Learning to Optimize

The quintessential example for optimization that comes to mind is that of German auto makers (such as Mercedes-Benz or Porsche) and how they design new models of their cars every year. The one thing you will not see is a big change (or a “revolution”) in their design year over year, but what you will see is how their cars evolve over time. The same applies to timepieces (such as Rolex, Omega, or some of the older watchmakers). Their designs haven’t changed all that much, even if the engineering has improved. The operating systems we use with our computers are also good examples of year-over-year optimizations in product design.

The dictionary defines “optimize” as making the best or most effective use of a situation, opportunity, or resource. In other words, how to do things a little bit better. This reminds me of Kaizen, which is a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.

I am interested in how you can use this philosophy to improve your daily effectiveness. For instance, you can think of the athlete who practices routinely and always finds ways to improve their skills (optimize). If you’re keeping a website, you need a developer to keep it running smoothly by way of upkeep and fine-tuning improvements and updates.

Optimizing is about improving things that aren’t necessarily broken. It’s about improving the people and the processes/systems that you set up so you don’t have to actively think about them. At the same time, when something is broken, instead of simply fixing it, make it vastly better. Optimizing is not a one-time thing, but it’s about constantly finding ways to make things better (because there is always scope for improvement no matter what you do).

Here are some reasons why you should consider optimizing your life. Making a big change in our lives is often challenging for most of us because we resist change, but making tiny changes or small improvements over time stays under our radar and is totally doable and manageable.

Small improvements over time can lead to big results. It’s always easy to make tiny changes to a process rather than fall into the perfection trap, which is a meaningless pursuit anyway. Progress trumps perfection because we underestimate the effects of taking small actions consistently in the long term. It’s like compound interest. It might not look like you’re making any progress in the short term, but give it some time and you’ll start seeing results.

The reason we like big change so much is because that change is visible and obvious (but not easy), whereas small (under-the-hood) changes are anything but. Of course, the trick is to do them enough times before you start seeing results.

Here are some ideas for optimizing your daily/weekly life so you can see greater improvement in a longer time frame.

Think about the things or areas in your life you can optimize such as your self, your work, and your relationships. Consider doing a daily debrief in the evenings where you ask yourself questions such as what went well in your day and what could be improved. This doesn’t have to be “work-related”, but can be anything and everything. Keeping a journal can help you improve your self-awareness about things that otherwise might go unnoticed. In terms of staying on top of change (in an ever-changing world), optimizing might mean reviewing your past week to make improvements in your following week in terms of your relationships and results. In your relationships, optimizing might mean getting regular feedback from your loved ones in order to improve your relationships with them over time. Remember, the focus is on what you can do to make things better in your life and around those who matter to you. This isn’t about what others should be doing.

Think about the things that are causing you friction, and think about things you can automate, eliminate, or delegate. For instance, if you find yourself doing something more than twice and think it can be done better or more efficiently, then spend a few minutes automating it in some way so you don’t have to think about it. Keep a running list of things that are causing you friction, then figure out what (if anything) you want to be doing with them and what can be done about them.

Make small changes to your environment to make better default choices. For example, if you want to improve your diet, one thing you could do right now is to stop keeping junk food in the house. Make it difficult for yourself to do things that you would otherwise find yourself doing impulsively and irrationally.

Another example: I recently found myself using my tablet more than I wanted. Simply moving it from the living area and putting it elsewhere did the trick. Now, the only thing I can do there is to read books. In other words, I made it “difficult” for myself to use the tablet. At the very least, it makes me pause and think before I take it out for use now. This is one example where “out of sight, out of mind” is a good thing.

You can use Quantified Self as a way to optimize your life. You do that by collecting data (that you care about) about yourself actively and/or passively, then make sense of that data to gather insights, make decisions based on those insights, and finally take action based on those decisions.

If you’re working for an organization, think about the small changes you can make right now in your workplace to improve things without having to seek permission versus getting caught up in the bureaucracy to get approval for the smallest of things.

In any given project/process, focus on optimizing one or two things rather than introducing big changes (while leaving everything else the same). We do this so we actually find out if things are working from those tweaks or things are getting worse. When we turn a few “knobs” to make improvements at the same time, it’s harder to figure out what happened from turning which knob.

Also, the thing with making big changes (like losing weight quickly from extreme diet and/or exercise) is that they aren’t sustainable. So if you lost a lot of weight quickly, chances are high that you’ll gain all that weight again. Slower change is longer lasting and could even be permanent (like brushing your teeth).

Classic example: working out. I am using this example because it’s easier to quantify and everyone gets it. If you have not done any exercise recently, expecting yourself to do 25 reps (of any exercise) might be like shooting for the stars. It’s probably not a good idea, and you’ll most likely fail. But, if you’ve been exercising routinely for some time, then increasing one rep every couple of weeks (let’s say) will totally go under the radar and you would “trick” your body into doing it without facing any internal resistance. Do that for a few months and you’ll start seeing the cumulative effect of those improvements.

When it comes to optimizing things, focus on your strengths rather than fixing your weaknesses.

Let me share some of my own examples for how I optimize things in my everyday life.

I have a meal plan that I review once a week to make small changes to it because I get feedback from myself during the week, which I make a note of so I can include it as part of the plan in the following week. I also have a food log that has a list of foods that I have set a limit on in terms of how often I can eat them, so when I do eat them, I can happily indulge in them without feeling guilty about it.

As part of doing a weekly review, I review my calendar from two weeks past and four weeks into the future. Sometimes, it triggers things that I could/would/should be doing in the future.

I keep all kinds of logs to document things. For instance, I use my exercise log to track my daily workouts and find ways to improve it. Without logging, it would be hard to keep track of progress and/or to improve things.

Other examples including setting recurring/repeating reminders for doing things such as reviewing your monthly subscriptions to figure out if you want to keep paying for them or cancel. Paying your credit card bills on the same day each month is another example.

Here’s the thing. Optimizing is about making a change so small that it will likely escape the radar of your internal resistance. Then, it’s only a matter of time before you start seeing the results of doing things consistently and increasing intensity over time.

It’s about finding small ways to improve the way you manage yourself over time rather than looking to quickly change in a big way. The whole idea is to always be striving toward making things slightly better and to avoid falling into the perfection trap.

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