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The inefficient efficiency paradox

I have been stuck down another obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) rabbit hole in recent months, as is my tendency. Paralysed by processes, besotted by blueprints and stricken by strategies, I keep falling into the same old patterns. I must find a way of ignoring these urges, circumnavigating these meltdowns and maintaining equilibrium. I must learn to be again, free from the perpetual burnout of toxic productivity, or else my lifestyle will become unsustainable.

This time, I created a monolithic process map detailing how I do things, step-by-step, in painstaking detail. Another Excel spreadsheet soon emerged, burdened with 150 rows of procedure and technique. Another calendar ritual morphed, reviews and sessions and analysis and obligations strangling with sinister tentacles. Another optimisation mindset took control, reductio ad absurdum baked into every aspect of my existence.

There was no way to stop the tide, and my mind became a smog-filled tunnel yet again – blinkered, broken and bruised. I have only just found an escape hatch, realising the depths of my latest downturn, so it feels important to strike while the iron is hot and commit my thoughts – and my findings – to paper. Maybe that way, I can avoid such episodes in the future.

What is obsessive compulsive productivity disorder? Explaining my rare type of OCD, centred on planning, processes and strategies

Unfortunately, mine seems to be a rare form of OCD, which is itself an uncommon affliction. According to most estimates, around 1.2% of the UK population lives with OCD, a condition often divided into different types. Some sources refer to six types of OCD, while others list seven or more. OCD UK, a leading national charity, says there are ‘infinite’ types within the obsessive penumbra, and that makes it a particularly alienating disease.

My type of OCD is especially difficult to define. I do not have intrusive thoughts, per se. I do not obsess over germs, cleanliness or contamination. I do not align the labels on soup tins or turn the lights off and on seven times before going to bed. Rather, my OCD is centred on an unquenchable pipeline of ideas, ambitions and creative impulses that spray forth like a geyser. I cannot turn off the tap, and those relentless thoughts – those insights that make me unique yet break me into pieces – can be a tormenting companion.

Interestingly, while OCD tchotchke pervades online, I cannot find much content about my particular strain of the illness. No amount of Googling reveals a satisfactory description of my outlook or modus operandi. Perhaps we should coin a name for it, then. Maybe we should call it obsessive compulsive productivity disorder, defined as the constant need to enhance every facet of our daily operations. There will surely be other people out there suffering with the same unnamed surfeit of ambitious projection, and we need to raise awareness because it is undoubtedly a silent killer.

When optimisation goes too far – Inside the paradox of inefficient efficiency

A few questions tend to bounce around my mind in this regard. Why, as modern professionals, are we so bewitched by growth, improvement and self-help? Where do we draw the line on continuous development, and to what end should it be pursued? The myriad answers are conflicting and contrasting. They are a paradox, essentially, mirroring the complexity of life.

There are so many synonyms for tactics, frameworks, algorithms and procedures that finding meaning in anything – let alone everything, all linked neatly together – is incredibly difficult. When one misplaced word or one arrow pointing the wrong way can torpedo the functionality of an entire enterprise, it makes you wonder why we invest so much time designing strategy and codifying semantics from the get-go. It seems like a waste of energy.

Nevertheless, hustle culture compels us to save time, reduce friction and maximise our resources towards a homogenised paragon of capitalist achievement. While such endeavours may seem worthwhile at surface level, drilling beneath the glitzy veneer reveals an oxymoronic lava of logical redundancy. Our incurable quest for efficiency is itself inefficient, laden with bureaucracy, yet still we persist with the same charade. Still we abide by the same immovable workflows, gradually dulling our minds into plumes of grim apathy.

What, after all, is the ultimate endpoint of optimisation? Well, for a start, it is a largely subjective concept. Everyone will have a different definition of optimal, which makes the uniform adoption of optimisation techniques – scheduling, scheming, benchmarking, brainstorming – fundamentally flawed. It is basically pointless to implement the dogma espoused by self-proclaimed productivity gurus because that methodology only works for them - if it does at all. Bespoke procedures cannot be imbued in other people with anywhere near the same effectiveness, so there is actually little to gain from watching yet another YouTube tutorial on the Kaizen approach.

Nevertheless, efficiency has always been held aloft as the promised elixir, the shining star on the hill of hacked productivity. In reality, however, we have developed a remarkable penchant for simply packing more complications – paperwork, checkpoints, appraisals, lists – into any time that is freed up by so-called innovation. We spend our downtime trying to engineer more downtime, and that is the preposterous legacy we will likely leave behind.

