Menu Close

The Perils of Efficiency, or Why I'm Glad I Can't Mute People in Real Life

stressI love efficiency. If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types, I’m an INFJ. I’m particularly strong on the I and J, which means I’m an extreme introvert and love structure. I especially love completing my scheduled tasks without wasting time. When people waste time—even when I waste my own time—it feels almost physically painful. Because of these strong personality traits, I sometimes fail to consider the needs of other people.
All personality traits can be damaging when taken to extremes. My worst fear in terms of my own traits is that I’ll become like Joseph Conrad’s chief accountant in Heart of Darkness:

Perching on a high stool, he wrote, he wrote. Sometimes he stood up for exercise. When a truckle-bed with a sick man . . . was put in there, he exhibited a gentle annoyance. “The groans of this sick person,” he said, “distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.”

The accountant’s stunning disregard for human suffering seems to go hand-in-hand with his love of efficiency and order.
Fortunately, I haven’t descended to the level of Conrad’s chief accountant, but I’m like him in small ways. I have little tolerance for people who ramble on and never seem to get to the point. I hate small talk: it seems like a waste of time. And as much as I enjoy dramatic emotional or even physical problems in novels, I hate them in real life.

My Biggest Obstacle to Efficiency
The main obstacle to efficiency at our house

Yet people are human beings, not machines. We are all messy and uncontained. We all waste time, one another’s and our own. And last time I checked, efficiency isn’t listed anywhere in the Bible as a virtue. In fact, getting things done quickly and accurately is often at odds with learning, with understanding, with relationships, with intimacy. I see the perils of this tendency everywhere in my life, whether I’m rushing to explain a difficult concept in class as my students look increasingly confused or tuning out a friend’s long monologue when all she needs is a patient listener.
I’m also concerned that I’ve created a community of like-minded people around me and have weeded out the undesirables. This is especially easy to do online. Twitter is wonderful for people with my personality type: at a cocktail party I’m often reluctant to approach new people, but on Twitter I won’t hesitate to speak to anyone who interests me, no matter how impressive or famous they may be! The 140-character limit also makes it hard to ramble on—you have to get to the point. (And if you’re one of those people who sends twenty Tweets in a row, I’ve probably already muted you). I’m quick to shut people out of my life when they annoy or offend me, yet I know it’s important to interact with those who are different from me or who disagree with me. These people help expose my flaws and help me grow, as uncomfortable as that is.
All of which brings me to my Lenten practice of self-examination and prayer. Every day during the first week of Lent, I asked God to show me my sins (an unpopular word, but I’m going to use it anyway). In my usual chief-accountant way, I expected a clear, succinct memo from on high. Something like this:
To: Clarissa
From: God
Today’s sin is
1) pride
The actions you need to take are
1) acknowledge and confess this sin
2) apologise to someone you’ve hurt even though you think you’re right
But I didn’t get a memo. There were no revelations, no flashes of insight while I waited, pen poised above my note pad. It seemed I had no sins worth mentioning, so I went blithely on my way. What I didn’t realize was that my prayer was in the process of being answered, not with a memo but through a messy, inefficient situation, an argument with a family member. In the heat of the argument, the person told me I was being selfish.
Who, me? Selfish?
Well, maybe, but I’m no more selfish than the next person. Don’t we all think of ourselves first? Isn’t it natural? And particularly in an argument when we feel attacked, don’t we all get defensive and try to protect ourselves, even by blaming the other person? And so on. My defensiveness prevented me from considering the possibility that my loved one was right, at least for a few more days.
But then I realized that this situation actually answered my prayer (be careful what you ask for, right?). It all makes sense now. If I had cut myself off from others, how would I know if I were selfish or not? We are meant to be in relationship with others. Exhausting, changeable, contradictory, love-hate, inefficient relationships.
I often forget the extent to which God uses other people to answer my prayers and teach me important lessons. In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, Anne Lamott addresses this issue eloquently:

Alone, we are doomed, but by the same token, we’ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most—especially the ones we love most: they’re damaged, prickly and set in their ways. Also, they’ve gotten old and a little funny, which can be draining. It is most comfortable to be invisible, to observe life from a distance, at one with our own intoxicating superior thoughts. But comfort and isolation are not where the surprises are. They are not where hope is. Hope tends to appear when we see that all sorts of disparate personalities can come together, no matter how different and jarring they may seem at first.

This week I’ve been a little more cautious about what I pray for, but I’m also thinking about what I can learn from the people in my life who frustrate me or make me uncomfortable. I’m also wasting a little time on purpose, just to prove that it won’t kill me!


  1. Miss Bates

    This is a great post because I’m sufficiently introverted and narcissistic to mangle a song to say, “I think this post is about me.” I was reading, “somewhere,” that an Elder (monk) said that we should embrace our “enemies,” or the idiots who get on my nerves, because we can most learn from them where our shortcomings lie. I often think that efficiency and competence, with which I’ve been burdened, are actually not “charisms,” gifts, but tests. I forget that the one thing “needful” is to be the one who sits and listens … I’m way too busy being Martha. I loved your post: it’s going to be part of my meditative practice tonight.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      That makes a lot of sense that efficiency and competence are tests instead of gifts! And I can relate very well to your Martha analogy, though I think she gets a bad rap in so many writings/sermons, at least in the church tradition I grew up with. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. JT

    I loved this post! First of all, because I too would love to live in my own efficient, happy bubble where I could easily just float by people who seem too messy, or take too much time, etc., etc. But I also loved the reminder that we can’t be like this. This isn’t living. I want to learn to appreciate (maybe not love, or even like) the inefficient messes as opportunities to live life.
    Also, I loved the first part of the memo: “Today’s sin is …!” In my mind’s eye I saw a huge wheel listing all of the sins, and there was God, giving the wheel a good turn and me watching as it clicked its way around to point out my sin-of-the-day.

Leave a Reply