Recently we moved to a new place and hired a company to both pack and move us. The packers showed up on Saturday so they could move us on Sunday. Overall they worked hard getting our goods put into boxes, even providing an index to let us find items later. But occasionally when I came to see how things were going, I would see them poking around, or on the phone with someone. It took over 6 hours but we were ready for the move.
The same foreman showed up for the move but the work dynamic changed. They moved not only the boxes, but also the furniture and it took them just over 4 hours. During the move, I never saw anyone wandering nor talking on their phone. They packed that truck with amazing skill and worked diligently. When they finished, they looked exhausted.
The company charges the same rate per hour for each task, so why is it that packing took so much longer and created more puttering? Packing requires resolving a lot of ambiguity: What items should go in this box that make sense? What items can fit in this space that make sense? It’s why we all hate packing because the ambiguity tempts us to just throw everything into a stream of boxes labeled miscellaneous. Moving objects has almost no ambiguity. This physical good must be moved from point A to point B.
Ambiguity taxes our productivity. Resolving ambiguity exhausts us mentally but not always in a way we recognize. Instead we face an unseen resistance and find ways to procrastinate. Once we clarify a task, we work on it with greater focus and energy and we get more work done.