Efficacy, Effectiveness, and Efficiency
Welcome to Self-Mastery — a place of timeless ideas to help you become the architect of your mind and create yourself, starting from the inside.
If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.
— Stephen Covey.
I’ve always said to myself I care more about doing the right thing than doing it quickly. Working effectively, to me, is more important than working efficiently. But instead, modern society covets efficiency; we prefer to work as people who get things done faster, with less effort.
I would say to myself, “what use is trying to improve efficiency if it encourages laziness? Or working on the wrong thing entirely?” There’s no point climbing the wall fast if it’s the wrong wall to begin with.
But because of this idea, I was also deterred from the idea of improving efficiency entirely. In this world of creative productivity and people starting to prioritise living better: efficiency, effectiveness, and efficacy are all playing pivotal roles in helping us make better choices, work smarter, and achieve continuous positive results.
The problem we have, however, is confusing our understanding and use of each term. So I wanted to go over them with you.
If you don’t have much time to read, here’s a summary:
Efficacy is your ability to achieve satisfactory or expected results. “Does it work or not?”. It’s the first step to knowing if your actions meet your intended target. When we try to achieve a goal, efficacy is whether our actions or tools work the way they’re designed.
Effectiveness is doing the right thing. Something may achieve its intended result, but is it the result you want? Effectiveness is where many people go wrong—it’s whether what you’re doing actually matters to your progress.
Efficiency is getting things done with less waste. Whether it’s fewer materials, energy, time, or money. Efficiency the (often) measurable ability to achieve more for the same effort (improving the aero on a car)—or achieve the same result for less effort (reducing the weight on a car).
Most of us are captivated by efficiency because it’s the most glamourous of the three. The person who can juggle or dice the fastest always looks more impressive. And in some cases, it is quite useful. But the problem lies in priority—efficiency should be the last thing to focus on when it comes to improving ourselves and our work.
Efficiency and effectiveness are also often confused with each other. And one common but confusing way we distinguish the two is the saying, “efficiency is doing things right, while effectiveness is doing the right things”. The problem with this is it emphasises that the selection of your objectives for a production process is equally important to the quality of that process. For example, the goal of writing two blog posts a week is deemed equally important to your ability to write quickly. This saying is popular in business; however, it often obscures the common sense of effectiveness. And thus a better mnemonic would be:
“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is getting things done.”
This makes it clear that you can still be effective in your work through inefficient processes. If what you’re doing wastes energy but keeps you motivated and gets the job done, then you should focus on that first. And then slowly move onto improving efficiency—when it is least likely to jeopardise your outputs.
Each term neatly fits into your life. And it’s important to understand their differences, and why each one is respectively important. Here’s a breakdown of them.
You won’t often see the word “efficacy” in the real world; it is often kept for scientific research. Efficacy is typically referenced to help researchers understand whether a pharmaceutical drug can achieve its maximum desired response.
For example, a patient may take medication and find that it relieves their symptoms in an ideal environment. And if that’s the case, the drug has proven efficacious. You may need a specific protocol, but the medication will work if you do.
“Efficacy, in the healthcare sector, is the capacity for beneficial change (or therapeutic effect) or a given intervention under ideal conditions”, explain Dr Enrique Burches and Dr Marta Burches. “And because it’s highly specific, it makes little sense in everyday conditions. So, you will rarely hear the term efficacy outside of pharmacological and clinical trials.”
However, there is self-efficacy. Famously distinguished by Albert Bandura: the man who originally proposed the concept. He judged self-efficacy as “how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”.
Self-efficacy is the belief you hold in your power to affect situations, face challenges, and control the choices you’re most likely to make. It often overlaps with self-confidence. But self-confidence refers to the strength of your belief, whereas self-efficacy refers to the confidence in your ability to tackle a situation without being overwhelmed.
“Belief in innate abilities means valuing one’s particular set of cognitive strengths.” Says Kathy Kolbe. “It also involves determination and perseverance to overcome obstacles that would usually interfere with utilising those innate abilities to achieve goals.”
As specified earlier, the problem with efficacy is that it often applies to unrealistic settings—in a lab or highly controlled environment. Effectiveness is about how well an action works in real-world conditions.
In clinical trials, “intervention studies are often placed on a continuum, with a progression from efficacy to effectiveness; however, the distinction between the two types of trials is a continuum rather than a dichotomy, as it is likely impossible to perform a pure efficacy study or pure effectiveness study,” explain Dr Amit Singal, Dr Peter Higgins, and Dr Akbar Waljee.
Efficacy vs effectiveness can help when thinking about other areas in our lives, such as project management and decision making in general. It can also determine whether something that works for others will also work for you; something that works for someone who lives in more ideal or specific conditions is not always to work for you. This is why we get survivorship bias. So, when choosing between two solutions with similar efficacy levels, it makes sense to go with the most effective one for you.
Only when you have found effective processes, should you try to improve by focusing on improving efficiency.
Efficiency is the ratio of useful output to total output. To measure it is to compare a solution’s input to its output, and asking, “how can I do less, better?”. A key question here at Self-Mastery. Efficiency all about being more economical.
In clinical trials, two drugs could be equally effective; both improving a patients’ symptoms in the real world. But if one of them is more costly than the other, then that drug is unlikely to be considered efficient. The Band-Aid is a great example of a remarkably effective and efficient solution that is better than dozens of costly alternatives. It allows millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or running or cooking when they would otherwise have had to stop; it maximises effectiveness with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.
And so to summarise: when it comes improving our lives, we should ask questions that incorporate these three terms. Are my actions doing working towards what I want to achieve? (efficacy), are they working well? (effectiveness), are they working in the most economical way? (efficiency). Doing this in this particular order is the most ideal.
Life, work, and business are all about finding good solutions that work for you, that help you achieve what you want, and that you love to work to improve so you can achieve anything you want faster.
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