How can being inefficient make you more productive?

We think of efficiency as critical in nearly every aspect of our lives. Do your studying with efficiency to become a better student; keep a tight schedule in the office to make you a better worker. It’s therefore no surprise that there are countless books teaching how to efficiently deal with everything from emails to our calendars.

But what if they have it all wrong? What if, in trying to be uber-efficient, we’re actually making ourselves less productive? In my research for my book, The Chaos Imperative, I found that a little bit of chaos—deliberate inefficiency—plays a positive and vital role in our lives. Specifically, we can use chaos to foster innovation.

Here are three ways how:

  1. Allow for unstructured white space. It’s tempting to try and squeeze every minute of the day. Tightly schedule meetings, manage your studying, respond to emails on the train to and from work. But it turns out that white space—that is, time that is purposefully kept unscheduled—can actually make us more productive. It allows for reflection time, unexpected conversations, and unlikely connections. Kids who get more recess prove to be better students; workers who receive more time to be off-task are more innovative.This doesn’t mean that we should become slackers. Rather, the point is to have contained white space in your day.
  2. Let your mind wander. Have you ever had one of those moments when you’ve been working tirelessly on a project, only to feel like you’re up against a brick wall? The temptation is to keep at it and take the problem head on. But new neurological research suggests that our brains are actually wired to figure out tough problems when we let our minds wander. It’s as if we have a huge problem-solving machine that only gets activated when we’re not focusing on other tasks. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity while leaning back on his chair. JK Rawlings imagined the world of Harry Potter while being stuck on a train without a pen. But, ironically, we deprive our brains from accessing this powerful engine by being efficient.
  3. Make friends with some unusual people. Hanging out with weird people seems like the best way of wasting time if you’re trying to get something done. But these outsiders, people I call “unusual suspects,” make us think of problems in a new way. An outsider at Nintendo shook up the gaming industry and gave us Donkey Kong; a biochemist who almost got kicked out of UC Berkeley for weird behavior figured made a breakthrough that allowed us to sequence DNA. There are countless stories like this. But one thing is for sure: These aren’t the kind of individuals whom you’d see in your typical bureaucracy.

It’s tempting to keep order because it gives us predictability, safety, and seeming security. But we can’t simply sanitize our lives and at the same time expect interesting or innovative things to happen. The bottom line is that we should seek inefficiency sometimes.