Confessions of an Over-Optimizer

Years ago I started with one thing that I thought might improve my day. At first, it was running. I was 31 years old and I’d just put down a 15-year smoking habit which was making me feel crazy. So I joined some friends on a trail run early one Saturday morning and I was hooked! In no time, I became a daily runner. It was the first new positive habit I’d created in a very long time and I got so much out of it that I figured I should add some more good habits to my life! If one feels good, then ten is gonna feel great!

So, I started adding on all these other habits, and now 15 years later, and I have no idea what works and what doesn’t. I know I have a lot of boxes to check each day. And sometimes that feels more exhausting than nourishing.

You can Google “optimal daily routine” and come up with somewhere around 62 million results. 62 million people feel so strongly about the shit they do every day that they wrote it down and shared with the world in the hopes that it will make everyone else's day better.

Let’s make it 62 million and one! Here’s what a day of optimization looks like for a guy like me. Maybe you can relate. Maybe not.

Wake Up at 6:00
Handmade coffee. Americano…no dairy (natch)
Prayer and spiritual reading
Morning Pages (write 3-pages of stream-of-consciousness)
Creative writing
20 Minute Mindfulness Meditation
Workout (1hr of gym time or climbing)
Protein recovery smoothie with a magical mushroom elixir guaranteed to restore me to my youth
Normal shower, followed by a cold shower
Oatmeal with chia (magic), coconut oil (magic), coconut flakes, walnuts, and honey (old magic)
Onnit Total Human Daytime Support Vitamins and Supplements (magic AF)

Then I finally go to work.

Once I’m at work I employ several optimized methods of working such as: 
Not scheduling client calls before noon to take advantage of the high serotonin levels in my brain that have been restored from last night’s sleep. Only checking email 3–4X/day to ensure that I’m leading my day with intention and not just responding to requests from others. Hydrate so hard. Eat a lunch that is GF (duh), contains several superfoods, and the only protein source is fish. Whether I’m at a standing desk or sitting down, I try to move around every 90 minutes or so to make sure I’m not dying from “sitting is the new smoking.”

After work, I’ll try to take my dog Josie out for a 1-hour walk in the woods. This is my time for quiet reflection and forest bathing (popular in Japan). Then I’ll come home, try and eat a “clean” pescatarian or vegetarian meal that is GF. Likely more superfoods. I might have some turmeric ginger tea before I go to bed (for its anti-inflammatory qualities). When 9:30 rolls around, I get into bed after brushing and flossing, taking my Onnit Total Human Nighttime Support pack, a probiotic, and possibly some Chinese herbs depending on the prescribed regimen from my acupuncturist/Chinese medicine doctor. Then I sleep for 8+ hours after doing some “fun” reading. Note: My sleep hygiene needs serious work as there is ambient light in our bedroom, our 50lb dog sleeps in the bed, and I use my phone as an alarm to wake up. All significant fouls in the world of health and optimization. It’s basically a crisis.

So where is all this optimization getting me? Honestly, I’m not sure anymore. Maybe a better question is: what’s my motivation for following all these rules and adhering to such a rigid structure? What would happen to me if I just woke up and did exactly what I felt like doing when the mood hit me?

Celebrities like Tony Robbins, Tim Ferris, and Aubrey Marcus espouse “routines” and “habits” as keys to success and happiness. And maybe they’re right. But what happens when a guy like me gets hung up in the routines and isn’t even sure if I’m reaping the benefits? Classic case of output versus outcome!

This also begs the question of why there are SO many people writing about and preaching the gospel of better living through life hacking? Aubrey Marcus has a podcast about it, wrote a book about it, and owns a company that sells supplements to help you achieve your best. Tim Ferriss has become a celebrity by experimenting with hundreds of methods to achieve optimization! Joe Rogan has one of the highest ranked podcasts on iTunes and he constantly comments on how to quit doing dumb shit and live a good, full life, complete with tips and tricks for the beginner! And let’s not forget Jocko out there crushing 3:30 am workouts before the Rock is even out of bed. It’s fucking everywhere!

Here’s my hypothesis: culturally and societally, the world is becoming increasingly more fragmented and disconnected due to overuse of digital tools and entertainment.

I know this neither a popular or unique sentiment, but it’s mine.
For the past five years, I’ve been traveling (both alone and with others) to a little village in Switzerland to hike and climb in the Alps. My wife introduced me to the place back in 2013 and every year I feel drawn to return even though there are so many new places to see in the world.

I’ve fallen in love with the area. Every morning when I wake up there I can’t wait to get out into the mountains and spend the day romping through passes, meadows, and streams looking at cows with large bells around their necks. For me, the place is magic (And no, I’m not telling you where it is).

photo: the author

The 2nd year I went I was surprised to notice that I was experiencing an utter lack of anxiety, resentment towards others, and a lack of judgment towards everything and everyone… emotions and thoughts which I live with on an almost daily basis at home. I discovered I was genuinely happy without all the STUFF I think will make me happy. All I carried each day was a small backpack with a water bottle, some snacks, and maybe a puffy for higher elevation. What I didn’t pack was my phone. I’d turn off email before I left the U.S. I disconnected iMessage and only use the phone for photos or calls when I initiated them. I was no longer responding to a device; the device responded to me.

When working, I spend much of my time trying to be intentional about HOW I work. HOW I communicate, and HOW I spend my time. This can be tricky in a world where the perceived cultural norm is to immediately respond to emails and text messages that come at us 24/7. I have spent the past 8 years trying to create habits like disabling notifications on my phone, checking email only at certain times, and scheduling meeting times with people instead of just interrupting their workflow. I try all of these as a means of staying proactive and not falling into the trap of reactivity. And I fail these intentions several times each day. As an entrepreneur, I often have that little voice in the back of my mind that tells me that if I don’t respond quickly, someone else will! So, I often break my own good habits out of fear.

When I look over everything I’m trying to optimize, I think about my
parents and grandparents, living in a pre-smartphone world. I’m pretty sure they didn’t employ all these methods to gain superhuman status or elevate their consciousness, and yet most of them seemed content, even happy with simpler lives.

But now, there's this need to up our game. To “feel better” than we do naturally or normally. We are looking for something to combat the new ailments we have like disconnection, anxiety, lack of attention, and poor physical health as a result of living lives where there is more interaction with our phones than with each other.

Now, I can’t blame all my problems and dissatisfaction in life on a device. The phone is just a symptom of a larger problem. It’s the easy target to cast stones at. I pack all of these routines into my day in hopes of becoming someone more comfortable, confident, and happy. And in my case, trying and make it look effortless. But if I bring my Swiss experience to bear on this issue, then maybe I don’t need to do so much addition as I do subtraction. Instead of adding more elements to my day, maybe I’ll just let go of the elements that cause suffering in the first place. It goes against my “more is better” philosophy, but frankly, that philosophy hasn’t served me well for quite some time.