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Faster, Higher, Stronger: the cult of efficiency
Faster, Higher, Stronger: the cult of efficiency
From pleasure oriented decisions to efficiency based behaviours.
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Faster, Higher, Stronger: the cult of efficiency
From pleasure oriented decisions to efficiency based behaviours.
Written by
Niall Lavery

From pleasure oriented decisions to efficiency based behaviours.

From tracking time spent on activities, to managing food intake, to managing relationship for networking purposes, or even listening to resumes of key ideas rather than reading books, the cult of efficiency shifts the way we behave and consume. Efficiency obsessed consumers are shifting away from pure emotional decisions (“I love running so I run”) to a near-obsession with maximising rational benefits (I need to be in shape, so I run X miles a day and I set goals I need to reach).

Think of this as the cult of efficiency – the way the quest to be the best version to ourselves according to social standards drives the need to optimise ourselves. It’s taking over almost every aspect of consumers’ lives, from how they socialise to what they eat, and especially how they interact with brands.

While related, in this post we’re talking about efficiency and not convenience. We make the difference in the fact that convenience is about “reducing friction”, “erasing pain points”, “easing the journey” (more passive); while efficiency is about optimising actions based on a desired output (more active).

Addressing the efficiency trend is an opportunity for businesses, however we also need to consider the consequences of efficiency focused behaviours. Examples in society are already highlighting limits to such behaviours, giving birth to behaviours and movement in total opposition of efficiency. For instance, look at the trend towards “switching off” retreats; people’s lives have become so driven by efficiency and optimising each output that they need to take time out to reset and switch off from the constant go.  

What is the 'cult of efficiency'?

Above all, the ‘cult of efficiency’ is a mindset that shapes the decisions individuals make. Consumers are increasingly prioritising quick and easy benefits over longer-term emotional ones, all in the search for more time, and less effort. In practice, this plays out in three key behaviours:

Behaviour 1 – we do more in less time.

We’re multitasking more and more, whilst never perfecting it. This isn’t limited to young, digitally savvy generations. This leads to shorter attention span and lower memory. Across every age group the proportion of people who regularly multitask is growing fast, with people looking for novel ways to maximise their time.

When they aren’t multi-tasking, cult of efficiency acolytes are looking to claw back even more time by finding smart life hacks and timesavers. The website lifehacker, launched in 2005, has helped drive the conversation, with suggestions ranging from Pomodoro, maximising productivity in short bursts and writing bullet journals to organise and prioritise personal goals to be achieved.

Behaviour 2 – we quantify more than ever before.

The second key behaviour plays out in how acolytes are managing their personal data. There are two sides to this - self-quantification and social comparison.

From miles run, to hours slept, to how many books you’ve read and how quickly, self-quantification is about tracking personal data to improve and optimise personal performance. Much like in our working lives, measuring performance helps us identify where we could improve – seeing life as a job makes it easier. "The“quantified self” movement does life hacking one better, turning the simple act of breathing or sleeping into something to be measured and refined (…) Being alive is easier, it turns out, if you treat it like a job.”

Once the data is measured, it isn’t difficult to compare it with other people’s data, all in the quest for greater efficiency. Social media platforms like Instagram or Strava provide easily accessible ways to compare (Likes, followers, distance ran/cycled, etc.), both with friends and with a wider community. Individuals can track their performance against a range of benchmarks to understand how they’re stacking up, and where they could improve.

Behaviour 3 – we consider the purpose of our actions.

The third behaviour focuses how acolytes make decisions - the quest for efficiency is redefining the way customers choose and prioritise. For some, playing sports is no longer an activity of itself – for efficiency maximisers it presents another opportunity to realise a broader purpose – being in shape or preparing their summer bodies.

This behaviour is extending beyond realising clear functional goals to less obvious personal benefits. In social contexts, efficiency-maximising instincts are even shaping how people socialise. Social occasions aren’t parties, they’re networking opportunities – for acolytes, every new connection needs to be understood in terms of the value they can bring, both in a personal and a professional capacity.

How businesses are showing they are addressing this?

As the cult of efficiency is shaping consumer mindsets and behaviours, it impacts the way businesses should serve them. While some companies have begun to address this need for efficiency with new products, services or policy, a major part of businesses are still lagging to address this, and usually only focus on convenience.

New products.


Founded in 2014, Huel aims at providing the recommended daily amount of nutrients following the European Food Safety Authority. This very rational approach to nutrition is complemented by the consumption and storing modes.

New policies.

Vitality x Apple Watch

Vitality Active reward is a program launched by the health insurance Vitality. Depending on the activity tracked by the Apple Watch, a customer will have additional fees if they don't meet the criteria or pay minimal costs if they meet the activity criteria.

New Services.

Blinkist is an app that sums up non-fiction books key ideas to takeaway in 15 minute snippets to read or listen. This example is a pure case of efficiency focused behaviours, in which all the hassle (and probably the pleasure) of reading and learning are taken away, to only focus on quantifiable, tangible benefits.

The limits of the efficiency cult

While it’s good to address customers’ needs and expectations, companies need to align trends with their purpose. Efficiency is a process to ease transaction, but it comes at the expense of other key elements that build a brand.

In the short term.

As brands are becoming purely transactional and convenient, consumption becomes a commodity. Competition becomes convenience based. This reduces loyalty as customers will just seek the easiest, fastest option.

Steven Selzer, former Airbnb Design Manager, explains in a post why, after focusing on erasing friction tied to booking on the platform, the team reintroduced some sort of friction to deliver a better overall experience.

In the long term.

Brands become a commodity. No relationship is built on efficiency, it only takes off pain points. They are the “meh, s/he’s nice” in a business context. Convenience is a task-based service. As soon as this task is better fulfilled by another service, consumers will shift to this one.

Ocado, in my opinion, is probably one of the most efficient and practical services when it comes to grocery shopping. In the UK (CSI January 2019 report), Ocado is in the top five of grocery stores regarding satisfaction. However, Ocado scores the worst when it comes to “Intention to remain a customer”.

On the very long term.

Companies are contributing in driving behaviours that will likely have an impact on society. While it can bring value to many aspects of the way we conduct business and our life as people, we should also know when too much is too much and be able to understand that it’s a tactic, a feature, not a strategy.

How brands should address it?
  1. Take a step back before applying customer feedback straight away. Like AirBnB, critically consider if there is a deeper meaning that can be more profitable in the longterm to build a relationship rather than efficiency.
  2. Choose the right set of KPIs to be able to adjust and have counter KPIs: one set evaluates an area (Sales for instance) a second evaluates a counter measure (Loyalty).
  3. Don’t try to please everyone. Be good at what you do and focus on this. If you want to read deeper into this, refer to my colleague Niall's thoughts on the purpose of why you do what you do and establish priorities before going all in with efficiency driven behaviours.
Here is some of our research and thinking in this area.