Intentional Inefficiency

Take the time to slow it down.

Reflection · 2031 words · 11 min read · 1163 views

I recently learned of the term intentional inefficiency: the idea of purposefully spending unstructured time, like driving to a nearby town with no more of a plan than to walk around and see where the day takes you. Rather than emphasizing organization, productivity, and efficiency as we do in our jobs, intentional inefficiency provides a space for spontaneity, slowing down, and recharging.

In some ways, I’ve been practicing intentional inefficiency already: some of my off-season weekend days conjure up last-minute plans of outdoor activities or meals. Rather than the torturous exercise of trying to coordinate conflicting schedules in advance, intentional inefficiency leverages the present: who is around and wants to go for a bike ride?

The point is that such down time is necessary—hardly a new idea but one that we sometimes need a reminder of, especially given what seems to be an almost universal overloading of our schedules and commitments.

As a software developer, I write software that aims to improve efficiency. Certain business activities managed by emails and a spreadsheet could perhaps be better handled by a small web app. High-level decision making surrounding such projects necessarily relates to efficiency: how much will an app cost to develop, versus how many man-hours will it save once it is done?

The larger tech industry has relentlessly promoted efficiency and automation in so many areas of our lives: for example, remember the days before online banking, when you had to go into a branch, talk to a teller, and get your account booklet updated for a simple transaction like transferring money? It sounds laughably inefficient now, but don’t forget that the online banking we all take for granted is but a blip in the many-century history of the banking industry.

I remember in undergrad when I got an iPhone and had push email in my pocket for the first time. Instead of needing to fetch my laptop out of my backpack, connect to WiFi, then open my mail client, I could pull out my phone and instantly see all my new emails. Instead of going to check your emails, your emails came to you.

The tech industry’s laser focus on maximizing efficiency has only gotten more unfaltering since then. Notifications can now come to our watches, media can be streamed in Ultra High Definition anywhere in the world (via satellite connectivity), and meetings can happen virtually across continents.

What if, instead of trying to maximize efficiency at all costs, we were to occasionally engage in intentionally inefficient activities?

As another introductory example to this notion, consider baking. Rather than buying a pie from the supermarket, baking one—either from scratch, or with a frozen shell—can be a welcome change of pace. Crafting the pie, an exercise in care and anticipation, usually leads to a tastier result than grabbing a processed pie off the discount rack.

Let’s look at a few other examples now.

Consider smartphone photography. Current smartphones have two or three lenses, ranging from wide angles to medium telephotos. The only parameter you really have control over is this zoom level. Taking a photo not only captures what the sensor sees but then runs the captured image through a series of digital-signal-processing techniques, automatically optimizing the exposure, colour saturation, and sharpness of the image.

(In one egregious example of over-processing, certain Samsung phones would detect night scenes with the moon and digitally substitute in a higher-resolution version of the moon. Small sensors don’t perform well in low light due to the limited amount of light they can capture—you cannot overcome physics—so the electronically injected moons would have come from a larger camera.)

The efficiency continues after taking your photo. Images are automatically uploaded to your cloud account and made available across all your devices. You can quite easily take thousands of photos, all of them seamlessly synced to the cloud. Photos are then a few taps away from being posted to social media platforms. The entire process is as painless as it is expedient.

While the photography snob in me is quick to disdain how easy it has become to mindlessly take and share such snapshots, I do think that something has been lost from the days before the smartphone democratized photography.

How many smartphone photographers would know that if you were to use a mirrorless or digital SLR (or even film) camera to take daylight photos of snow that you need to overexpose the scene by 0.5 to 2.0 stops to get the correct brightness? Your phone does this—and many other adjustments—automatically.

When shooting on a dedicated camera (not a phone), even if you are using a semi-automatic mode, an understanding of the basics of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) and how to manipulate each setting can lead to creative results. A classic example is shooting a portrait photo with dreamy, shallow depth of field—eyes in focus but little else—achieved by using a wide-aperture lens. Spinning a physical dial to adjust a setting is a delightfully tactile means of setting up your camera for a shot. Being intentional about settings and composition has given me better results than spraying away on fully automatic.

The process to improve your photography skills has long been the same: buy a camera with a 35 mm or 50 mm–equivalent prime lens and focus solely on composition for a number of months. I can all but guarantee that in time you’ll get better results than even the best smartphone available. Be patient and enjoy the process—quality over quantity.

I remember an Apple keynote a few years ago where they waxed poetic about their latest and greatest iPhone camera, saying that the best camera is the one you have with you, which is usually your smartphone. In one slide, they showed a thick book with a title like “Mastering Light in Photography” and posited that almost nobody would want to read something so daunting in order to take good photos.

This is where I disagree: no amount of software trickery will make average photos extraordinary (at least not without heavily distorting the original image, at which point we’re no longer talking about capturing a natural scene).

If you want better photos, being deliberate about each step in your process—in other words, being intentionally inefficient—is the way to get there.

