“Why were the Mesopotamians able to make technological developments that would eventually change the world?”. It was 2004 and I was sitting in my honors US history class in my first week of Junior year. My teacher started the year off with this question, and I was already falling asleep. Meso-what? I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the lamp, but I was pretty sure Mesopotamia-whatever was not in the US and I was in the wrong class. Several students interjected guesses and all fell short. Our professor became progressively more frustrated and obviously disappointed in what was supposedly the smartest group of students in our year. Finally, he got fed up and answered his question for us, “It is because the Mesopotamians developed an irrigation system that allowed them to grow a surplus of crops. Their efficiency allowed them to spend time on other issues that then led to technological advances, more efficiency, and so on”.

My teenage, high-school brain was about spent after this jargon and I stopped listening, but I have remembered this story ever since. Recently, I thought of it again while thinking about the concept of efficiency.

Efficiency, when carried out with purpose, has the ability to literally create time and, for the Mesopotamians and us alike, opportunity. When this time is squandered, the benefits of that efficiency go to waste. As I have spent more time with the FI community, I have realized that financial independence is all about both of these things, time, and opportunity. We all wish we had more time and opportunity, created by financial freedom, that we could determine how it was utilized. I want to examine efficiency and propose 3 steps to improve your time management to capture the benefit of the efficiency that technology has afforded us.

Efficiency must be purposeful


I am lucky enough to be an emergency medicine resident. Lately, one of the key themes weighing on my mind has been efficiency. How can I speed up my work-ups to diagnose and treat faster and save more lives? How can I increase my throughput and shorten wait times in the ER lobby? How can I stay ahead of my documentation to avoid being home late shift after shift?

With each of these previous questions, my hope for efficiency has a purpose. Purposeful efficiency is the partnership between an innovation and a reason to use the extra time it creates, ie.:  increase efficiency in work-ups, and I use the extra time treating acute illnesses and saving lives. Increase efficiency in throughput, I see more sick people and give them care that they need instead of them sitting in a lobby waiting for it. Increase efficiency with documentation and I get home faster which means my wife is happy and when she is happy… well, you know how the saying goes.

We live in a drastically more efficient world than even existed just decades ago. Don’t you remember what it took to hitch a horse and buggy and ride 15 miles into town (no… no you don’t). Or worse, don’t you remember buffering? Every day, there are brilliant people analyzing the world’s inefficiencies and addressing them with solutions that are shaving time off of every facet of our lives. But, do we understand the purpose of this efficiency and what does this extra time and opportunity mean for us individually?

What are we doing with the time?


Unfortunately, for too many of us, that efficiency is bogus, wasted, useless. Why? It all comes down to what we do with that created time and opportunity. What do you do with the extra minutes of your day? I recently recognized I was spending about an hour per day surfing social media. Social media has its place, but that hour was essentially wasted time for me. So, I crunched some numbers to put this hour in perspective. One hour per day, 365 hours per year, equates to approximately 2 months of full-time work (40 hour work week). What can you accomplish in 2 months of full-time work? That is about 400 patients worth of work and learning for me at my intern level of efficiency.

Enter: The smartphone


The technological advances we enjoy can run and ruin our lives, or enrich and enable our lives. If someone had just said: “Ok everyone, we are now giving you the smartphone… yes Larry, the smart-phone… and its purpose is to increase your efficiency so that you can make more money, in less time, and with less effort”, perhaps we all wouldn’t be slaves and addicts to the marvelous devices or the apps contained therein, but actually stewards of these tools, wielding them for purposeful measures. Instead, we bought our first smartphone and downloaded angry birds… so … addictive.

Here is a personal, real-world example. Like Pavlov’s dog, when I sit down on the toilet, I immediately pull out my phone (which is disgusting on many levels, but you do it too… #poopjokes), type “f” into the search bar which auto-populates to “facebook”, press go, and start scrolling. I literally don’t even think about it. Oh how I wish I had trained my brain differently from the beginning to do something else that is a more efficient use of that oh-so-precious-poop-time (and you parents know exactly what I am talking about), but I didn’t and now I have to break this addiction. That is just one of many of my little time wasters. What are yours?

Efficiency is about return on time

I don’t know how much time it took the Mesopotamians to come up with an irrigation system that worked. But I do know that every second it took was worth it, as were the seconds it took to invent the other revolutionizing advances we enjoy today. I would say the ROI of the time and energy invested into inventions like the combustion engine, telephone, printing press, and toilet paper (so many bathroom jokes, I apologize) to name a few is unmeasurable and I am grateful.

So, what is the fierce way to efficiency?

Step 1: Inventory your time and give a name to every minute


  • You have 1,440 minutes in a day. Most of us in the FI community are used to naming every dollar in our budget. But, do we budget our time with equal importance? First, take an inventory of how you use your time now. Use these apps and tools to do that:
  • Take time every day to plan your day, and give every minute a name and a purpose. How rigid you want to be about this is up to you, but I propose that most productive days start with a plan. I love Stephen R. Covey’s way of planning spelled out in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. You can actually buy planners that use his method. I love it because it reminds you of the purpose for every task that needs to be done and allows you to see all of the different roles you play and titles you answer to on one piece of paper.

Step 2: Optimize your productive time

  • Productive time here means the time you spend working and expect to be productive. How productive are you when you are trying to be productive? Are you being distracted? Are you efficient? How do you rank compared to your peers? Optimize your productive time by minimizing distractions. Many of you work from home these days. Do you tailor your home environment to ensure that you are productive and not distracted by the million-and-one things that you could be doing right now instead of working. And for all of us, as often as you can, turn your phone off or on silent and do not answer it, or look at it, or hold it, or THINK ABOUT IT! Let the people you work with know that you need X amount of time uninterrupted to knock out your work. I can’t help but think of how ineffective of an environment the emergency department is for efficiency at times. Interruptions are non-stop, and for good reason most of the time, but it results in fragmented productive time and cuts into charting and throughput efficiency.
  • Optimize your productive time by frequently (or constantly) reanalyzing how you do things. Why do you do your work the way you do it? Is it because someone taught you this way, and it is the way it has always been done? Is it because you have done it this way for years and if it aint broke don’t fix it? Enlist humility to rethink the process by which you do what you do because there may be a better, more efficient and productive way.

Step 3: Optimize your (previously) non-productive time

  • Finally, optimize what we can refer to as non-productive time or the time that originally is wasted or looked over within a day. This is the time you spend sitting on a toilet, commuting in your car, sitting down to eat a meal, etc. If you find yourself wishing you could have taken advantage of more time in your day then this is a mountain of time worth mining. As mentioned before, spend some time to come up with ways you can tap into this source of minutes and the ROI will be well worth it. May I suggest listening to audiobooks and podcasts, practicing another language, talking to your higher power, and studying your field of expertise to expand and sharpen your skills, just to name a few.

As I stated before, efficiency can literally create time and opportunity, two precious commodities we in the financial independence world value greatly. What other tips do you have on time management and efficiency? We would love to hear them as you include them in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Efficiency is bogus… unless

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