Is This Optimal?

Thoughts on Self Development

Posted on May 03, 2023 · 13 mins read
Recently, I've been thinking about optimisation and how I can go about optimising my life. Possibly as a way of procrastinating on actually doing the tasks on my to-do list; and probably also as a way of attempting to gain a sense of control in this odd reality.

Anyway, with the sheer number of articles on optimisation out there, it's reasonable to assume that I'm not the only one thinking about this.

@nestingyourlife Replying to @rosebudandcae a tale as old as time #organization #homeorganizing #executivedysfuntion #neurospicy ♬ Requiem, KV 626 - 8. Lacrimosa - Mozart
and tiktoks too, of course.

What Is Optimisation?

"The action of making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource."
Oxford Dictionaries

How people try to optimise their lives depends on the way they interpret that definition. (For example; is the resource to measure ‘time’ or ‘effort’?) the variations of optimisation that I tend to see happen are:

  • Complete Tasks Perfectly
  • Only Complete Favoured Tasks
  • Only Complete Important Tasks
  • Complete Tasks Faster

Complete Tasks Perfectly

If we decide that the resource that we should optimise is the effort that we put into doing tasks, then it follows that we must do the task perfectly on the first attempt. After all, re-doing the task would at least double the amount of effort used. Depending on how much pressure you put on yourself, this can very easily lead to perfectionism.

As an example of perfectionism, I have a confession: I'm struggling to write this because I'm trying to determine the most optimal way to phrase every word, even when writing the first draft. When you argue that it's optimal to do a task once, the 'correct' way, it can lead to never starting on the task. Because you're now too busy figuring out what exactly the perfect way to do it is (as if that exists). I wrote this article on my phone but almost didn't start it at all. I thought the 'better' way would be to do it on my laptop so I could use a keyboard to type more comfortably. If I had given in to that line of thought, by the time I had turned on the laptop I would have decided that a different task was a more 'optimal' use of my time. (The fact that the ‘more optimal’ task is always one that requires less effort from me (like watching videos) never seems to come up consciously in my decision-making process. Weird that.)

Only Complete Favoured Tasks

What if optimising means only focusing on the tasks and goals that make you happy? Surely one of the underlying reasons that we pursue optimisation is to increase happiness in our lives. So we ask ourselves if a task sparks joy, and only prioritise it if it does.

The problem with this approach arises when we are weighing between a short-term and a long-term goal. If you deprioritise any tasks that are not immediately rewarding, what about the smaller tasks that build towards long-term goals? For example, writing this is difficult now, even though I know it's working towards the goal of writing a blog. Following this method, I would have already stopped writing at this point. Or to put it another way, it’s often the difference between exercising (short-term pain, long-term gain) or not exercising (short-term gain, long-term pain).

Only Complete Important Tasks

In this approach, we are again optimising by prioritising tasks. This is where existential questions may appear:
"What do I want to do with my life?"
"Do I want to achieve goal x or y?"
"Which dream job is the one true dream job?"

Alternatively, we may not group tasks by their relation to a goal and instead look at which tasks we can remove completely. We try to use algorithms to make decisions for us or remove small daily decisions altogether by always re-wearing the same outfit (If it works for successful people it should work for us too, right?).

Delegation of everything not deemed optimal only works if you have a lot of money to throw at the problem. Even then, I suspect it doesn't fix it 100%. (But I'm more than willing to become rich to test that theory.) Unfortunately, there are aspects of life that we cannot avoid, like death and taxes. So instead, we try to do everything in a prioritised manner, with the sinking feeling that we will never clear our to-do lists because we're only human (and cloning ourselves à la the 2018 film Replicas isn't possible yet).

Poster of Replicas (2018)

Hopefully the real-life version will have better reviews.

Complete Tasks Faster

What if I want to have an amazing schedule so that I can fit in as many tasks as possible? That way, I could complete everything that I wanted to, not just the tasks at the top of my list.

Surely one of the many calendar and organisation software things will solve my problem—oh, it could even use AI to determine the best time to do everything!

Usually when we’re thinking this, we believe that we have been getting ‘nothing’ done - so we try to overcorrect. We schedule every second of our day to the breaking point. We know that we need breaks, but when it comes to how many and how often, we tend to underestimate. Then when it’s time to estimate the amount of time for the task itself, we again struggle to determine how much time it requires. A few people may manage to follow this new schedule for a short time, but many will build the ‘perfect’ calendar and then immediately not follow it. This can be due to many reasons, including forgetting that you have good days and bad days and planning as if every day was a good day.

So if trying to complete tasks perfectly doesn't lead to being optimal, and being ruthless with decision-making doesn't either, and neither does trying to cram in as many tasks as efficiently as possible... then what does?

Why Do We Want To Optimise Everything?

Instead of providing you with a non-existent magical solution, I ask you to consider the following instead: Is the dream of optimisation just another need being drilled into us by our environments?

There are multi-billion-dollar industries that work to convince us that we are not good enough in a wide range of attributes. They have products to sell, and one way to do so is by convincing you that 1) you have a problem, and 2) this time, their product will solve your problem. Buy their self-improvement course/book/software, and all your dreams could come true. This reminds me of a story called "Anecdote Concerning the Lowering of Productivity" by Heinrich Böll:

(As the original is in German, below is a translation.)

An American investment banker was taking a much-needed vacation in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. The boat had several large, fresh fish in it.

The investment banker was impressed by the quality of the fish and asked the Mexican how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”

The banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican fisherman replied he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked: “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman replied, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos: I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The investment banker scoffed: “I am an Ivy League MBA, and I could help you. You could spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats until eventually, you would have a whole fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to the middleman, you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You could control the product, processing and distribution.”

Then he added: “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City where you would run your growing enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied: “15–20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You could make millions.”

“Millions, señor? Then what?”

To which the investment banker replied: “Then you would retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

I don't think we can ever be 100% optimised. There's always a way to save more time, delegate a task to others, or re-evaluate what is truly important. It could be me being cynical, but it does feel like just another way that we are being tricked into wanting more and into being unhappy with who we are. All so we'll pay for the next magic calendar software that will fix our problems this time.

Maybe it's truly optimal to assess where you are now, and instead of trying to overhaul every aspect, simply accept it. Make changes if they seem like a good idea, but do it in moderation. Instead of going from one extreme to another, gradual changes over time have a significantly greater success rate in the long run. If anything is worth doing, it's worth doing as badly and repeatedly as needed. Above all, try not to base your entire sense of worth on being optimised. Next time you catch yourself thinking "How should I improve this?", also ask yourself, "Why do I want to improve this? This reviewing I'm doing—is this optimal?"

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