Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Perils of Optimizing

I recently read the latest book from Scott Adams, How To Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend reading it - I got a lot of insights from it. In today’s post though, I want to focus on only one insight - to simplify rather than optimize.


Adams states that people generally fall into these two categories - those who like to simplify and those who like to optimize - and I realized instantly that I fell into the latter category. The problem with optimizing though, can be that not only do you complicate something, you reduce the likelihood of doing it. He gives the example of exercise - and how in our tendency to optimize the various aspects of exercise - duration, intensity, time of day, what nutrition we consumed before and after - we find it hard to maintain a consistent rhythm of regular activity.

It’s a simple, and perhaps obvious point. However, those of us reading the latest studies and theories related to any aspect of improving ourselves - our health, our productivity, our relationships - are trained to find ways to optimize in every area. This is all very well and good, but we also know that humans have a limited store of will-power, and using it up in one area depletes it in others. This is why if you have to force yourself to work 10 hours at an unpleasant job, you don’t have the willpower to exercise after wards.
In some areas of our life, we have to optimize - at our work we must give our best, with our families we try to create optimal experiences. While Adams doesn’t specifically demarcate in which areas of our life we should and should not optimize, I suggest the following rule for determining in what instances simplicity might be a better approach:

Whenever by simplifying something, you increase the likelihood of getting it done and lower your stress significantly.



For occasions where simplifying doesn’t affect the outcome in a lasting manner, it should be a no-brainer - for example your social plans for tonight, what to cook for dinner, whether to get one more errand done or go home while you still have energy - these are examples of actions that can benefit from the lens of simplification without losing much in the long-term, but providing reduced stress and thereby greater enjoyment in the short-term.


I would next extend it to projects that by trying to optimize you are having trouble completing - such as a thesis, or a book, or a report. Many people see these projects as crucial to their career success, and try to optimize by writing the best possible thesis / book / report they can. This proves difficult for some reason, possibly they have many other competing demands for their time, maybe the project is ill-conceived, and then they stall and fail to complete the project.


When I was working towards my Masters degree, I heard many horror stories of former students failing to get their degree because they didn’t complete their thesis. I too made the mistake of trying to find the perfect topic and wasted months. Nearing the deadline, I panicked, and in order to ensure I did get to graduate, I chose the simplest topic I thought I would be able to complete, and managed to hand in the bound copy of my dissertation on time.


I would argue that in cases like this, if simplifying your project allows you to complete it, it’s a good thing. In fact, Hilary Rettig, author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific goes so far as to say that you should simplify each project, in order to complete it faster and get to the next one.

I have started to apply this myself in the last few weeks, and started to get more done with far less stress, leaving more energy to devote to my friends and family and myself.

What can you simplify today?

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