aware of the additional burden placed on them they often felt that their boss and fellow employees weren’t aware of the burden that it placed on them. The end result of this study was to conclude that efficient workers should not be rewarded with additional work but instead with opportunities or better compensation. Engaging in the other behaviour instead encourages everyone to do the least amount of work required to fulfill their duties as there’s no incentive to be efficient nor productive beyond that. Again this might seem like an obvious conclusion but the current zeitgeist of today’s working environments still runs contrary to this conclusion.

I do feel incredibly lucky to be working for a company which adheres to this ethos of rewarding efficiency and actual productivity rather than the appearance of being busy. However it took me 7 years and almost as many jobs to finally come across a company that functions in this regard so the everyman’s workplace still has a long way to go. Whilst research like this might not have much of an effect on changing the general workplace environment hopefully the efficient workers of the world can find solace in the fact that science is on their side.

Or, at the very least, realise that they should work that system to their advantage.

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