Effectiveness and Efficiency: Finding Balance

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In 2007, Google employees listened to Merlin Mann — a self-described geek and writer — who was an up and coming name in the movement towards personal productivity. He’d been invited to talk about how people could start to spend less time dealing with emails and more on more important, meaningful work. In a nutshell, he was there to give employees some ideas about how they could manage their email and time more efficiently and effectively.

The system Mann came up with to tackle this problem was Inbox Zero. It seemed easy enough. Mann argued that we should work towards reaching zero systematically.

  1. Work out what you need to do with a message. Choose from 3 actions: Reply, file away or add it to your to-do list.
  2. Carry out the most suitable action.
  3. Repeat for each message until no messages remain.
  4. Then close your inbox and get on with meaningful work or just living your life.

After the talk, things took an unexpected turn. Mann seemed to have uncovered a deep societal anxiety. People watched the Google talk online and hitting inbox zero became something of a craze.

Why? After all, at its core Inbox Zero was just a few instructions to help you deal with your email.

But Inbox Zero had evolved into much more, it had become a way to create and customise an infinite to-do list. It was a process that was efficient but not really effective.

I’ll bet you’re familiar with that creeping sense that time is slowly but surely slipping out of our control, which precedes feeling overwhelmed. The personal productivity movement is in full swing and continuing to flourish.

Later, I’ll talk about the issues that arise when you put efficiency before effectiveness. For now, let’s find out if striving to be efficient is the most effective use of our limited time.  

Time Management and the Drive for Efficiency.

The quest for improved personal efficiency is a dominant characteristic of our time. It has spread well beyond the world of work and seems to permeate nearly every aspect of our lives. You can find advice out there on how to be productive at almost everything from parenting to shopping. The main purpose of living our lives so productively seems to be — to me, at least — so that we can free up time in which to do more work.

The tempting thing about becoming a whiz at time management is that it offers us the promise of control. If we just keep working on it, this philosophy suggests, one day you’ll have everything in your life under control. The problem is – if you apply this mode of thinking to inbox zero — this is an unachievable goal because work in the modern digital economy is limitless. There’ll always be more emails flowing in that demand attention and the cycle continues. Think Sisyphus still rolling that boulder up that hill.

So, more often than not, techniques designed to help us can actually end up exacerbating our anxieties. For time management, this could mean that the better you become at managing your time, the less of it you feel you have.   

So, is our desire for more efficiency actually making things worse?

Prioritising Efficiency Over Effectiveness: The Problem

Some people wind up wanting to do things fast or perfectly before they’ve even started a task, if you’ve decided to place efficiency over effectiveness. This desire for perfection causes problems, like increased procrastination. People might spend overlong trying to perfect a small detail, or take ages to actually start if they’re trying to be efficient before they’re effective. Kind of ironic, right?

People will begin something, decide they’ve chosen the wrong process to follow, stop and switch to another hopefully more efficient process. They soon discover that the new process is also slow, and switch to another, then another. And just like that, you’ve got people working inefficiently and ineffectively.

Sometimes, it pays to just begin and so something in a slow, but proven way, rather than trying to make it more effective from the start. People trying to be efficient sometimes get stuck in the learning process, trying to take in and gather information, rather than just giving things a try to find out what’s most efficient and effective.

Soon, I’ll share some steps you can take to start becoming both efficient and effective. First, though, let’s pinpoint the real job of both of them.

Efficiency and Effectiveness: What’s the deal?

Numerous businesses strive to become more efficient in an effort to become more productive. But efficiency and effectiveness can yield different results. Someone can be efficient, but not be effective.

Efficiency can be a good thing but can sometimes be a distraction. After all, if you’re doing something efficiently that’s not furthering company goals, it’s not going to be worth much in the end.

Efficiency is about doing things in an optimised way, while effectiveness is about doing the right things, regardless of the time it takes.

Let’s take the example of lead generation, to see both of these concepts in action.

If you’re running a marketing campaign, sending out multiple emails with the same marketing text is a fantastic way to generate leads. That’s how you can reach hundreds — or even thousands — of people a day. Very efficient, right?

But if you’re actual aim is to make sales through generating leads, mass email marketing is surprisingly ineffective. You may be able to contact a lot of people, but how often do those people bother to read them, let alone respond or click through and buy what you’re selling.

It’s far more effective to spend time researching potential clients. That way you could tailor and personalise messages by telling customers how what you’re selling will benefit them, help them solve a problem or enhance their lives in some way. You could even give potential customers ideas on how to use it, making it seem even more desirable to them.

Pretty soon, you’ve made a sale. The extra time you put into bringing about that sale proved to be time well spent.

It’s a question of balance.

While it’s important you’re effective, you also need to make sure you’re making efficient use of time and resources. Creating effective, well-researched customised emails is time-consuming. So, you’ll have to figure out whether the potential outcomes are worth the time you invest.

After all, efficiently doing the wrong things isn’t really going to help anyone, is it?

Doing the right things well is the path to success.

Ways to Balance Efficiency and Effectiveness

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

Here’re the best ways I’ve found to start working more effectively and efficiently. It should be noted that not everything will work for everyone but trying a few of these things out might be a good place to start.

Work on the right things.

  • Set goals to help stay on the right track, so that you’ll be working on the right stuff most of the time.
  • You can use the SMART, or WOOP method to set valuable, achievable goals.
  • A good tip for setting goals is to always ask yourself if you’re heading in the right direction and if your actions are relevant to your goal.
  • If stuck, try the non-efficient but effective way first.

Do the right things as often as you can.

  • When you first do something, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes to complete that task, as long as doing it is getting you closer to your goal.
  • You’ll be able to optimise later, but first you need to have taken some sort of effective action.
  • You’ll then know which parts of your process can be streamlined, done in batches, automated, done in a less expensive way, or even skipped altogether.
  • When selling something, for instance, the first and most effective, important thing you need to do is reach out to your customers. Talk and listen to potential customers to find out what they need and want, and how your product or service could help them,
  • Later, you can go back and search for ways to optimise the processes and make them more efficient.

Do the correct things well.

  • Now that you’ve a better idea of what doing the right things actually means for your work, it’s time to think about how you can do those things effectively. Being effective is better than just being efficient, but the ideal scenario is for you to be both.
  • When you start optimising your actions, it’s important to have something to compare things to. Choose a business metric.
  • If it’s for generating leads, perhaps plump for Cost of Acquisition—and analyse its value when you were working on becoming more effective.

Assess, assess and assess again.

  • At each step along the road, assess what affect any changes you’ve made are having on your efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Setting a baseline value for key metrics is crucial, so that you can compare them to any changes you introduce. That way, you can reverse or roll back any changes that are having a detrimental effect on the effectiveness or overall health of your business.
  • One of the drawbacks of striving for maximum efficiency is, if you’re not careful it can seriously damage the effectiveness of your work and business.
  • For this reason, it pays not to become hung up on figures and quantifiable metrics. Remember that anything that you can measure can also be manipulated. The last thing you want is to find yourself in a situation where your co-workers are on a soulless mission to hit targets by whatever means possible.
  • You should also remember the need for goals which are not quantified but are in place to keep people happy and motivated.
  • Don’t let your drive for efficiency have a damaging effect on peoples’ happiness and by extension their productivity. As we know, happy, motivated people are more effective workers.  


We’ve touched upon the pitfalls of looking almost exclusively at efficiency and ignoring effectiveness in your work and talked about using your time effectively as well. Why not try out the tips I’ve shared here. You’ll be powering through tasks, becoming more effective and productive by the day. Soon, your well-honed ability to balance effectiveness and efficiency will start making even an acrobat jealous!  

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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