The Case for an Un-Optimized Life and an Optimal You


If you have a newsfeed anything like mine, you may come across articles and blogs about optimizing every microsecond of your second of your time. It could be in the form of getting back 20 hours from a morning routine or learning how to read 1000 books in a year, or juggling 5 balls while putting on your clothes and balancing three plates on your pinkie toe.

This isn’t to take away from people who do want to optimize their time. I have plenty of friends who I’m in awe of how efficiently they’re able to use every moment.

And what’s wrong with trying to get the most out of our time? It is finite after all. We could be gone tomorrow for all we know.

As I look at myself at the ripe old age of 21, I realize that almost 1/4 of my life has passed. That’s a scary thought! Mostly cause it took me 1/4 of my life to figure out how to get out of bed in one piece haha. And I’m still not sure how to walk without tripping on myself.

So with 3/4 of my life to go, shouldn’t I want to optimize the time I have left?

What is Optimization?

“The action of making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource.”

Easy enough definition right? Just make the most of a situation. But what if in constantly trying to optimize, you lose sight of why you did it in the first place? You’re optimizing just for the sake of optimizing without an end goal in sight. Or if you haven’t built in the habits to optimize, you start feeling guilty for not optimizing every microsecond of your life like all the self-help blogs tell you to!

The Guilt of Not Optimizing

For the last 3 months, I’ve had a 40–60 minute subway commute to work. That’s two hours of time I spend in a metal box, 5 times a week. The first week, I was more focused on making sure I wasn’t stepping on the wrong subway. But after a couple weeks, I started feeling guilty.

I thought I was wasting these two hours of my day in the subway and not doing anything the general public could describe as “productive” (although, I do argue my train naps were very productive in the morning). Clearly, I wasn’t optimizing my time.

So I thought, podcasts were a decent way to spend the time. Seems like everyone was doing it. I could potentially learn something. Why not!

And then I didn’t hear my subway conductor announce my train was turning express from local, and I spent an extra 40 minutes in the subway trying to go back down 40 streets.

I stopped that habit for a bit and actually started wondering,

Why did I feel pushed to optimize my time? And why did I feel bad if I wasn’t?

1. I compared myself

We’re prone to compare ourselves to those around us. I could hear the faint echoes of audiobooks playing in the subway. The bright dim of a Kindle next to me. Seeing people make (what I thought was) a better use of their time than I was made me wonder if I should be copying them. Whether I should be cramming in full books into my subway. Or listening to three podcasts a ride. Or whatever the next best thing to do in a subway is in order to “make better use of your time and take over the world.”

But I think it’s safe to say playing the compare game is always going to end up bad.

We compare our worst selves to everyone else’s best selves, and that’s not a fair comparison.

While I know this, I still struggle to practice it. But I find being aware of it is a great first step. Little victories right?

2. I thought it was what I was “supposed” to do

Every other article that would pop-up on my newsfeed had something to do with productivity, what the best morning routines are, how to make better use of our limited time, or how Bill Gates reads a bajillion books in a year. I thought that I had to fulfill all the advice given in these articles because it’s what I was supposed to do in order to put myself in the best position to achieve my goals. Thus, my natural instinct was to emulate the morning routine of Elon Musk. That didn’t work out.

We read about all these routines, productivity and time hacks. And sure, some do work. But do we ever ask why should we follow Elon’s routine combined with Mark Zuckerburg’s? We’re different people so naturally, it makes sense their routine wouldn’t work for me. Yet, every time I read an article, nobody asks why. It’s just assumed that we should be following the advice.

3. And if I wasn’t, I was failing

While I know this isn’t true, it’s hard to beat the feeling that if I’m not doing what’s typical of the “overly efficient, productive, time hacking, space traveling entrepreneur”, then I could never succeed. Because the girl who “wastes” two hours on the subway clearly doesn’t know how to be more productive with her time.

I’ve now come to realize that productivity isn’t trying to do as much as you can in a day. That just seems so aimless.

I believe it’s about doing everything you want to do in a day.

And even if I can’t do everything I wanted to, that’s not a failure and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not cut out to pursue my own career path. I’m just appreciating my humanness to get caught up in a Netflix binge.

Why Don’t We Optimal-ize?

Optimal is defined as:

“Best or most favorable.”

We’re not robots. Well, I technically have an artificial lens implanted in one of my eyes but that’s another story. Instead of constantly trying to optimize my time or situation, I’ve started asking a bigger question of myself:

How can I be an optimal me? How can I get to the “best or most favorable” version of myself?

The best version of myself is happy. Is doing work she enjoys. Is giving time and attention to those she loves. She understands WHY she’s doing everything in her day. And she enjoys the occasional Netflix binge with Ben & Jerry’s.

This means decompressing in the subway as a form of daily meditation and not listening to a podcast. It means trying out the 2-hour yoga class instead of the 7-minute workout. It means taking out 1 hour a day to call an old friend. And not doing as much work as possible in a day.

Instead, I do as much work as I want to do. And I know that this work is directed towards the goals I set for myself, not the goals someone else set for me.

My optimal self is DIFFERENT from your optimal self. Maybe you do prefer reading 100 books in a year (more power to you!), or spending time working because that is your form of relaxation or makes you happiest. You have to figure that out for yourself.

How to Optimal-ize

It starts with self-reflection (scary I know. But trust me, so worth it). Some good first questions to ask yourself are:

  1. What does the best version of myself look like?
  2. What’s important to them? What do they value?
  3. What sort of activities do they enjoy?
  4. How are they spending their time?
  5. What sort of goals or trajectory are they working towards?
  6. What are their limitations? (eg. need 8 hours of sleep, can’t work 16 hours straight, easily distracted. Be real with yourself. I for one, can only work for 4 good hours.)
  7. Do you even like this optimal self? If not, why not?

Then look at your current self. Be honest. How close are you towards your optimal self? Close? Far? Doesn’t matter.

What matters is now you know what way you’re going. You have a direction.

You can look at all those optimization articles now and see if it actually makes sense to you to do in order to get to your optimal self.

You know WHY you’re doing the activities you’re doing.

And your why is the most powerful optimization tool you’ll ever have.