Efficiency Can Be Your Enemy

In general, we think of efficiency as a good thing. Businesses strive to be efficient to make maximum use of resources so that they can focus on things that yield high-value returns (profits and new revenue streams). Athletes want to be efficient so that their energy can be directed toward goals such as increasing speed or strength.

Neurologically speaking, our brains and bodies are designed for efficiency. The brain is wired to learn patterns so that it can go into “auto pilot” and repeat the patterns, thereby conserving energy for important tasks such as survival or other pursuits. New (or long forgotten) experiences tax the brain (and the body) – that’s why it’s “human nature” to resist change, and that’s why an activity like raking for the first time each year can cause aches and pains even if you are fit.

It’s also why things get easier the more we do them. Although it can be difficult to believe when you’re trying to learn new dance technique, for example, eventually if you repeat something enough it becomes automatic for the brain and body to do. Thus the expression: “Practice makes permanent”! (Practice only makes “perfect” if what you are practicing is correct).

The Down-Side of Efficiency

Lately I’ve been dealing with both the upside and downside of efficiency. On the upside:

  • The work I do for my clients (at my marketing communications company) is starting to become routine again, after a chaotic period during which (for some reason) a number of new client initiatives all began at once. Finally I’m able to relax a little and be confident the work is going to get done even if I’m not on top of it every second of the day.
  • The West Coast Swing choreography that I recently finished creating is becoming a true “routine” – more and more comfortable and natural, thus freeing up our mental and physical resources to focus on adding satisfying details and more polish. When a routine gets to the that point it’s such a pleasure to be able to focus on the performance rather than having to be mentally engaged in getting the steps and transitions right.

On the downside, I’ve been having a helluva time getting my heart rate over 120 bpm when I work out … which means weight control is becoming more difficult, and working out more frustrating. I find that in order to get my heart rate up to 165 bpm or so, I have to do very high impact workouts. The problem with that is my muscles take a beating and take days to recover – and having sore muscles all the time isn’t an option when I need to be able to dance and perform regularly.

Consulting an Expert

Frustrated, I talked to my personal trainer about the problem. I asked her what I could do to make my no-impact cardio workouts effective again. She had a simple answer: “Increase your speed.” For some reason that’s the one variable I had overlooked. Over time, I had increased my cardio program to maximum resistance and then, once I wasn’t satisfied with the results any more, I increased the time I spent doing it.

My trainer told me to decrease resistance and duration but increase speed. Not only has this given me an interesting new goal to keep my attention when I do workouts on the elliptical trainer, but it’s working: I’m again able to get my heart rate up where I want it to be and I don’t have to punish my body to do it.

I still cross-train with outdoor running, boxing workouts and HIITs (high intensity interval training) but now I can reserve those types of exercise for periods when it’s O.K. for my muscles to scream for a couple of days after.

What are You TOO Good At?

Since I like to finish my articles with something to get my readers thinking or doing – how about this. Take stock of your daily activities – at work, play or home – and identify something that you’ve become very efficient at. Something you used to have to think about but now do without any thought at all. It could be an activity, a task or even a relationship.


  • Ask yourself if it’s something you SHOULD be doing in the first place – we form involuntary habits all the time and they may not be good ones.
  • Ask yourself if it’s something that you WANT to be thinking more actively about, or something that you SHOULD be working harder at to get better or different results.
  • Force your brain or body into a period of INefficiency – put your energy into making a change – a small change may be all it takes to disrupt a pattern!

Recommended Reading

If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, these are a couple of books I recommend:

Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business on Amazon >>

John Medina: Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and at School on Amazon >>