Take electronic records in the NHS, for instance. For eons, it was argued that, by simplifying administration, specialists could dedicate more time to patients. However, now that we have streamlining technology at our disposal, practitioners routinely find any surplus time swallowed by officialdom, with more paperwork to complete on a wider range of matters. Rather than simplifying administration, digital optimisation has simply enhanced the ability of bureaucrats to create additional hoops through which we must jump. That is a paradox wrapped inside an absurdity.

Moreover, even in the broadest sense of making things as easy as they can possibly be, optimisation is at best contradictory. In such a paradigm, after all, ultimate optimisation sees us lying in bed while artificially intelligent androids – Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Roomba – fulfil our dreams with effortless panache. No friction. No discomfort. No thinking. Self-help’s greatest trick is in making such a scenario seem desirable.

Indeed, when looking closer at our yearning to save time, we see that trying to do so actually wastes time, ironically. The output for which we strive is undermined by the very mode of pursuit. For example, if we dedicate an hour-long weekly session to streamlining processes, hoping to free up time, we are already squandering the thing we want to corral. As such, trying to make more time is akin to buying more money – the currency of purchase is the product we want to obtain. Such is the ludicrous loop of inefficient efficiency.

How balance, genericism and imperfect action can help you recover from OCD burnout

What, deep down, causes such cyclical stasis? What, quite frankly, are we scared of? What lies at the crux of my obsessive-compulsive urge to plan, organise and document everything? Perhaps it is a fear of forgetting things. Maybe it is a defence mechanism against waking up one morning and not knowing how to write a column. In the wider zeitgeist, however, something for nothing became so stigmatised by millennial whining that a rebrand was needed. More for less won the subsequent Twitter poll, apparently, and we are now all applying the pomodoro technique to our daily FaceTime call home.

This, unfortunately, is a simulacrum of the scurrilous contagion spreading through businesses, homes and hobbies – a prizing of the robotic over the humane, the quantifiable over the improvised and the formulaic over the freeform. Just as Major League Baseball teams malfunction when they surrender entirely to data analytics, denigrating the knowledge of wizened scouts, people malfunction when they are constricted by too many layers of red tape. Finding that level – that obscure and intangible tipping point – is the nexus of my lifelong struggle between productivity and insouciance. Even now, I’m trying to find the centrist grail.

Perhaps I can liberate myself from the torment by exorcising the underlying holdups of egotism and insecurity. As with anything and everything, I need to find and maintain balance, which holds the key to contentment. Too much of anything is bad, and the same is true for perfectionism. I need to work on striking – and sustaining – psychological equipoise, because the present rollercoaster is exhausting.

In this regard, processes are undoubtedly useful. They fascinate me, in fact. The history of innovation is littered with process-driven masterminds, from Henry Ford to Bill Gates. There is undeniably a place for structured workflow in life, as in the office, but where does its utility end? How far do we go in documenting standard operating procedures? Do we really need sub-bullets in footnotes to our five-step protocol for making bagels for breakfast? Probably not.

To wit, genericism is another potential antidote to my obsessive-compulsive tics. A solution to my malfunctioning mind likely resides in planning but not over-planning, but that is far easier explained than implemented. Valuing flexible guardrails over rigid processes would probably help, too, while a mindful adherence to Pavlovian triggers instead of draconian meticulousness sure sounds cathartic. Maybe I can just hang the laundry when it needs hanging, in other words, as opposed to blocking an entire Saturday morning out of my calendar to focus on detergent, pegs and checklists.

More than anything, I need to remind myself that nobody can schedule genius. Nobody can plan creativity or program passion. Some of my greatest creative role models have been dirty-faced ragamuffins drenched in serendipity – Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley, Mickey Mantle, George Best, Pete Doherty. Imagine giving any of them a spreadsheet or a process map. Such accoutrements would only hinder that which makes them immortal, and their vitality would suffer as a result.

The fact that we no longer produce such titans of popular culture speaks to the dull homogenisation of contemporary life. In modernity, everything is slick, proforma and managed by a public relations strategist. University graduates are funnelled towards a certain type of work – marketing, communications, technology – in a curated tranche of specific markets. Where is the diversity? And, perhaps more pertinently, where are the thinkers, the engineers, the grafters and artists and contrarians? Our world is overleveraged with khaki-wearing self-help messiahs peddling antidotes to problems of their own capitalist creation, and we need to expose the lies that underpin these influencer cabals.

Ultimately, we can overcome analysis paralysis, toxic productivity and professional neuroticism by doing, rather than by pondering. “Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction,” said US president Harry Truman, according to legend, and that maxim seems like a fitting driver of considered, compassionate progress from here. Next time my OCD bites, then, I will remember Truman and take action. I will eschew theory and champion practicality, because there is no greater release than taking the esoteric and making it accessible.

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