Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Efficiency Trap: Multi-tasking Your Way Into Slavery


“Sir, can we get some more bread?”

I paused on my way to the kitchen long enough to smile and nod. I went over the list in my head. Again. Rolls for that table. Salad dressing for table five. Two Budweiser's for the couple in the corner.

“I need two Bud's, Amy.”

The blonde bartender flashed me a grin.

“Busy today.”

“I’m losing my mind.” I said.

I’d been working at the Royal Park Hotel restaurant for about a month. It was a high end joint, populated largely by theatre patrons. I’d never waitered before, but my fiancĂ© had been there for four years, and with her recommendation I’d gotten the job. Until I’d started there, I was pretty terrible at multi-tasking, but I’d learned in a hurry. When you were waiting on six tables, efficiency was king.

I ended up working there for the entire summer and made a lot of money. Even better, I thought, was how I’d learned to be more efficient. If I was going to the grocery store, I’d remember to take the quickest route, and plan my other stops along the way. We only had so many hours in a day.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that my education that summer was not necessarily a good one. That efficiency, or multi-tasking, is not all it’s cracked up to be. And yet, so many of us in Western culture rave about it. Women especially talk about multi-tasking as if it’s a necessary skill.

The problem with efficiency is that the more time you create, the more time you have to fill. Our world moves at a lightning pace, and we feel obliged to keep up with it. It is not a surprise to me that so many people, including young people, feel so much stress these days. People cram as much as they can into their day, and the better you are at multi-tasking, the more you can get done.

My question is this: what’s the hurry?

Why do we feel that we must account for every second?

No wonder we struggle with community, no wonder we are lonely, no wonder we feel detached from our Creator. Everything is programmed and regimented into thirty minute or thirty second time slots. Our relationships, the more important part of life, are bound to suffer. Ask your friends how they’re doing, and what is the answer you hear most often? I hear the words “tired” “busy” “exhausted” quite a bit, and too often I hear them from my own lips.

It shouldn’t be that way, especially for people of faith. An eternal perspective should allow us to relax, but an earthly perspective causes us to hurry. We realize we only have so much time on this earth, therefore, we only have so much time to “do stuff”.

I know there are times when busyness is inescapable. Especially for young families. But part of the problem is that we don’t recognize our own culpability. Instead of shrugging and saying “that’s the way it is when you have kids”, why don’t we take a closer look at our life? Do we really have to be that busy, or is it because we desire a certain style of life so that we need the extra job, the overtime? Do we want our kids to be involved because it’s good for them, or are we living through them? Are we so enamored, so caught in the web of the big cultural lie that “more is better, and faster means more”, that we’ve forgotten how to slow down?

I’ll be honest. I still struggle with this.

I want to be successful writer and speaker, want to travel, want to produce films, want to work with kids, want to have kids, want to be married, want to have a great relationship in that marriage, need to pay the bills, want to be a good son and brother and friend. Amazingly, I not only want all these things, but I believe I can achieve them if I can just be a little more efficient.

The slavery of multi-tasking in a materialistic culture is that too often it leads only to broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken hearts. It did for me. In hoping to get more done, I forgot how to prioritize. To do one thing at a time and enjoy it. Over time I realized that it became difficult to complete anything at all.

I muted the commercials on the TV and picked up my book. I had a coffee beside me, along with two magazines and two other books. I also had my laptop open on the coffee table and some of my work. When the commercials ended I turned the volume up so I could listen to the halftime show of the game I’d been watching and glanced down occasionally at my book. The commercials started again, and I was about to mute them when I realized what I was doing. I shook my head, turned off the TV, and closed up my book.

I walked out onto the balcony. The birds were singing in the bushes as the twilight approached, and I watched the swirling clouds ripen and shift and close, struck by the beauty of it all.
Sometimes we need to be efficient I thought, but maybe we need to worry less about getting things done. maybe we need to worry less about the tyranny of the efficient life, and think more about this wonderful world we live in and the beautiful things we miss every day because we’re too busy thinking about the next thing or the other thing.

Our culture tells us that more is better. May God open our eyes this week to the world around us, to the details in our life we have never seen before, and show us how to slow down, so we can truly enjoy this abundant life.

-Steve