Self Optimization and The Miracle Myth

The second most-read article on Medium right now is entitled, “How to Wake Up at 5am and Build Your Startup.” The delightfully-alliteratively-named author Patrick Park promises to help you become a rich entrepreneur by simply making your day longer.

The recommendation is this: Boobie trap your room to force you out of bed at 5am and automatically start pouring scalding coffee into your protesting mouth. As the coffee shocks your once-recuperating neurons from their torpor into a whirlwind of frantic and uncoordinated action, venture deep into the Dark Playground until you until you are conscious enough to settle down to work. Now you are ready to piece together a “lean” startup in an hour before work. And…profit!

Great, right?

As a committed life optimizer, I spend way too much time trying different methods to make myself happier, more productive, and less distracted. As a result, I come across these types of recommendations that promise to boost productivity often in my reading, and they often have the highest viewership and most user engagement.

And, I think, they are generally steering people in the wrong direction.

Too much of the self improvement literature ignores the full cost of a given change to your lifestyle, and this is a key reason why many self improvement efforts fail. Instead, to boost happiness, productivity, and presence, we could instead focus on the tried and true scientific method: understand the forces at play, and increase the efficiency of our existing actions.

Indirect costs and the Myth of the Free Lunch

We all have heard the old adage that “there is no such thing as a free lunch!” In other words: everything has a cost.

Sometimes these costs are direct. You might pay $9.99 for the Taylor Swift album that she smartly withholds from Spotify. In this case, you are directly exchanging your time (if you make $20 an hour after tax, you are donating 30 minutes of your work day to Taylor) in exchange for the production of Taylor’s time.

In other cases, the impact is indirect. Indirect effects are things that happen as a result of a decision that are not necessarily included in the direct exchange. For example, as a red blooded American male, I love cheeseburgers. The decision to eat a cheeseburger is a simple on its direct merits. As a category, it is cheap, accessible, and uniformly delicious.

Yet the indirect aspects of this decision complicate matters: I cannot eat more calories than my body burns, and then be surprised when I gain weight. The real cost of this transaction (putting aside the further indirect effects of contributing to food deserts and other externalities) is the indirect burden of carrying around those additional calories until they can be worked off.

(I switched metaphors, by the way, because the indirect effects of listening to Taylor Swift are all awesome).

Admittedly, this is not a complicated framework. But I highlight this difference for a reason: I think we tend to grossly underestimate these indirect costs.

Indirect costs are tricky. They often require math. They often require us to know a lot of different variables about how things interact. They go many levels away, to the impact on other people, and the broader society, and the very notions of capitalism and free markets and existence. They are usually, in a word, unfun.

This brings me back to Patrick Park. Patrick proposes a direct trade: wake up earlier and be more awesome. But Patrick and his many advice-giving brethren are partying away, leaving the Unfun Costs watching sheepishly from the corner. And people are joining the party, convinced by the wisdom of the crowd that the suggestion is working for them.

But the Unfun costs hate the party, and want it to stop.

Stop sleeping to work on your startup as Patrick suggests? Start having “trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change,” while increasing “depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.” (NIH.gov) You will be an awesome leader, employee at your current job, and friend while you are re-enacting Lucy on the assembly line.

On top of that, maybe mix in some weight gain from the gym sessions that you are now skipping to crash in bed every night. Or worse, perhaps a loss of confidence when you are taken down by someone you respect after an ill-conceived 5am “make your work public” endeavor.

These reasons do not necessarily prohibit one from adopting Patrick’s advice and building your next startup. But they prohibit me, and nowhere in the article does Patrick directly address these lurking costs. Instead: “Don’t let your current ‘reality’; drag you in the wrong direction. Face the odds, try to live the life you were meant to live.”

No free lunch, but More Bang for my Buck!

