In Praise Of Inefficiency And (Dis)Organization

This essay is about my personality and process, written in 2002.

It might explain how the idea of PWX came about, as it was in the period when BPR closed down without having a solution to the challenge of scale after a frenzy of activity including opening an office.
I was lucky to not have to work as my wife was working and so i used the time to let my mind drift and figure out a way to solve the world’s most important and urgent problems.

In Praise Of Inefficiency And (Dis)Organization

Rajesh Shah

On my day off my wife gave me a list of errands that included doing laundry, picking up some medicine and exchanging a set of picture frames. Eager to maximize my free time, i planned out my day to complete all the tasks in the shortest possible time:

7:00    Wake up

7:15    Make son’s lunch

7:30    Get son ready

8:30    Drop son off at school

9:00    Put laundry in washing machine at Laundromat

9:15    Drop off prescription

9:30    Transfer laundry to dryer

9:40    Exchange picture frames

10:00   Pick up prescription

10:10   Pick up laundry

10:30   Home free

A good example of efficiency – defined as the minimizing the amount of time utilized for a task or a set of tasks. Efficiency is a subject that has been hammered into me during my education (both engineering and management) and throughout my corporate years: “Doing something in the shortest possible time is being optimal and when you have to accomplish several activities, minimizing total elapsed time yields a global optimal solution.”

However, my life does not always go according to plan. The morning saw some confused frantic activity and when i dropped off my son, rather late, i found that i did not have the prescription or the frames. The day went like a comedy of errors. This is the sequence of events as they actually occurred:

7:30    Wake up

7:45 Get son ready and make lunch

8:00-9:00 Father-son bonding via arguments and reconciliation

9:20    Leave to drop son off at school (forget prescription, frames)

9:45    Put laundry in washing machine at Laundromat

10:30   Transfer laundry to dryer

11:20   Go home, drop off laundry

11:45   Take prescription (but forget frames) and place order at pharmacy

12:05   Go home, have lunch

1:40    Pick up medicines

2:00    Go to exchange frames

3:00    Home, somewhat free – almost time to pick up son

Definitely sub-optimal – a model of inefficiency. Not only did i not do any activities in parallel but also each activity took much longer than it should have. The day could be labeled a failure because I missed executing my plan. On paper, a lot of wasted time. However, instead of being a frustrating day it turned out to be one of the most interesting and rewarding days in my life.

The details of my activities during my tasks and in-between them will reveal the source of my happiness. After putting my laundry into the washing machine, i could not run to the pharmacy since i did not have my prescription. Instead i walked across the road to the lake. I sat in the sun and decided to do some stretches. It turned out that a Qigong group practiced there at 10. They welcomed me into their practice giving me a very pleasant demonstration of their art. Learning about Qigong was not on my long list of things to do, but i was very happy to get a short introduction.

While eating lunch i tuned into alternative radio and was lucky to hear Vandana Shiva, talking about the effects of terminator seeds on poor farmers in India. When i finally reached the art shop ready to exchange picture frames, i ran into Alex, whom i had not seen since graduate school. In 1993 he had spent a year in India as a Oxfam fellow understanding and documenting the true effects of the Lathur earthquake relief process championed by the government and World Bank. We caught up with each other and I found out that he had finished his masters, writing a thesis on the homeless in San Francisco and that he was planning on observing the relief efforts following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. We made plans to have dinner together and have remained in touch ever since. If i had arrived at the art shop on my original schedule, i would have not crossed paths with Alex.

This essay on my inefficiency is probably not what i want my bosses to see – it is about taking time to smell the roses. Actually more than that, it is about waiting for the fragrance of roses that are not visible to drift in and then taking time to seek them out.

The second idea i want to discuss – (dis)organization – requires a bit of explanation, best done through an example: my filing system for books and papers. I have (more or less) placed all articles and cuttings in different piles, which are placed in various folders. However, none of my folders are labeled. So when i need to find something, i have to first go through several folders, examining their contents to determine which folder is likely to contain what i am looking for. Then go through more stuff to finally find the article inside the folder. My organization is clearly regarded as disorganization by people around me, not to mention other adjectives such as messy. So i have settled on the word (dis)organization. This (dis)organization probably adds to my inefficiency, but being forced to go through some completely unrelated material often provides untold benefits.

Before i go into the benefits of (dis)organization i want to share a quote by Isabel Allende:
“Success and failure don’t exist. They’re inventions of the gringos. We simply live a little each day, the best we can. It’s like a trip without a destination; it’s the journey that’s important.”
While looking for this quote in my stack of papers i found an interesting article on Australia’s mining industry and smiled as i read several cartoons from the New Yorker, one of which was relevant to my bank that had just got bought over for the second time in a year. The
cartoon showed a bank lobby with a bunch of people dressed in suits entering the door with the caption: “Don’t anyone move, this is a takeover.” I dropped off the cartoon at the bank and everyone gathered around and had a hearty laugh. I like my (dis)organization, because if i had everything perfectly organized, i would find what i wanted, but not be richer for it. Of course i have to accept that at times i will be frustrated or unnecessarily delayed.

So if i was efficient and organized, would life be different? Yes, it might be less frustrating. It might provide me ‘more’ time, which might go into watching TV or hopefully completing the stack of books next to my bed. I might even feel more in control of my life.

I realize that slowing down and doing only one thing at a time are alien ideas in today’s lifestyle that is focused on being more efficient and productive, but something about spending some time rambling appeals to me. In addition, i also like the idea of giving up control: letting external events guide me, inform me. This is especially good since i cannot think of all the possibilities, i wait for things to hit me, i wait for events to happen. More often than not, nice things have happened. Serendipity has a welcome place in my life and i am glad to make room for it.

One Reply to “In Praise Of Inefficiency And (Dis)Organization”

  1. I found your article very interesting and certinly if nothing else It bought a smile on my face,

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