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.