Admittedly, waking up at 5am is a pretty obvious example. Telling someone not to sleep any more has some pretty obvious and terrible ramifications. And I also recognize that there will be plenty of people for whom taking this advice and paying these direct and indirect costs is the only way that they will be able to move their career in a new and more exciting direction.

But I use it to illustrate a broader problem with a lot of the self-help stuff that I read. Whether recommending less sleep or buttered-coffee or abstaining from alcohol, self-help does not deal properly with the total costs of an action. And any “self-improving” action that is offset (or overwhelmed in this case) by its costs is not self improving at all.

The best way that I have found to find true improvement to daily happiness, productivity, and presence is to:

  1. understand the underlying principles at play
  2. increase the efficiency of our current actions

The most important step is not to accept random “patches” over problems in your life, but instead look first to the underlying fundamental reasons that would lead to the desired result. Tim Urban @Wait But Why has a really good post about this type of First Principles thinking. In essence, don’t accept “don’t eat carbs” — do some research to understand how nutrition works, and how carbs impact the body, and use that information to develop a testable hypothesis. Test the hypothesis and refine until it works. Its the scientific method, but starting at a much more basic level than we are used to.

A quicker win can come from increased efficiency. Efficiency is the conversion of our effort into the desired result. The goal is to get more benefit for (ideally) the same or less expense. Efficiency comes from understanding the underlying forces that are impacting an outcome, and then conforming behavior to work with those forces, rather than against them. We can easily understand what works and what does not work by using the scientific method: testing with control variables and measuring the outcomes.

Want better sleep? The forces that determine my sleep quality are essentially my room’s environment (primarily its light, noise, humidity, and temperature) and my perception of that environment. You improve sleep not by sleeping more, but by sleeping the same amount better. Over the past few months, I learned how to get 25% more deep sleep per night (as measured by my activity tracker, with no change in total hours) by changing my Nest night-time temperature, wearing a sleep mask and earplugs, ordering a new foam mattress from Leesa with less motion transfer, and occasionally and controversially adopting a separate-covers arrangement with my fiance. For the same amount of time I spend in bed, I am getting (when I follow all of these practices) 25% more bang for my buck.

Want to be healthier? The force at play here is how rapidly the body spends calories; whether one wants to lose, maintain, or gain weight; and the body’s need for a diverse set of macro and micro nutrients. You improve health not by putting butter in your coffee, but rather by conforming your diet to work with these forces. Eat a more macro-nutrient-balanced diet with a total calorie count that is below, at, or above your calorie expenditure on a given day depending on whether you are trying to lose, maintain, or gain weight (respectively).

And finally: Want to create a successful startup? If I had this answer I would be in a different line of work, but an argument could go something like this: The forces at play are the changes in business conditions and the pace of technological change for both the overall economy and your intended industry, as well as your own ability to capitalize on an opportunity. So you have a few things you can do to understand these forces more:

  1. Deeply understand the overall trends of technological adoption and position yourself in the center of the movement of multiple industries in a new directon (e.g. marijuana, virtual reality)
  2. Deeply understand a particular industry and the impact of oncoming changes in technology and develop a business model that takes advantage of these changes and increases access to a product (e.g. sell to what Clay Christenson at HBS would call nonconsumption)
  3. Develop your own knowledge and skills through practice and learning to the point where you can create products big and small, and hope that one of them fills a customer need

We are all life optimizers

With this framework, I hope that you take away a little bit more optimism about the prospect of self improvement. “Self-help” gets a bad rap in our society, the result of millions of unrewarded attempts since the dawning of printed material. The seemingly random avalanche of advice leaves no room to really know what works and what does not.

But we already do self improvement every day. The scientific method is baked into each of our brains every time we decide to prefer one action over another.

But if you have a specific goal in mind, or want to super-charge your improvement: Do some research on the forces that are at play, and then figure out what you can do to make your behavior work with those forces, rather than against them. Then measure what happens. Simple.

Now please excuse me while I push back my alarm clock tomorrow.


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