Rethinking ‘Efficiency’

I used to think of most areas of my life in terms of “efficiency.” Don’t “waste” time on sluggish methods. Always seek to expedite the task at hand. This bled into my woodworking too, and I may not be the only one. Whether you’re a hand tool nut or a power tool devotee (or something in between), we all can be tempted to think this way. One of our worst criticisms of an operation is that it is slow. Have you ever heard anyone complain about a technique because it is too easy or too fast? I haven’t. If it’s faster, it’s better by definition. 

But what if woodworking wasn’t about getting it over with as soon as possible? What if we picked up tools because we actually enjoyed the process of shaping wood? How relevant would this notion of “efficiency” be then?

Or maybe our notion of the thing needs a little revision.

Usually when I hear woodworkers talk about “being efficient,” they’re referring to economic efficiency. What they’re focused on is the time invested to procure a given output. And even those who aren’t looking to peddle their wares, often think like a business owner: “I would lose my shirt doing it that way!” But if there’s no shirt on the line, then there’s no shirt to lose.

A little digging reveals an even deeper, more basic meaning of this word that I’ve found helpful. In the old sense of the word, “efficient” simply meant “to cause an effect.” Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines it: “Causing effects; producing; that causes any thing to be what it is. The efficient cause is that which produces; the final cause is that for which it is produced.” In the noun form, the efficient is “the agent which produces.” Notice how this definition is not bound up with a huffing-and-puffing obsession with meeting a deadline or minimizing labor. It’s not fixated on getting it out the door “as soon as possible.” It’s not driven by the bottom line or the sales report.

I find this old sense of “efficiency” refreshing. But the good news is that this sense of the word is not totally extinct. The most up-to-date version of the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that efficiency is “fitness or power to accomplish, or success in accomplishing, the purpose intended; adequate power, effectiveness, efficacy.” So, efficiency is about agency and ability more than it is labor savings.

So, I’m looking for ways to apply this new (old) way of thinking about productivity to my life. It’s not all about speed and immediate results, it’s about exercising competence consistently. Or, as one writer has put it, our life should be likened to the fruitfulness of a tree, not the efficiency of a machine.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.



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