Isn’t this ironic?
My friend Andrei isn’t one to beat around the bush. He’s the guy you call when you want cold, piercing feedback. The kind that will make you throw away your draft, go for a long walk, and question everything you’ve been doing for the past weeks. I like that.
A few weeks ago he asked me why I haven’t published anything in months. Work is overwhelming. I’m researching a big topic. Being a father is eating up all my free time. These were all valid responses. They also had one other thing in common: bullshit.
After a short pause I decided to tell my friend the truth. His response wasn’t soothing, comforting, or reassuring. But the truth never is.
You went down the rabbit hole of optimization.
How could this be? Wasn’t life optimization the holy grail? Wasn’t I the guy telling you to optimize every aspect of your life? And, more importantly, does this mean everything I’ve written is a lie?
I promise I’ll answer all these questions. But first, let’s see what happened and what we can all learn from my little trip down Bugs Bunny’s underground mansion.
The Trap of Optimization
There’s an old Buddhist tale that shows you just how old this kind of trap is. It goes like this:
A man is wounded by an arrow smeared with poison. His friends & companions want to bring him to a surgeon. If he gets there in time he may survive. But the man says:
‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated…’
Instead of dealing with the problem at hand, he persisted in gathering information about every detail of the problem. You don’t have to be an enlightened monk to guess what fate that man had.
During the past months I was in a similar situation. Luckily, arrows smeared with poison seem to be increasingly rare in my part of the world. Here are a few things I learned during this time:
- How to optimize a landing page
- How to pitch your articles to online publications
- How to get more traffic than you’ve ever dreamed of
So what do you, my dear reader, get out of all these carefully studied methods and tactics? Nothing. And this is the problem.
I often use searching, studying, and even skill building as an excuse for doing the actual work. And I bet so do you. It makes us feel good. We feel productive, even though we’re anything but. We also avoid the guilt we usually feel when procrastinating. Because technically this is not procrastination — it’s a lot worse.
Normal procrastination goes like this: I have a big task in front of me and I don’t feel like doing it. So I open Facebook or Twitter — this will only take a minute. After 30 minutes I check Instagram. Then I make myself a coffee, so I can be energized for the task ahead. And after 2 hours of twiddling, I realize I have to leave. I’ll get to that task tomorrow.
Optimized procrastination goes like this: I have a big task in front of me and I don’t feel like doing it. But I know I have to do it. And I will. Just let me just do some research, so I can do a better job at it. I wanna make sure I use the best method, the latest materials, and the most effective strategies out there. This way, when I’ll finally start, I will be killing it.
You can figure out the rest. Let’s just say it’s been 3 months since I’ve published my last article.
But this post isn’t a confession. Yes, I make mistakes. This is why you shouldn’t confuse me with one of the countless online gurus. They have all the answers. They bathed in the fountain of truth, downed the cup of wisdom, and are now ready to spread the gospel to everyone listening. I’m not. I’m just a guy learning more about life as I go along. I try to learn from my mistakes. And I hope you can learn from them too. So let’s see what we can both learn from this awkward period in my life.
1. Focus on the important thing
We both know how easy it is to get distracted. There are billion-dollar companies out there, employing some of the best psychologists and behavioral scientists in the world, just to make sure you’re not focussed. Just one more click. One more episode. One last swipe. After that I promise I’ll get back to work — said every person getting sucked into a rabbit hole. Before you know it, half a day has passed and you haven’t worked on anything.
The solution? Pick one action. Yes, I know this is radical. And the procrastination villain in your head will fight this with all his powers. Don’t give in. Choose the one action that will get you closer to the end goal — and stick with it. For me this is writing. Not redesigning the homepage, not optimizing load speed, and definitely not searching for sponsors. Just sit down and write.
2. Focus on doing better, not more
We’re drowning in an ocean of resources. With a few clicks you can find enough information to fill a dozen books about anything, from building rockets to cooking healthy, home-made, paleo treats for your cat. But guess what? If you can find that, so can everyone else.
We live in a time where it’s impossible to distinguish yourself through quantity. There will always be someone who has more — more time, more resources, more patience. Quality is different. It’s hard to come by, hard to produce, and even harder to find. So here’s my advice for you: stop trying to do more, and start doing better. Do fewer tasks, but do them as best as you can. The results will follow automatically.
3. Find your own way
When I started blogging, I had no idea how to do it the right way. I still don’t. The only difference is that I stopped obsessing over it.
How do I make more time? How do I get people to like me? How can I live a meaningful life? People have been trying to find the right answer to such questions for thousands of years. And guess what? There is no right answer.
This isn’t what you wanted to hear. I know. But here’s the beauty of it: this just means you can invent the right answer.
Go out and experiment. If you need inspiration, look at what others are doing. Talk to old people. Or, my favorite way to answer such questions, read texts that have stood the test of time.
But don’t stop at that. Take the ideas you find and make them your own. If they work, great. If not, change them and try again. Remember: there is no universal solution, but there is one that’s right for you. You just have to find it.
To Optimize or Not to Optimize
This is a false question. Of course you should optimize whenever you can. It saves time, effort, and makes you look cool. The real question is what should you optimize?
I can’t answer that. If you want universal answers go and see a guru, maybe buy one of his books and join a few seminars. I can only tell you this: never try to optimize everything.
So the next time you feel like you’re being productive but don’t have anything to show for it, take a step back. Read the tips I outlined above. And if that doesn’t help, call a friend. One that’s willing to kick you in the butt just to move you one step forward. Because that’s what friends do.
PS: happy birthday Andrei. And thank you.