Do I want to be the best I can be? Well, sort of.

I was talking to one of my students earlier this week about productivity. She told me that when she returned to work after a period of several years away on maternity leave, she realised that she had to be much more efficient in her use of time than before, because now she had a family and other calls on her time. So she started to look for ways to increase her productivity.

Tableau I, by Piet MondriaanWhile her search was prompted and informed by a general sense of anxiety that there was not much time, the result of her search was much more piecemeal. She might find, she said, a particular software tool that sped up one process by 5%. Or she might adjust the order of actions in a given process so that she could finish a given task 3% sooner. And so on. There were many very small gains. But the net effect was that she perceived that she now worked at a hugely improved rate, compared with previously, and with much less overtime.

This is a little like Sir Clive Woodward’s famous approach to coaching rugby where, prior to England winning the world cup in 2003, he applied a 1% rule: since it was not possible to achieve a competitive advantage over rivals by doing one or two thing better, the aim was to improve by a small percentage over a range of areas; in the aggregate, the theory went, you would improve by a lot compared with your rivals. This included worrying obsessively about diet, training regimes, selection requirements, shirt fabrics, toothpaste flavour, wallpaper colour and so on. Nothing was too trivial. There was no silver bullet, according to Woodward; only marginal gains, across the board.

So it occurs to me to wonder why we don’t all learn that lesson. Is there a reason why we do not want to maximise our efficiency? Perhaps. Perhaps our brains are not optimised for efficiency. And if they are not optimised for efficiency, there must a reason: we must be optimised for something else. Taking our time, for instance. Conserving energy. Building relationships. Loafing around. It is well known, for example, that older workers are typically less flexible, learn less fast, and work more slowly; but they also tend to make fewer mistakes.

So that leaves us in something of a quandary, where language learning is concerned: maximum efficiency, or a bit of loafing around? I throw the floor open.