His 2018 book, “The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do,” describes many ways that streamlining can backfire — for companies as well as individuals.
“Cutting down on wasted time and energy is a good thing, but sometimes you have to tolerate short-term waste for long-run breakthroughs,” says Tenner, a distinguished research scholar at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The author, who’ll give a talk at Kramerbooks on Wednesday, offers these tips for injecting some “strategic inefficiency” into your life.
Get a little lost sometimes
Waze and Google Maps are invaluable navigation tools, but if you’re not in a big hurry, try making up your own route, Tenner recommends. You might just end up discovering a new neighborhood or finding an entire town you never knew existed. “One time I took a state road that turned into a bridge I couldn’t get off of, and I ended up in Muscatine, Iowa — an absolutely fascinating place that once produced half of the world’s buttons,” Tenner says.
Browse books in real life
Amazon’s algorithms are great for suggesting tomes on topics you’ve already shown an interest in, but bookstores and library sales can lead to serendipitous finds. “I often will see something at one of these book sales that was not necessarily on my list, but when I see it, I think ‘Aha, this is something I’m interested in,’ ” Tenner says. He recently picked up a riveting book on longevity by a Soviet scientist this way. “Sadly, he died two years after the book was published,” Tenner says.
Grind your coffee by hand
Freshly ground coffee is delicious, Tenner says, but cheap electric coffee grinders tend to break, and expensive ones are, well, expensive. “So I bought one of these hand-grinders, and it’s the most meditative thing. When you turn the crank, you can already smell the beans. You anticipate the coffee, which improves its perceived taste,” he says. “You can look at it as an archaic way of doing things, or you can look at it as a wonderful kind of efficiency — you are actually adding to the value and enjoyment of your coffee.”
Avoid digital textbooks
“Psychologists have shown that printed text is better for getting the big picture and electronic text is better for learning details,” Tenner says. “That’s why I use both.” In the case of textbooks, however, Tenner always chooses paper over electronic. “You can write in the margins, you can insert bookmarks and you can read them for a long time without having to worry about your battery going dead,” he says.
Take long walks
There are certainly quicker ways of getting from place to place, but perambulating is uniquely suited to thinking, Tenner says. “Walking is really optimal for stimulating the brain — it’s much better than sitting, but it’s also better than more strenuous exercise, like running. Darwin had a path constructed behind his house that he would walk around whenever he had a problem to think about,” he says.
Take notes longhand
If you’re in a meeting or a class, you’ll learn more by jotting things on paper than by typing on a computer, Tenner says. “When you’re writing by hand, you can’t keep up, so you process the information and extract the most important ideas. The act of taking notes in that way results in more active learning than taking notes with a keyboard because it is less efficient,” he says.
Turn off your phone
Monitoring your work emails — or even just having your phone out and visible on your desk — drains your attention and robs you of the ability to problem-solve and innovate on a larger scale, Tenner says. Plus, it’s probably bad for your long-term productivity. “In America, there’s this spirit in the workplace where you’re always on duty,” he says. “Germans, on the other hand, are known for being efficient and conscientious when they are at work, but when it’s quitting time, they really quit. They will quit in the middle of slicing a salami.”
Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW; Wed., 6:30 p.m., free.