Stop Trying to Optimize Everything

We want to be optimal.

We want to put ourselves in a position where we are most likely to succeed

But the problem is that many productivity, personal development and biohacking addicts are obsessed with optimization in a way that actually makes them less optimal.

What do I mean?

Well, let’s take a look at a fictional character named Luke.

Luke is a freelance web designer. He works from home. He does pretty well for himself. But he feels like he’s lacking some purpose in life and lacking drive. He wants to do something else but he’s not entirely sure what.

So there’s something off. There’s something in Luke’s life that doesn’t feel quite right. There’s this sort of low-level anxiety that exists, and there’s no answers.

But being the personal development junkie that Luke is, he wants to fix his situation. And because he has a slightly obsessive personality, he’s prone to falling into the “single-solution” fallacy—thinking that there’s one single solution for all his problems. You could also call this “magic pill” seeking.

And so he ends up going down the rabbithole of over-optimization.

He watches a video from Andrew Huberman on circadian rhythm and figures that if he just fixes his morning routine, goes for a walk and gets sunlight in the morning—then he’ll level up and be the man he wants to be.

This makes him feel a bit better, but he’s still stuck.

He wonders if maybe it’s his sleep. He doesn’t have trouble getting to sleep and usually gets a full 8 hours in, but based on a tweet thread he read he believes he could optimize it more. So he buys a sleep tracking ring, gets blackout curtains, sets his AC to the right temperature, takes supplements, and creates a complex nighttime wind-down routine.

This makes him feel a bit better, but he’s still stuck.

Months go by. Maybe years. Luke has built up these routines, these optimizations, these habits. Some of them have improved the quality of his life. Many of them haven’t, and are simply distractions.

And Luke is still in the same place. He lacks purpose and drive. He wants to do something else but he’s not entirely sure what. And he’s just spent all this time, effort and energy making himself “optimal”

But for what?

Luke is still stuck in this state of low-level anxiety. This inertia. He still feels like life is passing by.

In fact, in a way, it’s made him less optimal. Because he’s been so obsessed with these optimizations, he’s transformed them into prerequisites for things like sitting down to work. On days where he doesn’t stick to his morning routine, he finds it extremely difficult to be productive. These optimizations and routines have become crutches for him.

Optimization is not a bad thing

It’s important to note that none of these optimizations that Luke has done are bad.

Andrew Huberman is right about optimizing your circadian rhythm. Getting sunlight first thing in the morning is a good thing.

Optimizing your sleep environment and schedule is a good thing.

And sometimes these optimizations have such a high ROI and are easy to implement that you might as well do them regardless.

The issue is the frame from which Luke is acting from.

Luke doesn’t have a clear goal in mind. He doesn’t know which path he’s on. And so he just keeps optimizing for the sake of optimizing, subconsciously hoping that the next optimization will kick him out of inertia and revitalize the purpose and drive he desires.

He’s in a constant state of “getting ready” but never actually doing what’s important.

He’s like the biohacking addict who’s business is on the decline because they’re not sitting down and doing the work that needs to be done because they’re too busy optimizing.

He’s like the second-brain disciple who takes endless amounts of notes and builds a complex, impressive note-taking system but never produces anything with it.

The frame Luke is acting from, whether he realizes it or not, is one where optimization is the purpose.

But there’s a better frame to act from.

Build the foundation, then optimize according to your goal

The frame you should act from is this:

  1. I am building a strong mental and physical foundation so I can achieve the goals I want to achieve.
  2. I am implementing high ROI optimizations to help speed up my journey towards my goals and increase my chances of success

The first point here is that you need to build a strong foundation.

Optimizations sit at the top of the pyramid. Unfortunately, most people skip straight to them because they’re attractive and fancy.

But it makes little sense if you haven’t built, or you’re not actively building the foundation. Because if you’re not building the foundation, you’re not becoming more optimal. Simple as that.

The person who does ice baths every morning but neglects physical exercise and nutrition is not becoming more optimal.

The note-taking addict who loves their second brain system but can’t sit down and focus on a mentally demanding task because they haven’t built up the capacity to do so is not becoming more optimal.

