executive coaching


Optimizing Optimization

“You can’t squeeze blood from a stone.”

So the saying goes. In the world of peak performance, everyone talks about optimization. The highest performers always seem to be looking to squeeze more productivity, efficiency, and performance out of themselves to get better outcomes. Whether it’s utilizing High Impact Interval Training in fitness, planning every hour of the day with few to no breaks, or leaving work only to go home and continue working into the wee hours of the night, we seem to be upping the ante in the search for optimization.    

Despite what you may think, it is actually possible to over-optimize. In my work with high-performers and through my own experiences, I have seen that the pursuit of optimization, if followed blindly, can lead to some pretty severe crash-and-burn experiences.

I would like to offer some perspectives around this notion of optimization as well as some recommended safeguards which I hope will help you in your pursuit of living your best life.  

1. Optimize your goals

It’s really important to know what success looks like for you in order to optimize for it. It’s easy for us optimizers try to optimize everything in our lives and to run into trouble when we’re not clear what our goals are and what success actually looks like for us. Perhaps it’s important for you to prioritize your physical fitness which means training for and competing in triathlons. Work ambitions around that goal might be to work less so you can train better. So successful optimization in this example would be to figure out how to work less rather than how to work more. If you aren’t sure how to figure out what your goals are read my previous post The 4 Building Blocks of Productivity.

2. Prioritize rest in your optimization

In their recent book Peak Performance, Brad Stulburg and Steve Magness provide a useful equation for performance: Stress + Rest = Growth. That is, in order to improve performance, you must stress yourself. Then you must rest yourself. And only then will you experience growth or improvement. For too many of us, “rest and recovery” is left out of the equation, seen as unnecessary or even as weak. But stress without rest is a sure fire recipe for over-training or overwork, injury or illness, or plain old burnout.

So, we must build in appropriate rest to our optimization thinking. The more intense the stress we are facing, the longer the rest periods need to be. Sleep is the most obvious of the categories of rest and experts say that most of us need 7-9 hours a night (see this blog post from Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, on why his getting 8 hours of sleep a night is good for Amazon Shareholders). For some, 10 hours is not too much, especially if we are under intense stress. Other types of rest include:

  • Taking 7-20 minute breaks every 60-90 minutes of focused attention. Consider making the break a walk outside. In one study those who took as brief as a 6-minute walk outdoors increased their creativity by more than 60% versus those who remained seated at their desks.

    • If you are having trouble reminding yourself, check out many of the free desktop and phone apps built around the pomodoro method, many of which you can customize the time breaks.  

  • Taking days off or vacations, especially after intense periods. Vacations lasting seven to ten days have been shown to have positive effects on motivation, well-being and health that last up to one month. So take the occasional recovery day off, if you pull an all nighter to meet a deadline take the next day off, and plan your week-long vacation after closing a fundraising round or major sale.

3. Optimize for time of day

In his latest book, When, Daniel Pink talks about the science behind how humans naturally optimize throughout the day. For example, for many people, in the morning, we are most focused and alert which is best for analytic tasks. In the middle of the day, we get tired, so rest if you can (even better, nap) or do your mindless administrative tasks. Towards the end of the day, we begin to recover but without the same focus of the morning, so consider doing your brainstorming or more creative work then. We all have what’s known as a chronotype, some of us are “larks”, meaning we have more energy in the morning and others are “owls”, who are more energized at night. Know which type you are and do your most important work when you are most energized and focused.

4. Optimize with cushion

By definition, optimization means that we are leaving very little room for error. If we have optimized our day, we have scheduled it down to the hour. If anything goes wrong we cannot make things up. So if you know you cannot perform at your best (maybe you are sick, or you didn’t sleep well the night before, or you just had a baby) or there are factors outside of your control (like traffic or the IT set-up in someone else’s office where you are giving a presentation, etc.), consider building in sufficient cushion to account for these realities. Usually this means giving yourself more time to get places, packing less into your day, and giving yourself more time for recovery.  

5. Optimize for the chapter of life you are in

Most of us strive for work-life balance. It’s a term that’s been popular since the 1970s. What this means to many high-performers is that they want to optimize both for work AND for their personal lives which usually leads to feeling like neither is being done well. As a result they risk burnout.  

One of my favorite Fast Company articles entitled “Balance is Bunk”, talks about the notion of work-life balance being a fallacy, that we can’t ever achieve this balance at any point in time but if we think of periods in our lives as chapters in a book, over time we can achieve balance. When you’re starting a family, that may be a time when spending time with your kids takes more of your time and effort, or when you’re starting a company, work hours may be longer for a while. So instead of trying to optimize for everything in your life, know what chapter you are in and optimize for that. And cut yourself some slack for the other stuff.

6. Optimize for the 20%

The 80/20 principle (derived from economist Vilfredo Pareto) says that roughly 80% of your results come from just 20% of the things you do. This principle is oft quoted when it comes to sales (i.e. that 80% of business comes from 20% of customers). The point here is that some things are higher leverage and more important than others. Figure out what those things are in your life and optimize for them. Think about it: with a relatively small investment of your time you could accomplish most of what you want to accomplish. So if you’re good with getting 80% of the way there with just 20% of your time than optimize for that 20%. That leaves you a lot of free time to optimize for other things. Here’s an example: One of my goals is to optimize my energy through exercise. In my ideal world I would exercise daily for an hour and do a combination of stretching, yoga, tennis, running, weights, swimming and biking. In my Pareto-optimized world I have found that running for thirty minutes three times a week gives me the level of energy I need for the week. So I stop there.  

7. Optimize for the now – by maybe not optimizing at all

One of my friends told me he hates optimizing. When I asked him why he said, “Because when you optimize for everything, you can miss out on what can happen when you’re not optimizing.” These random conversations, unexpected surprises, and non-optimized meandering account for many of the magical moments of life, when we didn’t have our heads down on the way to accomplishing some goal or another. Think about your most magical moments in life, the best friendships you made, your most enjoyable times. Give yourself a break from the planning and optimize for that magic to happen again. Optimize for right now!

Living Your Best Life is a new blog series aiming to answer the question, How can I live my best life? This twelve-month series explores this question through the topics of productivity, leadership, motivation, psychology, family, wellness, and society.