Speaking of reading books, these are my next example of intentional inefficiency. I have long lamented the decline of reading—see The Pendulum Swings—so I will only go into the detail required for a short example here.

Reading unambiguously qualifies as an example of intentional inefficiency: what better way is there to slow down and engage with a story than by picking up a paperback and working through it over a few weeks? Try a chapter before bed—not only a welcome break from the screen but also a good way to unwind after a day.

As far as consuming books, audiobooks have gained popularity lately. I tried listening to a few audiobooks, but the dealbreaker for me was how hard it is to capture quotations from the books. As an aspiring writer, I collect quotations from all the books I read in picture form: screenshots from ebooks, phone pictures from print books (now there’s a use for smartphone photography). Audiobooks didn’t quite work for my use case, but maybe they can for you.

If a given book has been given the TV or movie treatment, you can already guess which medium I’m going to promote. Details are what bring stories to life, and too many of them are lost when adapting written works to the screen. Engage with the story in an intentionally inefficient way—and see how much more you get out of it.

The last example of intentional inefficiency I would like to discuss is wood stoves. Heating our homes during Canadian winters is largely a solved problem: in Calgary, where I grew up, relatively cheap natural gas heats most homes throughout the frigid prairie winters. Thoughts on the matter rarely venture beyond My gas bill was higher this month.

In moving to Revelstoke, I was surprised to see stacks of firewood outside so many homes in the fall. Such stacks grew to heights of six feet or more, multiple rows deep. As the town lacks a natural gas pipeline, heat is usually generated by propane, electricity, or firewood.

My first rental house, built in the 80s, had a hybrid wood/electric furnace, that, after forty years, was no longer operating as well as when it was new. The furnace, hidden away in a basement room, only heated the basement, kitchen, and living room. Bedrooms, in the other half of the house, still required electric baseboard heaters for warmth.

Running the fire was a chore. At most, it would last for about eight hours, less than the twelve possible in newer or better-functioning stoves. Keeping it running constantly, even with four of us, was a dirty, smoky, thankless job, the fruits of our labors barely perceptible in the not-frigid-but-not-hot-either kitchen.

After a winter of burning wood in the furnace, my roommates and I switched to running it on electric heat. A giant heating coil, running the electric furnace exorbitantly increased our energy bill. The combined water and electricity service could run over $700 a month. In BC, the cost of electricity goes up after you reach a certain threshold of kilowatt-hours each month, which we handily exceeded. Still, split four ways, this was a marginal enough increase in monthly rent.

It always seemed unusually smoky inside the house when running the wood furnace, despite a heat exchanger that theoretically prevented smoke from entering the house anywhere except the open furnace door. After this experience with wood stoves, I was unconvinced.

And yet, after moving into another house heated by wood, my attitude slowly reversed.

In the new place, a wood stove centrally located in the basement—not concealed in a dusty furnace room—provided an excellent focal point to the space. The house was small enough to be heated by this stove, and electric heat was available as a backup when not around.

Rather than paying someone else to deliver already split wood, the landlord and I harvested it ourselves from the seemingly endless supply down a nearby forestry road: a mix of standing dead cedar, fir, birch and hemlock. I felled my first ever tree with a chainsaw, cutting wedges to aim the topple direction. It was the only time I’ve unironically said “Timber!”, and it was a fine way to spend a midsummer day. After falling, we’d chop the tree into rounds, haul them back to town, split the rounds with a machine or by hand, then stack them for the winter.

There is something elegant about the whole process. In the city, knowing that your gas bill would increase the warmer you kept your house, the minimalist in me would always want to keep it as low as possible. Wood is effectively free, so there is nothing stopping you from getting a fire roaring after a soggy day outside (except perhaps not wanting to run out of firewood) and basking in its fabulous dry heat.

In some ways, indoor fires are nicer than a hot tub: cheaper to run, faster to warm up, and they have the practical benefits of heating your house and drying out your clothes. I’ve even heard of people boiling water on their stoves when the power is out.

In the city, I used to pay to workout at gyms. Throw in some pullups and pushups while chopping and moving firewood, and you’ve got a CrossFit workout for zero dollars. I work out almost every day, so adding a purpose to my workouts has been an unexpected motivation enhancer.

We live in a world of increasing efficiency. My point here is not to question all efficiency—online banking is quite preferable to its offline predecessor—rather to argue that intentionally engaging in certain inefficient activities can have unexpectedly gratifying benefits.

The examples I’ve listed here—baking, using dedicated cameras for photography instead of smartphones, reading, and wood stoves—are but a few ways of slowing down and enjoying the process.

While the corporate world—and tech especially—will continue to tease out efficiencies in our lives, don’t forget that an over-emphasis on productivity can ironically decrease it. In a culture that too easily leads to burnout, practicing intentional inefficiency can be a powerful antidote.

As for me, I’ll be reading a book by the fire.

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