In Praise of Inefficiency

After meeting friends the other weekend, I had two choices to get home: take the TTC for about 25 minutes or walk for 35. The weather had temporarily mellowed after the polar vortex of despair, and I realized my path could take me through Kensington Market, one of my favourite Toronto neighbourhoods. So I walked, taking in changes in the city as you can when you’re not squinting into the wind. I stopped at Kid Icarus to thumb through their prints, took myself out for a piece of Ontario Sour Cherry pie at Wanda’s. Not only was the pie tart and buttery and completely perfect, it brought back the wonder of my earliest Toronto days, when I sat in that cafe with friends, or stopped by on my way to a book event, marvelling all the while that I got to live in a city like this. And here I was, marvelling all over again.

I’m a person with a long to-do list, and high standards, and so often my mind whirls with calculations, applying various criteria like it’s running script: is this the lowest price? the least environmental impact? the healthiest? the most time efficient? I’ve learned from meditation that my default mental mode is “planning,” and I’m sure “evaluating” is not far behind.  We live in a society that stokes this efficiency fetish, a world of #lifehacks and Pinterest boards and InstantPots and lifestyle gurus who promise to bring us as close to cyborgs as possible without any implanted tech. (For a brilliant critique of guru-mania, take the time to read Heather Havrilesky’s “There Are Too Many Gurus in America.”) And as much as I aspire to be better-faster-stronger, I don’t want efficiency to be my highest good. I wish this wasn’t so hard to remember.

I’ve written before about how by getting up early I take about an hour and a half for myself each morning. This has the guise of efficiency (get up earlier! use your most productive hours!), but in practice it isn’t really. When I tell people about this (usually when I’m explaining why my bedtime is now 9 p.m.), I get some incredulous responses: “But what do you DO?” they ask. And I’m a bit sheepish with my reply. “I read, journal, do some writing.” And then, I’ll add, “Oh and I meditate, and sometimes exercise . . . or tidy up.” Those additions are true, though they’re not new. But the first list, those amorphous items without distinct objectives or payoffs, make people uncomfortable.

But I must admit I am one of those uncomfortable people too sometimes. This morning, in fact, I was thinking about how my default mode is to put my words here, rather than court the validation (or more likely the rejection) of an external outlet or grappling with a bigger project. Surely that would be more productive, more useful, while still being creative?* I remembered that line from You’ve Got Mail: “I lead a small life—well, valuable, but small—and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?”

I don’t know what my answer to that question is yet. But despite my plan-o-matic brain, my ego, my ambition, right now I want to protect these dark, quiet mornings from the tyranny of to-dos: I find a kind of grace in their murkiness. Maybe I need the comfort, the cover of darkness, to write anything at all. And I do think I’m working towards something, I just don’t quite know what. That’s the nature of creative work, of course: it always means sailing out into the unknown. Sure, there are certainly people who write a novel in a month, journalists who stride along a treadmill of deadlines, and effort is important, noble even. But I suppose the work I’m doing right now is less like training for a marathon, and more like birdwatching: showing up, getting quiet, and paying attention without knowing what will come of it. It’s inefficient, yes, but I am hoping it’s also a little bit brave.


* Kerry weighed these questions of writing and ambition wonderfully. And she came out with the Back to the Blog Movement, which I am grateful for, because surely we all know that what is said loudest isn’t the most true or the most meaningful or most important, and one of the greatest satisfactions of the internet can be the digital meet cutes that bring us wonderful and unexpected connections.