Can You Be Too Efficient?
Written by TJ O’Brien

Last year I read “4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals”, by Oliver Burkeman, and I couldn’t help but see a lot of his ideas play out in the gym. So much so, that I’m still thinking of this chapter and how it applies at Invictus. I borrow a lot from Burkeman below, and explain how I see his “efficiency trap” play out in the gym.

So, CrossFitters; they are unlimited in their capacities, right? Like, you could ask them to run, lift, do gymnastics and they can do it all. This “limitlessness” is part of the appeal of this workout program because it would appear that there is “nothing they can’t do.”

But try to work on alllll those aspects at once, and you quickly encounter the normal human limitations of time and desire to train, which things to prioritize, and the ability to recover from whatever work you put in.

At Invictus, this natural human pain point between what we “need to do” and the time we have to do it is accentuated even further because the list of “need to do” seems to be growing even faster than it does anywhere else. That’s probably because our workouts are particularly good at exposing your weaknesses, to the point that it can seem that each training session reveals an additional weakness to be improved upon.

But eating away at this realization is the temptation that if we only became efficient enough, organized enough, motivated enough, we could somehow complete the impossible. If we prioritize efficiency enough, we could work on our core, our vanity muscles, our gymnastics, our olympic lifting technique and our mobility, and we’d finally have time for everything that matters!

The flaw here is that we’re borrowing this “squeeze for more efficiency” from the industrial revolution. You are not a machine or a factory assembly line.

Besides, what you’re truly chasing in your pursuit of efficiency is peace of mind. And you will never get it by trying to fit more in. 

In fact, the endless pursuit of efficiency only makes it less likely that you will get “everything” done. This is because in our endless pursuit of efficiency, we end up less focused on the end goal.

Think about your email and the pursuit of reaching “inbox zero.” Opening, reading, and responding to your email only creates another response for someone else to send back to you, creating more emails. Meanwhile, you get a reputation for “always responding to emails” so you receive more emails. 

Basically, if we become “more efficient”, we end up adding more and more things to do, and the quality of each subsequent thing suffers. Additional lanes on the highway only encourage more drivers to take that route. Higher efficiency light bulbs only encourage the lights to be on longer because, “why not?”

The skill I implore you to embrace is an “anti-skill,” it’s what the poet John Keats calls “negative capability”, which is the capacity to stay with one task, despite knowing that there are other tasks out there that still need to be resolved. In meditation, this is referred to as “sitting in uncertainty”.

And I’ll tell you, it is NOT EASY. But the sooner you GIVE UP HOPE that you will ever get to “the end”, where you peacefully sit, knowing that you’ve maximized every variable in your routine and accessory work, the sooner you’ll achieve that peace of mind you’re after. There will ALWAYS be more to do, and that’s perfectly fine.

Once you can recognize and settle into uncertainty, you’ll approach your training from the perspective of reality, instead of pretending you can do it all. And once you do that, you can more wholly commit the time you have to the goals you want to achieve.

Over a decade ago, when I started CrossFit, I would tell my friends about how QUICKLY you could get an effective workout, about how LITTLE time I had to spend in the gym to get results. Try and keep in mind that a few hard lifts, a couple of Assault Bike sprints, or a 15-minute AMRAP done as well as humanly possible will always outweigh two hours of volume done 75% well.

Would love to chat more. If this resonated with you, reply in the comments!

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