Work and Rest

In Praise of Inefficiency

One proof of capitalism’s success can be seen in the unquestioned assumption that its values always contribute to human flourishing. Efficiency and productivity, for example, are not merely valued in the workplace but weasel their way into human interactions and relationships where they do not belong. Meetings of friends need to occur crisply, conversations need to be proficient, and time must not be wasted because we are busy.

The industrial revolution proved the value of efficiency and production, developing better ways of accomplishing laborious tasks and increasing the amount that can be accomplished in the same amount of time. The standard of living went up, the middle class expanded, and goods and services became cheaper. These are good things. Efficiency and productivity was also applied to management. The time spent in meetings was streamlined, needed information could be distributed proficiently with greater clarity, and workers could spend more time on task instead of getting ready to be on task. Again, these are good things.

What has been missed, however, is that what works brilliantly in the marketplace can do serious damage to our humanity when inserted into realms of life in which they do not properly belong. We’ve all experienced it. People keep their phones on during conversations so their focus is always divided and talk is interrupted. People rush into life groups, and repeatedly check the time. People multitask in meetings, checking email while taking notes. People are too busy to take true Sabbaths and blame their job as if they have no choice. Each of these signals that the thing at hand is not worth their full attention, and that there isn’t time for unhurried conversation because that simply isn’t efficient or productive.

The Christian understanding of sin is when a good gift of God is misused. Words are good gifts but using them to subvert the truth to my neighbor’s harm is sin (lying). Recognizing beauty is a good gift but undressing my neighbor’s wife in my imagination is sin (lust). Both efficiency and productivity are good gifts to make the marketplace more satisfying and able to meet needs for the common good but as a standard for human relationships they are sin (dehumanizing). Allowing them where they are not appropriate shows them to be the perverted ideals of an idolatry bent on reducing human relationships to commodities. Capitalism and modern management theory are helpful tools but as ideologies they seek our allegiance, and that we must beware.

The truth is that relationships cannot be hurried, conversations are fully authentic only to the extent they are unforced, life is messy, and being still to wait upon God requires a radically different set of values. If we are too busy we can brutally review our commitments and begin to make changes that allow us to more fully embrace kingdom values. If we are so shaped by efficiency and productivity that we are unable to relax into time when humanness, listening, and stillness prevail we can repent and begin to develop the spiritual disciplines we lack. If we have the opportunity we can even bring kingdom values into the marketplace so that people are not misused and underappreciated in the quest for efficiency and productivity.

Efficiency and productivity are such wonderful tools and result in so much that is good that they easily mask their cruelty. Since talking together is good, shouldn’t talking about more in the same time be even better? (No. Sometimes just being together is what matters.) Since it takes so little to check email during the meeting is it all that important to focus on points I already understand? (Focus is not merely for comprehension.) Since our conversation continues even as my phone beeps, shouldn’t I be available in case someone really needs me? (Our friendship needs you now, here.) And since a lot of this is not going to come cheaply is it really as important as all that? (Kingdom values are worth the cost.)

So, join me if you will, in raising a cheer: In praise of efficiency and productivity in their rightful tiny slice of life and in praise of inefficiency and unproductivity in the rest of life.