Efficiency vs Effectiveness: Getting the right things done quickly

Learn to be more effective vs being more efficient

He was beaming: “It’s the best I’ve ever created. Better still” he continued, “I created this startup in just 2 days.

Behold, Tinder for Babies!”1

I was stunned. While my friend may have created his product very efficiently, is was a horribly ineffective use of his time.

But what really is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness?


Efficiency, doing the thing right

Merriam-Webster defines efficiency as “capable of producing desired results without wasting materials, time, or energy.” 2. However, with time and overuse the colloquial understanding of efficiency has become “doing things in the fastest amount of time”.

What’s important to take away from this definition is “the desired results”. Often, we focus on and desire what we believe to be best, but is actually mostly a waste of time.

My friend wanted a startup and was successful at building one. He just built something stupid, and therefore wasted his time.


Effectiveness, doing the right thing

Effectiveness: “the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result; success.” Looks similar to efficiency, doesn’t it?

However, that last word, success, changes a few things, doesn’t it? It’s very hard to argue that a startup which has no one who uses it, no customers, and no hope can ever be defined as a success.

Vilfredo Pareto Was an economist best known for what we call the “Pareto Law”, which states:

For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
Vilfredo Pareto

When it comes to life and business, there are often 1000’s of things we can do, but only one or two things we should do, the things that will drive the needle furthest and result in success exponentially faster.

For example, if you wanted to grow a new online blog you could do 10 guest posts for small, relatively unknown blogs. Alternatively, 1 post in Entrepreneur.com would likely produce 5x the results.

There exists only a small amount of time in the day, determine your Big Win and focus relentlessly on it.


Boosting efficiency with Parkinson’s Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Cyril Parkinson, The Economist

Extrapolating this notion – give yourself less time to complete something and you’ll complete it faster. Sounds simple, right?

In practice I’ve found utilizing Parkinson’s Law to increase efficiency takes a strong commitment to a delivery time. If you only commit to yourself and in private it’s just too easy to miss deadlines.

Or, turn up the heat: commit to a friend that you’ll do X by Y date and, if you don’t, you’ll ____ (give him $100, publicly admit a very embarrassing secret, etc. – make it painful). This is why the term paper is always finished by the date it’s due.


Boost effectiveness using Pareto and the Get Things Done framework

You’ve already started thinking about your One Big Win (I hope). At this point take a few minutes to think:

  • What is the primary driver of revenue for my business? (Eg. Readers for a blog, distribution for a product company, customers for a SASS business)
  • What is the 1-2 things I do, or have done, that drove most of my success?
  • What are the top 1-2 things I do, or have done, that drive most of my pain?

This should give you insight into where you should put more focus and where you should focus less.

But wait! There’s things that don’t drive results but I have to do.

Nearly everyone

Here is where I recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done framework. In a nutshell, collect all ideas, todos, etc and put them in one place such as Evernote, then do it, delegate it, or delete it. Generally, try to delegate.

Oh, and Virtual Assistants are $5 / hour. If you make minimum wage in the US your time is worth more than that, so please don’t tell me you have no one to delegate to.


Don’t focus on effectiveness to the disregard of efficiency

After everything above, it would seem that effectiveness should be relentlessly pursued while efficiency is disregarded. Not so fast though. While high effectiveness with low efficiency (Quadrant II below) is to be desired more than the converse (Quadrant III), at least you’re still doing the right things.

However high effectiveness done efficiently is the holy grail. Put differently, doing the right things in the right way is where our aim should be.

Effectiveness VS efficiency quadrants
If you had to make a choice, stick to the right side.

One of my personal greatest weaknesses is in Quadrant III because it’s not that easy to know that what you’re doing is effective.

So how do you know if it’s likely effective?

“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work Week


Are you ready to finally work on effective tasks efficiently? Go grab our eBook Brutally Productive. It’s free and packed full of unique, powerful productivity tips.

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  1. This idea was stolen from the Stupid Sh*t No One Needs and Terrible Ideas Hackathon, which is hilarious: stupidhackathon.com
  2. Merriam-Webster definition of efficiency

About Garrett Dunham

Garrett Dunham is a Silicon Valley born-and-raised entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and startup advisor. His companies have been featured on the New York Times, NBC, TechCrunch, Fast Company, and Venture Beat, among others. He spends his days mentoring startups at Start-up Chile and Singularity University, building products, and blogging about entrepreneurial success and self optimization.