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Efficiency vs Just Getting It Done
also a sewing club project!
Recently, I was scrolling through TikTok and this video popped up on my FYP:
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It made me think about efficiency and its traditional role in home economics, and I'm curious about how it can be reframed in a modern way. What does efficiency mean in relation to home economics? Is it just getting a task done quickly, or is there something more to it?
I think efficiency can mean different things to different people. It could mean doing a job with the least amount of resources and effort (which seems to be the historical view of home economics), or it could mean making the most of time and resources (which sometimes takes more effort).
But why is there such a focus on efficiency when sometimes all one can manage is just to get the thing done? I've definitely felt the paralyzed loop of efficiency-before-done and now I'm wondering not only how I can avoid it in the future, but also where did this focus come from?
It seems like, with the uplifting of efficiency in home economics, the implication is that taking your time with a task, or even just figuring out how to do something in the best way for you, is “wrong”. Sure, there are only so many hours in the day and only so much energy one has to do a task, but if I'm the one deciding how to spend my energy, who cares if it's less "efficient" according to someone else?
This ingrained notion of efficiency-rules-all is actually deeply rooted in the history of home economics.
In the book The Secret History of Home Economics; How trailblazing women harnessed the power of home and changed the way we live, Danielle Dreilinger writes about efficiency, saying “Efficiency had long been a focus of home economics research. It was the opposite of the Fitbit era…the very first Cornell bulletin for farmers’ wives was called Saving Steps”. It seems that this focus was well-intentioned at the time, telling women “how to arrange their kitchen, buy sturdy labor-saving devices, and set a schedule so that their work would be easier, faster, and less exhausting”.
But, Danielle goes on to write that in a popular book from the late 1920’s, The Home-maker and Her Job, the author “called for time sheets and preprinted task-reminder slips for each member of the household”, saving even handwriting time by making “label slips for their children by number instead of by name”, which feels pretty gross. There’s a lot of other fairly strange advice in The Home-maker and Her Job that Danielle writes about, but it turns out that all of this was guiding said home-maker to “maximize ‘happiness minutes’”, which I really can’t fault even if it gives the ick.
I mean, there are practical aspects of this, such as setting up a kitchen so you’re not constantly walking out of your way to get things like a spoon or spatula while cooking. Danielle writes about the invention of the “L-shaped ‘Kitchen Practical’ layout” that “cut the distance walked in making a lemon meringue pie from 224 to 92 feet”, which is pretty impressive, and eventually led to the kitchen work triangle that is used to determine efficient kitchen layouts these days:
I can definitely see the value in setting up a space like this, with the intention of reserving steps (and therefore energy) for things more fun than making pie (we all know my feelings on how fun pie making is, after all). But with the exception of those of us with limited energy or mobility, I would argue that the rest of us (especially us desk workers) might reimagine our space as the-more-steps-taken-maybe-the-better, aka: set it up however feels right without worrying about efficiency.
We also, now, have so many more convenience items, so maybe don’t need to worry as much about efficiency as we used to. Many of us have cars to go to and from the grocery store, saving time and energy hauling groceries around. We have the magic of refrigeration and freezing instead of having to spend time canning our food (although I do think home canning still has a place in today’s world, we don’t have to rely on it like we used to). We have high efficiency washing machines (and dryers!) instead of having to hand-wash and line-dry everything. Prepared food is easier to come by than ever before, so we don’t have to home-make everything we eat. We even have robot vacuums.
I’m not saying that home economic principles haven’t evolved some with the times, but I am saying that the old ideological foundations live on, maybe without having really been evaluated as to why they are living on.
It reminds me of the old “why are you cutting the end off of the ham” story. If you aren’t familiar, it goes something like this: A woman (we will call her Betty) is getting ready to cook a ham and her husband walks in to see her cutting a couple of inches off the end of it. He asks her why she's doing that, as it seems like a waste. Betty replies that it's how her mother did it. The husband then asks why her mother did that, and after some reflection, Betty realizes she doesn't know.
The next day, Betty calls her mother to ask why she always cut the end off her ham. Her mom replies that it's the way her own mother prepared her ham. Trying to get to the bottom of it, Betty then calls her grandmother and asks why she cut the end off the ham. After some thought, the grandmother says it was so it would fit into her pan.
I think about this allegory often. Why do we do the things we do the way we do them? Are the reasons we did it like this in the first place still valid?
Like the woman from TikTok was saying, this ingrained, hyper-focus on efficiency can be detrimental. I agree with the idea that done is better than efficient, and at the end of the day you are the person who gets to decide how or when to just get your stuff done, even if it means re-imagining what efficiency means to you (or even throwing the idea of efficiency out the window if that’s what you want to do).
So, how does “getting it done” look for you? Maybe it’s buying frozen, pre-diced onions to use in your cooking. Maybe it’s getting ready-made meals or a frozen lasagna from the grocery store to have on hand. Maybe it’s only dealing with the dirty dishes in the sink and not worrying about any of the other dishes that have been left in other rooms of the house. Maybe it’s listening to the audiobook version of that book you’ve been wanting to read but just can’t fit in time to sit down with a physical copy. The options are endless, and completely up to you and your needs.
Come on over to the comments and share ways that you have or are reconsidering what efficiency means to you!
A Sewing Club Project
In my Down With Resolutions Up With Goals post, I listed a bunch of things I’d like to accomplish this year, one being to sew a pair of trousers. The Mother Domestique hopped right on this idea and long story short, we are going to go through the process together, which is great because the idea of fitting trousers or jeans has always made me super nervous. I’ll document our progress as we go, but I wanted to give you all the option to join our little club and sew along as we go!
We’ve decided to sew the Worker Trousers pattern, and will start on it in the next month or so which gives you some time to download the pattern and gather supplies. The plan is to first sew a wearable muslin version, and then sew the actual pair once all the fitting tweaks have been made to the muslin version.
Let us know if you plan on joining our club in the comments!
I’ll be hitting up my local creative reuse center to look for the muslin fabric (and maybe even the final trouser fabric!) mentioned above, which led me to this week’s archive highlight. Head on over to read the blog and listen to the podcast from season 3 where I interviewed Denise Perreault, the founder and executive director of Art Parts Creative Reuse Center located in Boulder, Colorado.
This woman, who is a dietitian, showing her real-life cooking (hint, it includes Trader Joe’s frozen orange chicken). Take the pressure off and just get it done.
This refrigerator organizer from Ikea that is on my want-list.