Optimize Later

Optimize Later

A while ago I wrote about “judging not” as a way of not getting stuck in a cycle of negativity. That negativity, I found, had a tendency to keep me from starting. On a similar note, I have a tendency to desire optimal task sequencing, which is another way of saying I’m hard to motivate unless the payoff is big enough. Musings follow.

I find myself constantly expending decision-making energy on tasks as trivial as making an extra trip down into the basement. If I’m going to go to the basement, I rationalize, I need to have something to bring down AND to bring back up. Maybe my real calling in life is to be a shipping dispatcher, but since I’m not in that business it’s actually a problem because it’s often faster to make multiple trips. Failure to do so leads to distraction and unnecessary delay.

Interestingly, this doesn’t happen when I’m working in a group of people, because I don’t like sitting around waiting for something to happen. Movement usually begets action, so in social situations my desire to see progress overrides the desire for efficiency. Secondly, I recognize that efficiency in a group arises only after the group task is successfully executed a few times, so the beginning is ALWAYS non-optimal and inefficient. I find that getting through those first passes quickly, then establishing a baseline shared experience to anchor productive discussion, tends to lead to efficiency later.

How quickly I forget that lesson when I’m working on my solo projects.

I’m not sure why I’m like this. I really like seeing massive return on effort, and this may not be due to a desire for efficiency. It is just more exciting to think about, and that may be the fundamental deficiency in my workflow: I have a high threshold point for action. Optimization is a rationalization I make in the absence of immediate gratification and/or reward. And my idea of a reward is receiving something that enables higher-quality experiences. It’s a catch-22: to create higher-quality experiences means doing a lot of grunt work right now that isn’t rewarding in the same way. In other words, it’s hard, often unrewarding work…UNLESS you are doing it with other like-minded people.


As I wrote earlier today on Picking the Right Projects (in my “stream of consciousness” journal, I seem to be in a place where I am deficient in shared motivations with my peers. A lot of the work I’m doing now is related to the unique abilities that I seem to have. Because they are unique, and because I work from home, I am continually in a state of isolation that doesn’t feed my soul.

To be sure, the “optimize later” maxim is good production practice, especially when you are learning to produce something new and aren’t sure what you are making. This is the creative part of the work. After you have the fruits of your labor in front of you, THEN you can start optimizing because it’s much clearer what is or is not working on a system-wide level.

Playing devil’s advocate, “Optimize Now” may be a reasonable approach to take if you’re not really working on something novel or ground-breaking, presuming that you or your team has the skills to make what’s being asked for without a lot of ramp-up. In other words, an experienced team already has the skills to make what they have before. If improvement is not the goal (such as having some kind of product to fill a niche in one’s marketing plan) then “optimize now” is actually part of project definition tinged with a bit of management pressure. I’m not going to say that’s bad, but ironically it’s not the way I want to work.

So where does my desire to optimize come from? It’s probably a combination of laziness and disinterest in the process itself. Learning to transform the dull parts of invention into something tolerable is a key discovery I need to push for. The clerical aspects of creativity, such as collecting hundreds of facts so I can see the pattern in a flash of insight, or slogging through the layout process until I can imagine the element that pulls everything together, is so unrewarding to me that I don’t want to start it. I start daydreaming of magic tools that do it for me, or I make excuses about the lack of optimal technologies or energy levels.

There’s no getting around the dull clerical work, unless you hire someone to do it for you and let go of the expectations that it will be done exactly the way you want. So either you do it yourself GLADLY (or at least without judgment) or you DON’T do it. When not doing is not a choice, then wishing for an optimal solution isn’t going to help. Make it fast and ugly, and then optimize later. On the other side awaits the real payoff, even if it’s hard to see right now with all that boring work of cutting/pasting thousands of words into tiny boxes is in front of you.

Or so I tell myself. Back to work with me :)


  1. Shanna Mann 8 years ago

    If I’m going to go to the basement, I rationalize, I need to have something to bring down AND to bring back up.

    I do this ALL the time. It is an efficiency thing… I learned it from my mom, who probably learned it from Heloise.

    My mantra is “do it now. Just DO IT,” reasoning that the extra trips are worth the mental energy saved.

    I do still like to hyperplan trips into town on errands, though. :)

  2. Eugene Meidinger 8 years ago

    I don’t think it’s a matter of efficiency. I think you are suffering from a bad case of promotion goals! There is an amazing book called “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals” which covers the different types of goals we make and how they affect what we do.

    One chapter talks about promotions vs prevention goals. A promotion goal would be like competing for first place in a competition or being top in your field. It feels like shooting for the stars, reaching for what is ideal. Parents who used praise as the main motivator lead to these goals often. These goals are about reaching a state of ecstasy and excitement.

    Prevention goals are different. They are about what we are obligated to do, about avoiding danger. These goals are things like installing locks or putting up a gate when your kid is learning to walk. Parents who used punishment as a motivator lead to these goals. These goals are about reaching a state of relaxation through constant vigilance.

    Now here is the key point: Prevention goals only care about the payoff, not about the chances. If your kid has cancer, you don’t really care about the odds of a procedure helping. If it might work, you’ll do it. But promotion goals care a lot about the odds of payoff. Imagine being in a competition and you care about being the very best, about the excitement, about the ideal. If it looks like you will probably get 2nd best, you are likely to become very discouraged (as opposed to the person who is scared he will let down his parents who will try even harder). I think, for you, whenever it doesn’t seem like there is a massive payoff, the odds of it being “worth it” decrease dramatically, along with motivation.

    Doing paperwork never feels like shooting for the stars, but for some people it does feel like avoiding danger.

    • Jim 8 years ago

      Eugene, I like this analysis. (It seems similar to the away from pain vs. toward pleasure paradigm). I think I primarily have a prevention goal mindset. But, in my mind, promotion goals seem more “noble.” So I often fight a losing battle trying to work from a “noble” promotion goal mindset when I should probably, as a default, just stick with the prevention mindset, to which, at this point, I seem to be hardwired. I’ll have to pick up a copy of “Succeed.” Thanks.

  3. Author
    Dave Seah 8 years ago

    Shanna: I find myself resilient to “just do it”, because I’m awful with authority figures even when they are me :) I do find that shutting off my brain works, though!

    Eugene: That’s a fascinating framing of the issue…trying to see if it fits me. I don’t think competition doesn’t really compel me to action, but I am motivated by big payoffs. Maybe this isn’t so much efficiency (as in reward gained per unit effort expended) as it is just needing a hefty return on investment for me to want to act. I’m not sure, though, how labeling this issue as a promotion versus prevention goal helps. I’ll have to check out the book and see what it says. Thanks for the link!

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 8 years ago

    Eugene: Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book is indeed awesome. I grabbed a Kindle sample last night, then bought the whole thing. THANK YOU for the recommendation! I think this will help fortify my design work as well!