As an engineer it seems second nature to always be thinking of ways to do things more efficiently: faster, cheaper, using less energy, etc. Sometimes it’s daunting, like during the weekly meal planning session. And other times its exhilarating, like when launching a new product or writing a new blog post. Most of us probably know one or many friends or colleagues that appear to be super-efficient at all times, and when I see or meet these people, I think to myself (or out loud) “how does she do it?”
While I don’t claim to be an efficiency machine, I have encountered many of these types of people. I’m not speaking of the type of person who works 12 hours in a day to get their regular work done. That’s the opposite of efficient, and if that’s you, I hope I can give you some inspiration with this short story.
In the spring of 2010 I was attending the US Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia. This school in particular is unique in that practically all US military special operations troops are required to learn how to jump out of airplanes using static lines here before they get advanced training with high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) parachuting. During my time there, the training was about 15 days in duration. One of the benefits of Airborne School is that all the students from all the different military services are grouped together, so as a non-commando I was naturally placed in a group that consisted of US Air Force instructors who taught at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, as well as recon Marines from the US Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC), among others.
The training day began around 5:30am with physical training: calisthenics, cardiovascular exercises, pull ups, and sometimes “learning to fall”. By the time we were finished working out, we had a short period of time to get ready for the rest of our training day, to include eating breakfast. One special attribute of airborne school is that you have to run everywhere you go, and training included some night time jumps, so you could theoretically be “at work” from 5:30am well into the night. We did get to break for lunch, however. This training was exhausting, but at least we had weekends off.
I quickly settled into a routine: workout, shower, get changed, eat, then line up to go to training with my platoon. If I managed my time well, I could get a few moments of rest in my bunk before lining up. After a few days in this routine I noticed some of the recon Marines in the room a few doors down were consistently getting some good rest time before lining up. One of those Marines stood by me in my squad, so I asked him how he managed to get those extra minutes in before the day began. His response: skip the morning shower. This may sound shocking and gross, but this answer is, in hindsight, the quintessential response from someone who is extremely efficient. You can’t do everything you need to do, and you need to prioritize the things you value more so than those things you don’t.
Showering in the military, at least in training environments, is oftentimes so inefficient, that sometimes there are built-in efficiencies to get the recruits moving (two-minute time limits, soaping up before you enter the shower, etc.). Airborne school was no different: too few showers and too many people made having a nice shower a scarce resource. These Marines noticed, decided they didn’t care about this perceived luxury, and prioritized what is arguably the most important resource during military training: rest! Their justification was that it didn’t matter how good you smelled or how clean your hair was when you’re about to go run around all day, roll through the grass, and jump in rock pits, just to close the day out by showering again before bed.
They were so correct.
I, as well as many others I knew, quickly adapted our thinking after learning of this secret, and reprioritized our goals. The routine was now workout, change clothes (just changing uniforms and probably adding some deodorant), eat, rest, line up for the day’s training.
None of these super-efficient friends or colleagues we all know are doing “everything”. We all make sacrifices to achieve our goals, and we either consciously or subconsciously prioritize our goals for any given day, task, etc. At the time of this writing, I’m reminded that I’m only able to share these thoughts as my 16-month old is taking her afternoon nap, and I’m giving up accomplishing other things to transcribe these thoughts.
Efficiency is all about perspective. The areas in our work and in our lives that we seek to prioritize are the areas in which we need to find and create new efficiencies. Doing so will allow us to do more faster, cheaper, while using less energy, and will lead us to success in these areas that we truly value and deeply care about.