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Red Tape

One of the more unpleasant side-effects of learning about efficiency and becoming a more productive person yourself, is that you start to become painfully aware of the inefficiencies around you – more specifically, you start to see how inefficient (and likewise, how incompetent) some people really are. This can be incredibly frustrating and it’s something we all have to deal with everyday. Here’s how to do it Asian Efficiency-style.

Before we start, I’d like to make a distinction here: when we refer to people as “inefficient” or “incompetent”, we aren’t making judgements about their worth as a person, we’re simply describing their behaviours and actions (or lack thereof). For example, someone who insists that you must do 5 steps to complete something that can be done in 2, I would regard as inefficient. Someone who can’t follow a simple 5-step checklist of action items is incompetent.

The first thing we want to do is identify these people. If you engage in any sort of business or commercial activity, I suspect you already have examples in mind. Ever dealt with someone who takes forever to reply to a simple email request? Ever had to call Paypal customer service? Ever had someone insist on “special treatment” because they were (insert their relationship to someone they know or something they’ve done here). These are just some examples of people who ultimately cause us to expend extra effort and energy to overcome obstacles they’ve created, or situations that have arisen out of incompetency (like not doing something when it’s supposed to be done). The best measure in this case is your gut – when you get the nagging feeling of “not this BS again”, you know you’re dealing with someone who is inefficient or incompetent.

I’ve been asked before why it is that some people seem to “get” what it takes to deliver results and work efficiently, while others don’t. I really don’t believe that it’s worth thinking about (I’d much rather be getting things done), but here are some ideas that have been suggested when the subjects comes up with other business people in my network:

  • People are becoming lazier due to technologies which make our lives easier.
  • We live in a much more ADD culture where attention spans are rapidly shrinking. People simply can’t concentrate anymore, and thus cannot get work done.
  • Lots of people still believe that it’s easier to blame someone else (government, family, religion, big business) for their life situation rather than take responsibility for it.

Ultimately it comes down to your mindset – there’s a reason that you’re here right now, reading a blog like Asian Efficiency. It’s because of the way you think (rationally), and the way you perceive reality. Majority of the members of our productivity community, The Dojo, have this mindset as well. Not everyone does that the same way.


Here are some “strategies” that you can use when dealing with the inefficient – think of these as the beliefs, paradigms and values that will guide your behaviour-level actions (discussed in Tactics below).

You want to keep a healthy mindset and a sense of your own value intact – never feel guilty that you’re “too productive” for others, or that others “don’t think as fast/well as you”. That’s just silly talk. In your own mind, you can also mentally reframe some of the feelings and ideas that come up:

  • It may be tempting to blame others, but remember that they’re doing the best they can based on how they perceive the world and reality. They’re not doing it intentionally or maliciously according to their model of the world, even if it seems that way. No one has it all figured out (yet).
  • Consider some of the inefficiencies you come up against as the “cost of doing business”, and remember that the reason that 99% of people never succeed is that they consider that cost too high.
  • Recognise that large parts of the human population still see productivity as a “necessary evil”.

You don’t want to become emotional to the people creating artificial obstacles to what you want to get done – it’s ultimately not important what they think or how you feel towards them. Don’t try to change the way they think, unless they’ve asked for help first. The most important thing is doing what needs to be done.

You’ll find that you will experience a cycle of emotions that looks something like this:

Emotional Cycle
The emotions you will go through when confronted with inefficiency.

Some other strategies:

  • The one thing you never ever want to do is to pick a fight – that never accomplishes anything. You can be firm (I’ll cover this below), but don’t become angry. Over time, you will find that the best reaction to have is actually indifference.
  • Sometimes it can be useful to “sweet talk” people to get things done – to tell them what they want to hear. This works because in their minds, what you are saying now matches their model of the world. I don’t recommend it as if it violates your own values to do so, but it can be a useful strategy from time to time.
  • You cannot argue with results, and if you find that you work through all the verbiage and arguments and simply take action, few people will actually stop you from doing what needs to be done.
  • Handling things in person is always better than handling them over the phone or email.

Remember that the most important thing is the outcome you’re trying to achieve. That takes precedent above all else.


Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of things you can actually DO to deal with people who want to do things the long way. Throughout all this, keep in mind that the most important thing is achieving your original outcome, not proving the other person wrong.

As mentioned above, the best reaction you can have when dealing with someone who is inefficient is to be indifferent, then to work towards the solution to the imaginary obstacles that they’ve created. Bring them along for the ride if you find that it helps.

Here are some common situations that arise:

Evasion of Issue

A lot of the time people will try to evade the issue at hand, simply because they don’t want to deal with it. An example of this would be when you’ve sent a coworker an email to say, submit some paperwork that’s holding up your project, and she doesn’t do it simply because… well, simply because she doesn’t. In a situation like this, the best solution as what is called social anxiety.

Social Anxiety is a concept that I learned from one of my mentors, Andrew M of Higher Click SEO Management. It relies on the idea that fear is terrible for inducing long-term change, but is useful for creating specific reactions. He describes it as “verbally slapping both you and them at the same time”. What this means is doing or saying something that would be considered outside the norms of polite or politically-correct conversation: for example, asking to speak with their manager, or pointing out the fact that they’re evading the issue.

Artificial Obstacles

This is probably the most common (and one of the most frustrating) occurrences in the business world: when people create artificial obstacles (also known as red tape). Common examples are: file this form first, call this person first, do this extraneous task first.

To handle this, you want to mentally acknowledge to yourself that yes, this person/company/system is wasting your time, but that it is necessary. Then you want to take the steps that are necessary to keep going and fix it. Do what is necessary, but do not volunteer yourself to “play along nicely” and perpetuate what is essentially an artificial construct of someone else’s mind.

