Sep 15, 2011

Effective vs. Efficient

My husband is a project manager and sometimes I'll be mulling some idea about how I'm spending my writing time and he'll drop an idea on me that stops me in my tracks.  Here's one of them:  being effective is not the same as being efficient.

Being effective is about results.

Being efficient is about process.

(He's not responsible for any of this further mulling. So if you know Greg, don't ask him to explain any of what I'm thinking. He gave up on that a long time ago.)

All the writers I know have other gigs in their lives.  Time is precious.  It's not enough to be effective or efficient; we need to be both.

When I'm efficient with my time, I might measure that in words written or pages edited.  I might look at how many blog posts I've written.  Being efficient is important.  How can I be more efficent?

  • Get up early so I have time alone without disruptions.

  • Watch the clock.

  • Limit frivolous distractions.

  • Write during the time of day when I think most clearly.

  • Take care of myself, so my mind is sharp.

  • Set a timer so I persist through writing discomfort.

  • Listen to music that sustains my writing frame of mind.

All of this efficiency is great, but what if I am channeling my energy ineffectively?  What if I really need to re-envision my rough draft and I'm checking for typos instead?  I might end up with a manuscript 99% free of typos and then need to go back and rewrite every scene.  Maybe I've been efficient in hunting typos, but I've been ineffective in producing that final draft.

What about blog posts?  What if I'm blogging like crazy to build an audience for my novel--but I never have time left to write the novel?  I can be efficient at writing posts.  I can even be effective in building an audience.  Yet, when I stop to assess, I'm no closer to my goal of becoming a novelist.

What can I do to be more effective?

  • Define my goals in concrete terms.

  • Identify steps toward completing my goals.

  • Of those steps, identify the most time-efficient processes.

  • Be honest with myself about how I spend my time.

  • Be honest with myself when something isn't working.

  • Take responsibility for the path I'm on.

So that's it, right?  Be more efficient.  Be more effective.  End of story.

Not so.

All of these steps improve my odds at becoming a better writer, but the creative process requires something more.

I can't always measure the effectiveness of daydreaming, but I feel it.  I can't always explain why I need to research some weird aspect of Idaho history, but I feel it.  I can't always explain why I need an hour to block out a relatively simple scene, but I feel it.  Whether we call it intuition or inspiration or motivation from the muse, these gut feelings are rarely wrong for me.  Often impulsive actions feel neither effective nor efficient and yet they are essential.

How do you spend your writing time? Are you effective and efficient?  Do you follow your intuition?  How are you with setting goals?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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This post first appeared as a guest post for Ev Maroon.


  1. Effective vs. Efficient via @johannaharness

  2. I often find myself caught between my need to be efficient and my need to be effective. Your tips have helped me recognize how I can do both and still have time, I hope, for those things which are essential to me as a writer but fit in neither category. Thank you for an informative and inspiring post.

  3. Today from @johannaharness Effective vs. Efficient < It's good to remember they're different. Thanks, Johanna!

  4. Usually when I'm upbraiding myself for avoiding productivity, my wet noodles are named "effectiveness" and "efficiency." At least be one, I tell myself, lash lash. Yet the way I ease back into productivity is via the intuitive approach. It cannot be quantified, but it must be taken into the equation. Fuzzy logic and all that. Only at that point can I consider my effectiveness and efficiency in regard to my work.

    Thank you for an insightful examination, Johanna. It made me look at my process in a new way. I'll be lashing myself far less often in future.

    Take care,

  5. .@johannaharness's post made me look at my writing process in new & positive light. #amwriting #writing

  6. Great post! The two things are definitely different.

    Sometimes, I focus too much on 'results', so that if I don't achieve what I'd hoped to achieve, I end up paralysed by the sense of failure. I've tried to concentrate more on the 'efficiency' side of things, in other words, to make sure I write (or edit or rewrite) for a given period of time, rather than for a certain number of pages. I find this is ultimately more 'effective' in producing results.

  7. Effective vs. Efficient via @johannaharness Good post - makes sense!

  8. I fancy myself an efficiency aficionado quite like the father in the book "Cheaper By The Dozen" that I was required to read in graduate school. However, I've been rethinking this effectiveness concept because, well, apparently I haven't been so effective lately. I've been efficient at it, though.
    Thanks for this post!

  9. Review for the paper written up and just stumbled on this very important post by @johannaharness >> v helpful indeed!

  10. Effective vs. Efficient via @johannaharness - Great article :)