I’ve written in the past about the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. If you’re unfamiliar with the difference, Peter Drucker summed it up nicely:


“Efficiency is doing the thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.”


I’m still looking to reform myself from being purely efficiency-focused to also being effectiveness-focused. Bad habits die hard and focusing on efficiency alone is a bad habit that had been drilled pretty deep.

Focusing on efficiency alone a bad habit because it can lead you to spend time ‘working hard’ on things that aren’t worth working on at all, let alone working hard on. To borrow from Peter Drucker again:


“There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”


Although introducing an additional focus on effectiveness can save you from wasting time on useless tasks, other dangers still exist even when effectiveness is taken care of. Too strong a focus on efficiency can stifle creativity, leaving no space for initiative.

To explain what I mean (and suggest a solution), I’ll repeat a section from Charles Handy’s book The Second Curve. Although it is aimed at addressing problems in team projects, I think the idea also applies perfectly well to individual pursuits.


To those frustrated by the conflict between efficiency and effectiveness I would recommend some doughnut thinking. All jobs and team projects are, I suggest, doughnut-shaped.

The doughnut is an English doughnut, the kind with jam in the middle. The jam represents the core essentials of the job that is required of the person or the group. If they are not delivered you or your group will have failed. But there is more to the job than the specified core, there is the dough around the jam, the empty space for new initiatives. Efficiency dislikes empty space so is tempted to prescribe what should happen in it, thereby pulling more into the core. In the extreme, all the doughnut is core, every action is foreseen and prescribed, as is the case in many call centres where the operator is totally constrained by what they read on their screen.

The preferred solution is a compromise. The centre has control over the work and can, by drawing the outer rim of the doughnut a little tighter, limit the scope for initiative, while still leaving the individual or group room to be creative. 


Handy goes to talk about how their has to be a significant element of trust in this process. The individual or group must be trusted to complete the task properly, even if there are parts of it (the dough) which are left entirely up to them.

As I mentioned above, I think this applies perfectly well to individual pursuits. In this case you are both defining your own donut; you have control over how much room for creativity there is.

If, for example, you want yourself to complete a project but don’t trust that you will be motivated enough to just do it, you might create a complicated schedule with no room for flexibility. Effective in getting things done, but pretty stifling for your creativity and likely to remove any potential enjoyment.

The compromise is to set yourself clear goals with equally clear timeframes, but to structure your schedule loosely (or not at all). This might seem scary – surely your default without structure will be to procrastinate and do nothing? Although this is always a risk, I’d say two things: 1) you can always tweak your approach when results aren’t forthcoming. Regularly track your progress and you’ll quickly see if things aren’t working. 2) you might well be surprised how much you get done anyway (it might even be even more than with the strict, structured and painful method).

I think the doughnut is a nice way to picture things. The message I really take away, though, is one of trust. Don’t be afraid to trust yourself.


Also published on Medium.

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