The first thing you can try is to calmly ask why – why can’t the request be handled now, why do I have to fill in a form that will not be looked at. After that, ask again, and see if they offer a different response. You want to be firm and if necessary, offer up some social anxiety to push things along.

If that doesn’t work, then you want to take the necessary (and only the necessary) actions to overcome whatever obstacle has been erected, then continue on.

Talking Nonsense

Most people will recognize this instantly: it’s when someone is trying to talk their way into or out of something, simply by talking a lot. You have a couple of options here:

  • You can try to reframe their conversation if want to have some fun.
  • You can simply tell them that you don’t understand.
  • You can simply not answer.

Either of these options will yield the same result: they’ll stop talking, you can refocus them on what the original was.


While sarcasm may be fun in your social life, it has no place in the worlds of business and productivity. The best way to handle sarcasm in a business environment is simply to respond in good faith and then take follow-up action to do what needs to be done.

Dodging Responsibility

A lot of the time you will find that people don’t want to send a particular email, or do a particular thing or call a particular person because they don’t want to be held responsible for it (what they are actually afraid of, I don’t know, but it is what it is). The easiest way to get these people to take action is to tell them that you’ll take responsibility for it. The second option, is to use social anxiety, and plainly state the facts to them: that responsibility does indeed rest squarely with them and that a failure to act means that responsibility will indeed fall on them.

When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes people mess up and make mistakes. As with all of the situations we’ve outlined here, the best thing is to simply correct and keep moving. There is no need for emotional entanglement in these cases (though you may experience frustration/anger/annoyance).

Next Actions

  • Practice Social Anxiety in your everyday life. It’s an incredibly useful tool for dealing with people, especially if they are “difficult”. Examples would be asking uncomfortable questions, or doing something outside of the boundaries of societal politeness.
  • Go read Atlas Shrugged.
  • Remember that the most important thing is your original outcome, not proving the other person wrong.

If you want more articles and tips like these, let us know where we can send them to:

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Last Updated: August 25, 2021

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. I recently enrolled for a dual course in a private VET provider and out of frustration of the organisation goal which is to get the students to learn by making mistake. So instead of driving the students to the right path, the organisation leave them to make the error and so they can correct them by giving feedback. When assessments were resubmitted and another assessor marks the assessment, a different feedback will be provided which was different from how the previous assessor interpreted the question in the assessment. Same question interpreted differently by 2 marking assessors. To cut the story short, I cancelled my enrolment. Worse part is, the organisation sent me an inaccurate statement of attainment and the manager reasoned that the basis of the SOA he sent me was due to what he thinks most of the students do and not based on the facts and data in their system. So they sent me another SOA to rectify. However, the fornat of the document was insuffucient. It did not indicate what the course for the units of competencies were for. Of course, I have to request another one for an accurate details. In summary, for a simple standard routine procedure took the organisation 3x to make it right. There is even more to the story. Anyway, is this incompetency, laziness or is there another way to call it? What do you advise on how to deal with this kind of people and organisation without feeling so much frustration?

  2. “Stop giving important work to incompetent or lazy people, because there are a lot of competent and driven people out there.”

    – alternatively, sack them and rehire.

  3. No one wants to talk about this, but I think for most people the only way is to become a little more indifferent about your job and work in general. To care less. This seems the only way most people I know keep from being frustrated by others’ incompetence. It is a sad truth and can’t be good for company success, but the people making decisions at the top need to rethink things a little. Stop giving important work to incompetent or lazy people, because there are a lot of competent and driven people out there. That being said, I do know some people who manage to care deeply about their work and jobs and also deal with the inefficiencies and incompetence of others well, most of the time. But those people are few and far between, and I have even seen them have bad days where it’s just too much. I ended up not caring about one of my jobs other than doing the bare minimum. It was after two years of being utterly tortured by the indifference, laziness, and incompetence of the company, especially in leadership. I tried and tried for two years to do my job well and it proved completely impossible. So eventually I sort of “gave up”, found another outlet for my intellectual needs, and “joined” the company “culture” at work. I then started getting praise from people at work, including my boss. I was working 90% less…seriously. Also, that was my highest paying job!

  4. I think negative motivation can be effective in the short term but in the long term can reduce the chance of a constructive relationship which is what you need to be more efficient.

    The long term approach to efficiency I think is more about figuring out who the efficient people are at least those with potential from the start. Build relationships with those people first.

    If there is no getting around the bridge trolls, than put them on the persist list. Just keep persisting and persisting everyday until you’ve trained them to respond to you.

  5. I wish I was one of the people who are always super efficient. As it is, at times at least, my failure to be properly efficient smacks me in the face when some one else points it out, or less often I recognise it myself after having done something in a less efficient way for months. I recognise this failing in myself, and seek to rectify it at all times, but sometimes the most efficient way just does not occur to me.

    On the other hand I think there are certain people who have the mindset that they are always more efficient than others, when that is not actually the case. In light of my recognition that I am not always efficient, I would quite like to have this trait. At least I could delude myself rather than having to face the painful truth.

  6. Very good tips — I read the whole article and I am in the frustrated stage. The boss will not approve a project he has had for several weeks. I can’t move him and I get blamed for his lack of organization. The big boss has to come down and move him. They are friends so no one will get fired. But the whole office looks bad — like we don’t know what we’re doing.

  7. I love the style of your writing. Smart. very capturing, and ofcourse you write about good topics that are interesting! Im learning alot.

  8. Dumb people are a waste of time, mate.
    Very limited, strenuous paths through which one might excel, and even fewer people willing to endure such hardships and in for the long haul.

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