Optimise from the top down

A phrase I constantly hear myself repeating is ‘optimise from the top down’. I first came across it when listening to a podcast with the excellent Noah Kagan.

Being loved. Feeling safe. And wifi.

You may have seen the image below, doing the rounds online. It’s a play on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

As with most things we find funny, there is a worrying element of truth.

A few years back, I was looking for a way to optimise my output at work. I’m not a workaholic. Life outside of work is way too appealing. So I’m always looking for ways to get great work done in less time. I started making notes of the things that slowed me down:

  • Not having a clear plan for the day
  • Wasting way too much time on email (and Facebook, and Instagram, and everything else)
  • And the incredibly frustrating, almost daily, unbelievably annoying, issues with my wifi.

I took action. I bought a new wifi router (similar to this one).

It wasn’t cheap (around £80 at the time). But in about 3 years I could count on one hand how many times my wifi has cut out. That’s resulted in hundreds of hours saved, and reduced my office-based swearing by 300%+.

Start at the top.

The idea is simple. The things at the top will provide the biggest returns. So you start at the top, optimise, and work your way down. The idea can be applied to anything, including life.

Life, optimised.

I’m constantly reviewing this, but in general I see life optimised in the following order:

  1. Health (gym, walking the dog, eating well, sleep)
  2. Family and friends (making time, spending time, nurturing relationships)
  3. Home (keeping a roof over my head, keeping it warm, making it a nice place to be)
  4. Car (opportunity to work, ticket to so many things to do)
  5. Work (reward, sense of worth, financial stability, plus voluntary work).

You can come up with your own, but for me this is about right. It helps me put things in perspective. When work is really busy, I still walk the dog (because my health is super important to me, and I know it). When the house is a mess, I don’t feel bad about meeting up with friends for lunch (because those relationships matter more to me than keeping the house looking/feeling nice).

Start at the bottom, and cross things off.

Another way to view this list is to start at the bottom and cross items off. For me, I would still survive without work, or without my car. But if someone took away my friends or family (what kind of monster would do such a thing!!) I would crumble.

Clearly things aren’t clear cut. Mental health is hugely important, and I would argue that friends/family are essential to positive mental health. Home might be more important than work, but for most of us there is no home without work.

This is less about clearly defining what goes in each box, and more about a way of prioritising what matters to you, and ensuring you make the time to do things in that order (and not to feel guilty about doing so).

Spend your money on a good bed and good shoes, becuase if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.

Thinking back to specific applications of this idea, when I moved into a new (unfurnished) house a few years back, I was cautious of where my limited budget should be spent. The top-down method helped me realise that buying the best bed I could afford would give me the best return on investment.

And it has. Despite lots of ongoing back problems, my bed has been the single best investment I made at my home. And although I had to make savings in other areas, I’m still confident that I made the right decision by optimising from the top down.