This article was published on July 14, 2012

Want to be more effective? Stop over-optimizing

Want to be more effective? Stop over-optimizing
Allen Gannett
Story by

Allen Gannett

Allen Gannett is an entrepreneur and investor. Currently, he is the founder and Chief Maven of TrackMaven, the competitive intelligence plat Allen Gannett is an entrepreneur and investor. Currently, he is the founder and Chief Maven of TrackMaven, the competitive intelligence platform for enterprise marketers. He is a partner at Acceleprise, the enterprise technology accelerator. Previously, he co-founded CampusSplash. He is a pumpkin pie addict, a former castmember on MTV's Movers and Changers, and a failed Wheel of Fortune contestant. You can follow him on Twitter: @Allen.

We are consumed by the quest to perfect our lives, seeking the perfect relationship, the perfect level of productivity—the perfect everything. With this struggle for perfection comes a feeling of empowerment, a feeling we are building that better mouse trap that everyone wants. Whole industries are spawned offering advice on how to be a better CEO, a better lover, and a better networker. But this drive for perfection misses the point and leads to something much worse: over-optimization.

The get-things-done movement and the resulting drive for super productivity is especially guilty. Articles such as “Five Best Productivity Methods Ever,” books such as Time Warrior: How to Defeat Procrastination, and tools such as Producteev implicitly promise a path to being superhuman, tearing through projects while leaving mere mortals gasping for air in our wake. We build awe-inspiring “get things done” systems, to-do lists with folders, sub-folders, labels, and tags. We construct a palace of productivity, with columns of completed to-dos. Yet for every new system we build, we still fail. We never can live up to the inherent promise of unparalleled productivity that we were sold. We can never be as productive as we think we ought to be.

The result is disappointment, and even paralysis. If we can’t achieve what seemed so achievable, why strive at all? And of course, this cycle of hope and despair restarts a few days later when we find a new productivity system in our inbox.

We fall into this same trap in many facets of our lives. In relationships, we are told there is a perfect person out there for us. Men’s Health promises that you too can “be the perfect guy for her.” Cosmopolitan promises that if you follow only 30 tips, you will have the perfect relationships. If only we added the one more piece of knowledge they are selling, we would have the optimal relationship, the optimal significant other. In subscribing to this advice, we again fall for the trap of over-optimization. We look for someone who loves our every interest. We think that having one fight means we are in a break-up death spiral. We forget our inherent humanity. We forget that life is about nuance and complication. We forget the real meaning of “smelling the roses.” By trying to over-optimize our relationships and find “The Perfect Wife,” we miss out on what we have now.

The obsession with self-help and optimization leads to viewing the world as half empty. Since we can improve, we can’t already be in a good place. Since we aren’t perfect, we’re not great. But we’re missing the point. Being human means failing. It means going awry. It means sometimes being tired and watching countless Law & Order reruns because we want to, not because it is the right thing to do, or the most productive thing to do.

Networking is fatally flawed for this reason. Networking appears manifestly human: People meeting people to help each other. But networking goes wrong because we seek to optimize. We seek to make our human interaction systematic. We read books such as Networking for People Who Hate Networking and listen to people who tell us to optimize by “making people come to you.” We go to Happy Hours to find a new client, not to be happy. And in trying to optimize networking, we ruin it; we make it artificial; we make it forced.

We ruin lots of things by trying to optimize. From dating to networking, we often fail because of a relentless drive for perfection. We try to improve our eighty percent score to one hundred percent, and instead whimper to zero.

But we can stop. We can stop over-optimizing. We can watch episodes of Law and Order on basic cable, just because. We can throw away our productivity palaces and stick to a basic to-do list. We can love our significant others because they make us happy, even if they nag us about the ironing.

We can understand that sometimes life is about being consistent: Being consistently productive, not pushing ourselves to the unattainable 100%; Being consistently in love, not woefully smitten; Being consistently excited to meet new people, not just trying to garner as many LinkedIn connections as possible.

We can be happy with being human, even if it means being imperfect.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Nomad_Soul

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