Minimize Your Therbligs

Minimize your therbligs until it becomes automatic; this doubles your effective lifetime–and thereby gives time to enjoy butterflies and kittens and rainbows.

Robert A. Heinlein – The Notebooks of Lazarus Long


This Heinlein quote has become a personal mission of mine.

I first read Time Enough for Love (the book from which nearly all of the Lazarus Long quotes originally come from) when I was fifteen or sixteen. There are some ideas in the book that were very advanced and forward-looking for a teenager my age and for the year in which I read it. They were certainly mind-broadening, and I think my mother would have had a fit if she had known exactly what was in the book.

The ideas in the book were not just mind-broadening. They were thought-provoking in ways that influenced my life that I only noticed in hindsight. This quote is one example.

When I first read the quote I had no idea what a therblig was. I thought it was a nonsense word. Some of the quotations in the notebooks are quite obscure and require unravelling. “They look like orchids, don’t they?” is a really good example. That’s the full quote. It took me years to figure that one out (and if you knew instantly what it means, I don’t want to know!). I had to grow up – a lot – to understand this one.

I thought the therblig word was another obscurity, a fancy form of using “x” to mean the unknown.

Then the Internet came along – the perfect tool for finding out anything and a dream come true for someone like me with the world’s biggest curiosity bump. After one particular re-read of Heinlein’s book, I jumped onto Google (it probably wasn’t Google, back then, but you get the idea) and plugged in “therblig” and sat back, stunned at the results.

There really is a thing called a therblig.

Do you remember a vintage black and white movie called Cheaper by the Dozen? (There’s also a book, I found out much later, that the movie was based on). I watched the movie on television (when we finally had television), many years ago. You can probably find excerpts on Youtube and downloads everywhere. It’s a classic movie about a family that has twelve kids, but it also happens to be a bio-pic about an efficiency expert called Frank Gilbreth and his engineer wife, Lilly…and their twelve kids. They really did have twelve children, because they thought it would be more economical to raise a large family. Frank became the world’s first time-and-motion expert and consulted with industries about more efficient production lines, while Lilly earned a reputation for modern industrial management techniques.

A therblig was named after the Gilbreths. It’s actually their name, written backwards (except for the “th”, which was preserved as is). A therblig is a measure of efficiency, and the study and application of therbligs (work efficiency) modernized the workplace. The more therbligs you use, the more time/energy/cost is involved. So minimizing your therbligs is a good thing.

You don’t have to know the technicalities of therbligs. Just the idea that there might be a better (quicker/cheaper/easier) way to do something is enough to get you thinking about alternatives ways to do anything at all.

And that’s what Heinlein was saying: Think about how you do things – especially routine, every-day things. Even something as simple as washing your hands. If you spend some time finding the quicker/cheaper/easier way to do something that you do often, then your time savings will add up in small increments to large blocks of time you can use for more exciting and pleasurable things.

I have a complicated life – a full-sized house, a marriage, and a full time writing career. We’re renovating our entire house and garden over the next two years, we have conferences to attend in far-flung places. It’s quite a plateful, and I realized long ago, thanks to Gilbreth and Heinlein, that I would have to find all sorts of efficiencies in order to squeeze it all in.

Over the years, however, I’ve learned something that neither Gilbreth nor Heinlein include in their observations. It’s a critical question you need to ask before you start anything, preferably at the planning stage: Do you really need to do this job/project/chore at all?

We can get so caught up in the doing/doing faster/doing cheaper/getting it done mentality, that we can lose sight of the big picture, including why we’re doing all that “doing” in the first place.

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