The guy who has a complex morning routine with 10 different habits but has no purpose or goal that drives them is not becoming more optimal.

You must start with the foundation.

For me, this is what it looks like:

  • Values & Vision. Who do you want to be, in all aspects? What are your core drivers?
  • Goal. What do you want to achieve in the next 6-12 months?
  • Energy & capacity.
    • Execution ability.
    • Physical energy and health
  • Strategy, optimization and tactics
    • How are you going to best achieve your goal?
    • Whats optimizations can get you there faster?

If you skip all the way to the end, then it’s unlikely to work out for you.

Once you have a goal in mind and you’re building up your energy and capacity, then adding in optimizations makes sense.

You also have a filter for them. You’re not just adding them in for the sake of adding them.

Let’s go back to Luke.

Luke signs up for coaching with me and discovers that in fact, he’s doing it all wrong.

He starts by defining and articulating his values and vision. He gets really clear on what it is that he needs to do next, which leads to his 6-12 month goal.

We then audit and analyze his current situation and learn that while he’s added in all these optimizations, he finds it hard to sit down and focus for more than 30 mins. Part of the reason why is because he scrolls social media for 15 mins every morning and jacks up his dopamine reward circuit, but also because he doesn’t exercise often and his energy levels are generally low. The sugar-laden breakfast doesn’t help either.

So, he implements foundational changes to his routine to increase his energy and capacity. These are fixes, not optimizations.

Finally, after a few weeks or months, Luke is doing well. He’s more energized and passionate than ever before. He wants to ramp things up and get even better, and now it’s time to add in some optimizations.

He notices that while he can focus for a good few hours in the morning, his afternoons are hit or miss. So he decides to move his exercise time to noon so he can break up the day. He also cuts back on his caffeine intake to avoid the afternoon crash.

The new Luke sees optimizations as tweaks, not fixes. They are high ROI, low-effort things that make him better—but the foundation is already in place.

Luke now optimizes in a way that’s goal-oriented. He’s not optimizing for the sake of optimizing.

Obsession will take you much further than optimization can

If optimization was the missing link, then how do you explain people who aren’t “optimal” but still achieve great things and do great work?

You think Hemingway woke up in the morning, threw back 60 supplements, fasted for 27 hours a day and took an ice bath every 3 hours? No. He was an alcoholic. Extremely unoptimal. Yet he still did amazing work.

Warren Buffet has a terrible diet and is richer than you or I will ever be.

And everyone knows some guy who’s overweight but has seemingly limitless energy.

That’s not to say that you should become an alcoholic like Hemingway or adopt Buffet’s diet.

But it is to say that when you’re obsessed, when you’re ruthlessly consistent and you have a clear goal and vision—you will get things done regardless of how optimized you are.

Bad sleep? Fine. You still work. You’re obsessed.

Ice bath too warm? Fine. You will work. You’re obsessed.

You don’t use your optimizations as a crutch. If your day doesn’t go to plan, that’s fine. You keep operating.

But here’s the thing: combine both obsession and dial in your optimization? You become superhuman.

Obsession AND nutrition dialled in? Your energy levels go up even more.

Obsession AND frequent exercise and movement? You feel even better.

It’s not obsession or optimization. It’s both. But if you could only pick one, pick obsession.

Some optimizations are so easy they should be made anyway

Easy/high-ROI optimizations should be made regardless of whether you have the foundation in place.

For example, if you’ve just started to lift weights, you may as well take creatine as a supplement because it’s one of the best studied highest ROI supplements, and it’s not a difficult optimization to make. Trying to find or create the perfect workout plan is an unnecessary optimization that won’t have high ROI, because there are great plans already out there and you’re new to lifting anyway so you don’t know what you don’t know.

Where to go from here

First, if you’re an over-optimizer, stop.

Start with the foundation. Define and articulate your values and vision.

Set a clear goal for yourself. Don’t overthink it. Something you can work towards for the next 6 months. It should feel challenging.

If you haven’t done so yet, dial in your exercise and nutrition.

And then, once all that is in place, look for the high ROI optimizations that will take you even further.

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