I am by nature an efficiency hound. I hate wasting time, I love to be productive, and I feel an outsized sense of pride as I check off items on my to-do list. Yoga and meditation have taught me a subtle truth about efficiency that I didn’t know for a long time: sometimes what looks inefficient in the short-term is the most efficient thing to do in the name of long-term productivity.
At the suggestion of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, I started reading God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. The book chronicles the 20+ year career of Dr. Victoria Sweet at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the last almshouse in the country. Low-tech and human-paced the work of Laguna Honda is a far cry from any hospital I’ve ever been to or read about. Early on in the book, Dr. Sweet gives samples of surface inefficiencies that proved to be tremendously helpful when viewed with the gift of time.
There was a nurse who dedicated a good chunk of her work time to hand-knitting blankets for each patient. Efficiency consultants were aghast and put a stop to it. However, those blankets were tangible symbols of how personally vested the entire staff at the hospital was to all patients. It let the patients, many of whom were so ill that no other hospital would admit them, and their family members know how much care and attention was being paid to their health.
Another example of inefficiency was the process of giving Christmas gifts. Collected and wrapped every year, the nursing staff would dole out the gifts randomly and then a day of festive trading between the patients would ensue. It made for a lively atmosphere with plenty of interaction throughout the entire hospital community. Again, the efficiency consultants saw all of this festivity as a terrible waste.
Rather than collect random gifts and wrap them up without any indication of what was inside, the nurses were instructed to ask each patient what they wanted, including size and color, and then that is exactly the gift they would receive. Though the gifts were still lovely, the loss of the trading process deflated the celebration. Christmas at Laguna Honda lost its sparkle when it lost the activity of swapping. And with the loss of celebration, they lost some of the spirit of deep, true healing.
These examples made me think about the efficiency of my own life – my to-do list, the structure of my days, and my constant pursuit of more productivity in less time. These things have their purpose and they’ve served me well but perhaps there’s a bit more wiggle room than I typically allow.
Maybe it’s okay to spend part of my afternoon at a museum today rather than spending that time on business development. Going to the museum probably won’t yield a client contract, but what it may give me in terms of inspiration may be just what the doctor would order and exactly what I need to be at my best tomorrow.