The case for inefficiency

A sigh escapes my lips as I bend over to stack the white ceramic plates in the cabinet. He’s doing it again. His comfortable warmth sidles up next to me, the soft plaid brushing my arm, as he leans in to set the matching bowls tidily in their place. Working together, the dishwasher is emptied and reloaded, pots scrubbed and set to dry in the rack. 

 “Is something wrong?” 

Inwardly I cringe; my irritation must be showing. Before turning to face him, I consciously relax my shoulders, and allow my facial muscles to settle into a neutral expression. We’ve been married more than 10 years, and I know he isn’t fooled, but I make the effort anyway. “I’m just feeling a little anxious about how much I wanted to get done today, and it seems like it’s slower when we work on things together.” He nods in response and moves a little faster. 

The family I was raised in has a long tradition of military service. We each knew our role, and tasks were completed with efficient designation. Chores completed, we rejoined at the end of the day and set to sharing a meal and chatting about our individual experiences. Processes, procedures, divide and conquer. This was my family’s approach to resolving the small entropies of daily life.

My husband’s family had a different approach. All hands on deck to address whatever task needed doing was their usual, whether it was cleaning an area of the home or doing a remodel on one of their rental properties. They endeavored together, each according to their skillset, and then relaxed at the end of the day in quiet companionship already knowing the small details of time’s passing. 

As my husband and I work, we talk. About our families, our perspectives, the different places we come from. There’s a quiet contentment in domesticity, and we’re learning new things about each other as we progress through the to-do list. Surprised, I realize I’m enjoying myself. Our relationship is clearly benefitting from this slow cleaning partnership, and I start to question my desire to work independently and as quickly as possible. What else am I missing? 

After we finish the kitchen, we move out to the back yard. It’s been a couple weeks since we mowed, and snowy clover blossoms abound. I pause, observing the ecstatic flights of bees and occasional flit of painted lady wings. Suddenly the message is clear: Nature loves inefficiency. Frogs overwinter in the piles of raked leaves, and birds harvest the seeds from ignored, bloomed-out flower heads. A tidy, well-groomed landscape is at odds with the needs of wild creatures. 

It’s as if a dam has broken, and other examples pour into my mind. In my private practice, I often encourage patients to increase movement in their lives in small ways, such as parking on the far side of the lot to lengthen the walk to their office or the storefront. Is it efficient? No. Does it benefit health? Absolutely. Time spent on creative pursuits. Small children ‘helping’ their parents cook dinner. A cup of tea and a book of poetry. Gloriously, delightfully, inefficient. 

As a middle-aged working adult, I spend much of my day entrenched in the mindset of productivity and expediency. But when I look to my inner self, I realize my greatest joys, deepest insights, and happiest memories occur when I set those priorities aside. The things that give life meaning and purpose only happen when I relax into the moment, am fully present for my relationships, and occasionally just toss the to-do list away to appreciate the wonders of the world around me.

ALICIA TREMBLAY is a doctor, writer, and homesteader. She lives in the Snoqualmie Valley with her husband, dog, and two cats.

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