Is Focusing On Getting Better Only Making Things Worse?

Why Your Obsession with Efficiency May Be Hurting Your Mind

The world we live in is all about efficiency. We want cars that will give us more efficient fuel economy. We want mobile apps that will make us more efficient at work. But at what cost are we pursuing a more efficient life?

A few months ago I was reading The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. In this book (which is a steal at $5.99 for the Kindle edition), Achor describes a condition that psychologists refer to as the Tetris effect. And for me, it was a mind-altering revelation.

In case you’ve lived as a hermit for the past 20 years, Tetris is a simple little video game where four different shaped blocks fall from the top margin of your screen. The goal is to rotate and move the blocks so that they form an unbroken line. The unbroken line disappears and you get points.

Achor describes a fascinating study at Harvard Medical School where people were paid to play the game for three days straight. Paid to play video games? Sign me up!

But what happened? Here’s how the author describes it.

For days after the study, some participants literally couldn’t stop dreaming about shapes falling from the sky. Others couldn’t stop seeing these shapes everywhere, even in their waking hours. Quite simply, they couldn’t stop seeing their world as being made up of sequences of Tetris blocks.

That’s the Tetris effect.

What the study showed, from a medical perspective, was that continuous repetitive behavior—like a 72-hour Tetris marathon—can quite literally rewire our brains. We start to see and think differently and in ways that are directly influenced by these activities.

As I read through that chapter a second and then a third time, I began to realize that the kind of work I’ve been doing for nearly 20 years has had a negative impact on my mind as well.

You see, I’m an efficiency expert. I look at the processes people use for getting stuff done and I identify ways to make them better. In other words, I look for problems and if I’m being honest, I’m pretty good at it.

But like staring at a Tetris screen for too long, I had to admit that I’ve slowly been programming my brain to find problems with everything. I’m always looking for the errors and the gaps and the imperfections. Not just in my work, but in every area of my life.

And as Achor explained, that has formed an unhealthy pattern of negativity in my mind.

What about you? Do you struggle to see the good things in your life? Are negative patterns in your daily routine rewiring your brain for the worse?

You might want to think about that for a moment, because the push for efficiency is everywhere.

An Efficiency Obsession

Our world is addicted to making things more and more efficient. It’s not that efficiency is bad. The push for greater efficiency has built the modern world and it’s a worthy pursuit for those of us who want to grow as individuals.

We’re all interested in getting better, right?

The problem is that efficiency is brutally focused on rooting out the negatives. And when you become too focused on negative stuff, you run the risk of screwing up your mind. Achor writes,

Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.

Science suggests that if you spend more time evaluating your life than celebrating it, your mental well-being will take a hit. In fact, you may even wind up with less to celebrate in the long run.

But if you’re a follower of Jesus, there’s another question to consider:

Efficiency is about producing more with less effort. Efficiency says, “It’s never good enough.” It can always be better. Because you can never satisfy an efficiency obsession.

But sufficiency is all about about being satisfied. Sufficiency says, “Hey, it is good enough.” Efficiency pushes us for more. Sufficiency encourages us to relax because—well, because enough is enough.

If you’re constantly training your mind to find what’s deficient, what effect will that have on your soul? How will you ever be satisfied?

  • Will your church ever be good enough?
  • Will your prayers ever be good enough?
  • Will Jesus ever be good enough?

Don’t answer too quickly. Because the things you say you believe and think you believe—they may not square with the things you show you believe by your actions.

Efficiency is all well and good and I probably won’t delete my Pomodoro app anytime soon, but I’ve decided I need to give sufficiency more time on the dance floor.

Maybe you should, too.

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