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019. The Optimization Trap


Episode description

One way to be ok at productivity is to avoid the premature optimization trap.
  • Premature optimization is when you try to improve a process before knowing how to measure the results of the change.
  • An idea to improve your productivity can sound really appealing and make you want to do it right away, but without knowing how effective the change will be, the impact could be minuscule and use up more (decision-making) effort than is worthwhile.
  • Making lots of small or arbitrary, immeasurable changes to your productivity is not the same as making a few changes that have a big, measurable impact.
How does one avoid the optimization trap?
  • Recommendation #1: simplify! Reduce the number of changes you are actively trying to make. You probably have some semblance of a routine. Pick one thing to change and try it for a few weeks before assessing how well it worked.
  • Recommendation #2: be scientific — in the simplest way possible!
    • The scientific method is one of Erik's favorite systems humans have devised.
    • Here's our simplified scientific method:
      1. collect data
      2. analyze it
      3. make a prediction
      4. test it
      5. repeat
    • We reordered the steps to prioritize measuring results. Presented this way, the scientific method can be seen in lots of other processes, like in agile software development, experience design, and other human-centered, creative processes.
    • This order also allows you to practically know when scientific optimization is worth pursuing:
      Measure first to see how much room there is for improvement before you try something!
    • Example: Alarmy. The app first asks simple questions to identify an effective way to wake you up. By collecting this data first, the app can either turn on extra features or suggest that you don't need the app and are perhaps fixing the wrong problem.
    • Example: Screen Time. This Apple app gathers social media and other app usages for a week and then provides a report of its analysis. The results are a quick and easy way to determine if you should avoid your phone and which apps consume most of your phone time.
  • Recommendation #3: Take breaks. Resting and recharging are not wasted time! They help power you up to take on your next task with maximum effort and energy.
  • Here are some simple ways to practice recharging:
    • Take the scenic route home.
    • Go for a short walk.
    • Close your eyes and breathe (seriously, try this when stretching or exercising — be safe about it). Call it meditation if that helps you feel better about it.
  • Our bodies need to recharge and they can’t do that if we treat downtime as lost productivity.
Warning signs that you may have fallen in the optimization trap
  • Beware of anything that saves you time so that you can work more
    • Meal prep. services, delivered groceries, home cleaning or yard services, etc.
    • If you use these services because you’re not hitting your work goals each day then you’re optimizing the wrong thing
    • Improving productivity means producing more in less time, not producing more with more time
    • Make sure the “optimization” you choose directly corresponds to producing more in less time
    • Erik's example: uninstalling Facebook and using Buffer/News Feed Eradicator directly affected his productivity because he was getting sucked into reading his timeline at times when he was supposed to be producing social copy for work
  • Start being sensitive to how you divide your attention while you’re working
    • Avoid or schedule time-wasters at work (reading social media, commuting, texting/chatting, etc.)
    • Focus on one thing at a time so you can also focus on being most productive at one thing at a time
    • Practice making decisions quickly. Idling and deciding is also not the same as recharging.
Some closing thoughts
  1. When it comes to productivity, avoid premature optimization. Know the potential impact of a change will be significant before you try it.
  2. Measure your productivity before you make changes to it. Otherwise, how do you know the change was even an improvement?
  3. Take Breaks. Your brain is a muscle and needs rest in order to grow.
  4. Optimize the systems you’re using to produce, not other parts of your life that will give you more time to produce.
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