The Big Picture: Effectiveness vs. Efficiency

There are three important trends that are influencing the way we approach our lives and our work.

We live in a high-speed world. With the advent of the Internet and other technological advancements, we are used to everything being fast. We now order online, and items are shipped almost instantly, we need information, and we search it with results available immediately, we need to make a reservation and it’s instantly solved, etc.

Also, in our society, we have often associated money with success, and work with money. I work hard, and I make money, therefore, I’m successful. This has contributed to a culture of “work”. Having free time, and not being busy all the time, is often associated with being lazy, and not being productive.

As science, technology, and knowledge have kept advancing, we have also become more specialized, and more focused. This is positive in terms of specialization. However, this can affect our ability, at times, to look at the big picture: what is important, what really matters?

When we combine these three tendencies: high-speed, the need to appear productive, and specialization, we can easily fall into the trap of valuing efficiency vs. effectiveness.

What is efficiency? A possible definition is being able to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort (e.g., working faster, getting the assembly line to produce more). Efficiency is related to output vs. effort invested (get more done in less time).

What is effectiveness? Being adequate to accomplish a purpose or to produce an intended result. It also refers to the level of quality in which a process is carried out to ultimately achieve a high level of performance.

These are subtle but meaningful differences. Efficiency can easily be perceived in terms of speed, of constant work, a relentless pace, and non-stop. This can be very positive and productive. But this also presents the risk of getting lost in the tasks, in complying with our expected behavior.

Effectiveness has the added element of a purpose. In other words, it’s doing what is important right. The challenging part is defining what is right, it’s taking the time to think and identify what is right as part of the big picture of what is important. Efficiency is associated with execution, whereas effectiveness is more strategic.

A simple example could be the following. Efficiency can be perceived as rapidly placing bottles of a product in a box (nothing wrong with this). Effectiveness would be thinking and identifying an alternate product or packaging method that would ultimately produce a major improvement.

On a personal level, an example could be put in another way. Efficiency could be working very hard every day, long hours to yes, complete job(s), and make needed money. Effectiveness would entail investing some time to seek training in areas that would allow for increased financial rewards while being able to better balance personal life and work while being more satisfied.

As stated before, the biggest difficulty associated with effectiveness is taking time to think, analyze, and be more purposeful. Do I want to live to work, or do I want to work to live? What is truly important to me in life (within reason) and how can I tend to this? How can I increase value-added with my efforts, and in what area? I like to call this “The Big Picture”: what are those areas that if addressed properly will “move the needle” in a significant way in areas that are important?

Of course, this calls for the “generalist” within us to come into action and to help answer or resolve our “Big Picture” needs. Take, for example, the common practice of having “to-do” lists. They can include items such as: doing the groceries, picking up the kids, working on a presentation, etc. Very important and necessary. But if our daily or weekly “to-do” lists are all we do, then we can easily lose sight of deeper, more important, and more meaningful parts of our life.

With this, I invite you to, please, continue to be efficient. Nothing wrong with this. But to also take the time to take a step back, be strategic about your life, work, etc. and identify what is important that needs to be done right.

One way to help in becoming more effective is to take periods of time “off”, periods of thinking time, and constructive analysis. Also, changing environments can help in working on our Big Picture. For example, assessing these areas while on a vacation when you are not distracted with the daily (executional) items and are located in a different place.

Also, using an external resource that specializes in helping others gain insight can accelerate and help in being even more effective. Here’s where I come into the picture. With my combined experience and training (personal, business, and psychological), we can work together in a process that can facilitate exploring and defining your “Big Picture”!