When COVID-19 took off in the U.S., shortages of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and blow-up pools had many of us thinking the American manufacturing supply chain must be inefficient. How was it even possible that we didn’t – and still don’t – have enough PPE for healthcare workers?
But what if the problem is that the supply chain is too efficient? That’s what Barry Schwartzis, a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley and author of “The Paradox of Choice,” argues. Streamlined supply chains, just-in-time deliveries, and little slack in the workforce are all part of the gospel of efficiency. But maybe all that efficiency isn’t really working out for us.
Storing huge supplies of masks in warehouses is, arguably, an inefficient use of money and space. But we sure could have used a stockpile when the pandemic hit.
When businesses run lean, there’s little room to hedge against potential disasters. Schwartzis suggests we focus less on efficiency and more on being prepared for all potential scenarios the uncertain could bring.
It’s all about “satisficing.” (Anyone else now have Elvis in your head singing, “All this aggravation ain’t satisfactionin’ me”? No? Carry on.)
Satisficing = satisfaction + sufficing. It’s aiming for the adequate, not the optimal. Schwartzis calls it insurance against “financial meltdowns, global pandemics, nasty bosses, boring teachers and crappy roommates.” Sign. Us. Up.
He goes farther and takes that lesson to our personal lives. Don’t try to blow the return on your IRA out of the water. Set a goal that works for good and bad financial times. Don’t search for the best of all possible jobs. Find a job you’ll like doing even if you have the manager from hell. In short, look for the “good enough.”
Sound familiar to those of you who are parents? Amid all the talk of the Tiger Mom and the Helicopter Parent, there’s also been discussion of the Good-Enough Parent. You might want the coffee mug that says “Best Mom Ever,” but you don’t actually have to be the Best Mom Ever. Ditching “best” for “good enough” is like a magic elixir for de-stressing yourself and your kids.
Still, the idea that we can increase efficiency in our personal lives is so seductive. We all want to spend less time doing the things we don’t enjoy so we can spend more time on things that bring happiness and, yes, more money. You’ve read the books, listened to the podcasts, seen the lists: Structure your schedule. Time your tasks. Organize all the things.
Being able to always find your keys certainly could reduce the amount of cursing in your home. We can’t just toss out the Holy Grail of efficiency.
So Schwartzis has another word for you: Friction. Slow down. Don’t move too fast.
“Building friction into our lives, as individuals and as a society, is building resilience into the system,” Schwartzis says. It’s like tapping the brakes.
For business, friction could come from companies seeing themselves as caretakers of their communities rather than just profit centers. Could that kind of corporate responsibility lead to fewer jobs eliminated in the name of efficiency?
For homeowners, friction could be in the form of kids, pets, neighbors or the community – making you see the property as more than just a big investment. Could that prevent skyrocketing housing prices by reducing speculation based purely on profit?
Sure, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s an interesting take on issues we’re thinking more about amid the disruption of 2020’s pandemic.
“To be better prepared next time,” Schwartzis says, “We need to learn to live less ‘efficiently’ in the here and now.”
That could be one of the more important lessons we’re learning now.