“I love the old school spirit of craftsmanship...” Fernando Gros.
0 items in your cart
$0
Blog // Thoughts
June 1, 2018

The Hidden Danger Of Over-Optimising

We’d all like to be a little more efficient and productive. But, is there a hidden danger in becoming too obsessed with making things better, with having the best workflow and then over-optimising?

A few years ago, I worked with a mentor who coached me to be more creative. It was a great experience, but he repeatedly suggested the biggest hurdle was my own mindset, the hurdles and complications I put in my own way. He made me realise that my best, most productive times were when I planned less and did more, focussing on a few important projects, rather than trying to juggle a vast array of commitments.

Later, I worked with a writing coach to improve and refine my style. She pointed out that my desire to make perfect written pieces often got in the way of expression in prose and the planning and production of longer works. She helped me see how my writing was at its best and most fearless when I had a clear, light plan, and stuck to saying things clearly, without getting too abstract or theoretical in my descriptions.

Recently, I’ve been working with a productivity coach, trying to build some new ways of working for the coming years. He pointed out why my planning and the way I used Omnifocus wasn’t working. In trying to optimise my schedule, I was adding too much detail and too many due dates. I was packing things in too tightly. It was good in theory, but a sick day here or a parental interruption there, and suddenly everything was off balance like a ship in a bad storm.

How Big Ideas Tempt Us to Over-Optimise

Last week, I was listening to the Cortex podcast and one of the hosts was going through all sorts of struggles because he wanted to optimise his life in various ways. The show is a fun and insightful look at tech and productivity and, on this episode, they kept coming back to the question of the minimum number of things needed to make something practicable, like the minimum number of cables and chargers required to make a few weeks of travel go smoothly.

It’s a great question, but also an example of how fixating on an idea to optimise your life can, in fact, become a weight that drags you down. One extra cable may not be optimal, if optimal means as few cables as possible, but is it really any worse?

That’s the problem with big totalising ideas – they turn metrics into commandments.

We are all obsessed with data these days. Only a few days ago, I wrote about living an evidence-based life. Data can reveal all sorts of patterns and relationships between things. It can illuminate the unseen and explain the complex, but we always have to interpret the data, put it in context and decide if it matters.

It’s one thing to spot a trend. It’s a whole other thing to understand what that trend means.

Totalising Ideas Can Re-Define Success in Weird Ways

Yesterday was a fairly typical Wednesday for me. I wrote for a little while in the morning, went to Pilates for what proved to be a very intense workout, read for a while (related to some future blogposts), went to see my therapist, took a long walk, then made some important phone calls, spent time being a parent, and shopped for and cooked dinner. At 8pm, I looked at my phone and saw that I’d managed 10,719 steps that day – just over my minimum. But I was exhausted.

What if it had been 9,000 steps? Would it have made sense to go for another walk? Would it anger the god of 10,000 steps if I failed to make an adequate sacrifice on that day? Did it matter that the mental and physical exhaustion was suggesting it was time to rest?

A daily minimum of 10,000 steps is a very good idea but turning it into a religion probably isn’t.

So, why do we feel tempted to always look for more, to potentially over-optimise? What drives this urge for more order and constant improvement? Sure, it’s good in so many ways. It’s the reason we acquire skills and master things. But when we can’t turn it off, it can also become a limiting and potentially destructive impulse.

Coming Back to The Core

The deep irony of all this is that, in myself, I never feel like a very organised or optimised person. I look around at people I admire and always feel they are so much more organised and productive than I could ever be.

Of course, it’s this urge to compare that lies at the core of the problem.

How productive we are in comparison to someone else, especially in our kind of creative work, is a pretty terrible place to start. Sure, we do have to produce something, and, in terms of the market, the more quality work we can produce the better.

But primarily, it is a race we run against ourselves, not against others.

Take word counts, for example. A lot of writers (and would-be writers) get worked up about how many words to write a day. It’s easy to feel defeated if you can manage only a few hundred words a day when someone else claims to write a lot more. But looking at what’s needed to write a novel in the space of a year or so, or what’s required to keep a blog alive, it soon becomes clear the real challenge isn’t increasing your daily word count by some arbitrary number – say, going from 600 to 800 words – but rather it’s turning up every day (or nearly every day) to get the work done.

And the fascinating thing is, the more we bring something closer to the core of our being, the more it becomes one of the few, very important things we do every day, the simpler it becomes to put our focus on it, and the less complicated and optimised our life needs to be.

Responses
Agostina 3 months ago

“A daily minimum of 10,000 steps is a very good idea but turning it into a religion probably isn’t.”

