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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

E is for Efficiency

(This is one in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)

Becoming a programmer has made efficiency part of my daily life and part of my character. The old joke is that programming is the laziest profession. Such a large part of the job is creating systems with as little effort as possible. A perfect result is one which isn’t just efficient to produce, but which is, in itself, efficient. The less code written to solve a problem, the better.

That doesn’t mean that I’m lazy: far from it. It takes a lot of work and experience to be efficient. The fact that organizing the efficiency may take more effort than dealing with its absence seems to escape me. I have to make a conscious effort not to be efficient these days.

The difficulty with spending many hours of my life being as efficient as possible at work is that it spreads into my daily life. There, efficiency is rarely called for. Where most people are relaxed and easy-going, I find myself trying to be as efficient as I can in everything I do. I work the aisles of a supermarket in a logical pattern and I arrange bathroom accoutrements using logic. (Yes, these are real examples. Don’t laugh.)

I find myself positioning everything in my office at home to be within easy reach and I take inordinate pleasure in organizing computer equipment and accessories, cabling them all together, with everything except the minimum of equipment hidden away. To the casual eye, it’s just a computer and keyboard on a desk: the five external hard-drives, Wifi-enabled printer, scanner, camera and iPad charger docks are all connected in such a way that you wouldn’t even know they were there unless you looked for them. I’m pretty sure that I don’t suffer from OCD, though, as my office and home are still far from tidy. (I do straighten coasters and ornaments, though. Guilty as charged on that front.)

Travel is an area in which efficiency takes over. Travelling by road is a simple affair and I appear to have inherited the knack for route planning from my father. Although I’m a little out of practice and rely on a satnav these days, I used to pride myself on knowing such things as alternative shortcuts on regular routes by heart, and the merits of particular motorway service areas across the UK. My daily drive to work in the 1990s was always a precise route, used after trying all of the alternatives and timing them to ensure the quickest and less stressful path.

Travelling via airports is an exercise in efficiency for me, so that I don’t have to endure the stress which so many suffer. Knowing where the ticket desks are, what to expect at the security checks — belt, shoes and coat off without being asked, iPad, camera, toiletries and coins in their own plastic tray—and thence how to get from the desk to the gate with as little fuss as possible.

Rehearsed and repeated processes make it difficult for me to retain patience with those who don’t seem to grasp the simplicity which they bring. People who “don’t realize” that they have to put electronics in a separate tray despite prominent signs; people who seem surprised when they are told that they may not take a container of liquid larger than the limits which have been in force for several years. Both drive me around the bend, and I’m glad that they can’t hear my opinion of them coursing around my head.

I’m lucky that Jo seems to appreciate my point of view, and is secretly amused when she knows that I’m silently ranting at yet another inept person; she’s become used to it and can tell from a mile away, even when I show no outward sign of the frustration.

I’m lucky that the Swiss public transport network is so reliable, as an unreliable network would drive me nuts. I know to the minute what time my bus will arrive, at what time the train departs, and when I will be arriving at the airport. A few minutes’ delay is fine, and that seems to be the extent of the irregularity here. I’ve been lucky in the past thirteen years not to have experienced a significant delay in the public transport network more than perhaps three or four times. The legendary reliability is an aspect of life in Switzerland which features high on my list of things which ensure a good quality of life and I’m sure that my years of using public transport to commute to work contributed in no small way to establishing my happiness to live here.

The Tube Exits app for the London Underground is a dream come true for me: it tells the traveller where in the carriage to stand in order to reach the station exit at the desired destination with as little effort as possible. Were I to spend more than a short time in the city, I’d use it more than any other app on my phone.

All of my experiences and routines have helped me to live my life with as little stress as possible, but they also lead to conflict with others sometimes.

My strive for efficiency, often at a subconscious level, can be difficult for colleagues to deal with. I know that I have to work on my approach, to bring together a better balance between creating the most efficient solution possible and expending a more realistic amount of time reaching it. This is one of the more frequent points on employee review sheets, along with having more patience with colleagues who have a better way of working. Their solutions may be less efficient, but they are often better for the team as a whole or for the client.

Not everyone wants or needs efficiency, and learning the skill of accepting that is a life-long task.