THIS! We were talking with a friend about how dangerous this kind of controlling thought can be. The topic was a very trendy one nowadays, meditation. And he is the kind of guy that just will try any new thing that will improve his life somehow, which I sometimes find silly, cause it seems like a trend and nothing else most of the times, like the several times he tried to become vegan but still eating cheese (its called being vegetarian, I would tell him) and then eventually meat again after a few weeks. But this time, he was talking about people trying meditation, asking him “how long do you meditate everyday?” and this question bothered him because its not how long you meditate tht makes to the quality of meditation or how you feel afterwards, but a lot of people are measuring it by the amount of time they spend sitting saying “ommm” instead of just doing it as much as you can or want, till it makes you feel better or whatever, at your own pace, with your own limitations, your own goals, successes, its not a competition so we have to stop comparing to others in these completely arbitrary ways as how many steps, words, time we do something. Our method wont probably help the entire human race, others’ method maybe wont help us either and that is OK.

    fernando 3 months ago

    Agostina – yes, it’s always interesting to ask where the desire for this stuff is coming from. I’m also into trying things out, but the danger is creating another thing to make us feel like a failure if we don’t measure up. There has to be a way to being open to improve but also holding the thing lightly, not turning into dogma.

Dane Cobain 3 months ago

Your thoughts on the step goal hit home because I actually reduced my goal to 8,000 and I still don’t hit it a lot of the time. But at the same time, part of that is because I’ve reduced the amount of cardio I do to spend more time working on other types of exercise etc. I don’t really check it anymore but that’s potentially because it’s a metric that I’m less worried about, rather than because I’ve stopped worshipping metrics in the first place.

A lot of people in the bookish community set their annual reading goal on Goodreads to one book so that they just immediately reach it at the start of the year and don’t have to worry about it. It makes a lot of sense because they argue that reading should be fun, so why should you set yourself goals and artificially raise your expectations?

I still set a goal on Goodreads, but I set one that’s pretty easily achievable for me and then just don’t worry about it. I think metrics (whether it’s step count or the number of books read) can come in useful, but we do need to be careful not to over-rely on them. They can come in useful, but only if we’re careful not to let them take over our lives.

    Maria 3 months ago

    I wanted to do a book a month myself and failed miserably already. I cant read one book at once so I have many at the same time and then never finish them because I like the book so much. So I stopped setting a goal on Goodreads although I love that website.

    fernando 3 months ago

    Dane – yes, not enough gets said about setting lower goals we can reach. It’s like we believe goals have to hard or they are worthless. I’ve been guilty of that myself. These days I tend to feel like lower goals and momentum are a much better option that fitfully striving for high goals.

Maria 3 months ago

I used to look at other writer’s methods, and most of them would wake up at like 4am and then have this strict routine of writting all day with very scheduled breaks
to eat, have a walk, etc. I hated it. I would never be able to work like this, so I must be a failure, I thought. Then of course I found the methods of other writers, the ones who write at night, the ones with alcohol problems, the ones that write because otherwise they would be dead if they dont, the ones that just let the words flow out of their mind through their veins to the hand to be finally placed on paper. And the thing is you dont have to be either, you dont need to be a depressive alcoholic to be a good writer, you dont need to wake up with the first ray of light to be a good witer either. Whatever works for you is right. Of course its nice to try other people’s methods and see if they make our work routine better or more suitable than the chaos we feel we float in, but if it doesnt, that doesnt say anything about a person as a writer.

    fernando 3 months ago

    Maria – yes, there are a lot of different methods. Though in my research, very few writers spend all day it. Many successful writers, especially novelists, write for a fairly limited amount of time each morning and don’t write vast numbers of words each day.

Mats 3 months ago

A lot of times I have to-do lists to help me organize the day, another days I forget too, I just do, and then I end up adding more stuff to the to-do list after Ive done them than scratching out all the things I wrote I wanted to achieve that day beforehand. To-do lists and other methods may help, but they can also make us struggle more, focusing more on this goal of tasks done than the tasks themselves.

    fernando 3 months ago

    Mats – I heard productivity coach and writer Mike Vardy use the phrase “polishing the runway” to describe spending too much time perfecting to-do lists and other productivity processes. I love that phrase. The runway is there to help the plane take off not to look good.

Mercy 2 months ago

We are at the age where new applications and methods are coming up everyday to ‘help’ in making us more productive and efficient. It’s unfortunate that people are not able to distinguish between choosing programs suited for them and what to pass on. Most opt to copy what others do not understanding what may work for one does not always work for another.

Another aspect is setting unrealistic goals and obsessing with efficiency which in the end results in wastage of more time. Comparing yourself with other people’s routines, results or whatever else is dangerous and might at times result in depression when expectations are not met. I advise my trainees to find a system that works for them and it is okay to be different.

Mercy 2 months ago

We are at the age where new applications and methods are coming up every day to ‘help’ in making us more productive and efficient. It’s unfortunate that people are not able to distinguish between choosing programs suited for them and what to pass on. Most opt to copy what others do, not understanding what may work for one does not always work for another.

Another aspect is setting unrealistic goals and obsessing with efficiency which in the end results in wastage of more time. Comparing yourself with other people’s routines, results or whatever else is dangerous and might at times result in depression when expectations are not met. I advise my trainees to find a system that works for them and it is okay to be different.

Leave a comment