Personal life is a playground for solving optimization problems

I sometimes consider myself a "systems guy," which means I see practically everything as a working system. It is only natural that you are slightly obsessed with efficiency and optimization if you are anything like me. Since most things can be framed as systems, there are optimization problems everywhere, whether in our personal lives, interpersonal relationships, work, science, or engineering. Optimization can mean taking something and making it faster, easier, or more energy efficient. It is uncommon to discuss optimization in terms of our daily lives; instead, it is typically reserved for contexts involving large-scale operations, supply chains, technology, or business procedures. Although developing an optimization mindset for our personal lives may not be immediately apparent, it is a great place to practice efficiency. Before I go into the rant about developing an optimization mindset, I’ll try to convince you why this matters. 

In the fall of 2022, I was assigned as the teaching assistant (TA) for a Physical chemistry lab. This meant I had to teach and coordinate a lab session for a full semester. There were three rooms in the lab. I taught one lab while two other TAs taught the rest. During my training to teach this lab, I was told that it has historically taken the longest to complete, so the other TAs and their students completed their sessions earlier. Of course, I was worried about the hand I’d been dealt. Although I dislike being assigned the "worst" task, I was not given much of an option.  The first lab session I taught was unoptimized and messy. It took 3+ hours to complete, and I made avoidable and unavoidable mistakes that day. It’s safe to say that the batch of students in the first class experienced a poorly designed session. However,  I took all the lessons I learned that day as new data to help optimize my lab session. During the lab session, I identified bottlenecks and opportunities for task parallelization, which gave me an idea of how to fine-tune the session. My goal was to reduce the stress on each student and the total time spent in the lab. As the semester progressed, I finished my lab sessions in 2 hours or less. In addition, the stress levels of each student were reduced since I identified the perfect way to distribute tasks and handle the main bottleneck of the session. I always feel a sense of pride when I remember what I did with the lab session. This optimization mindset is the same approach I bring to my personal life. I meal-prep a large amount every week, so I try to optimize the process for time and energy spent. This is the same thing I do for my breakfast routine. You may think this is overkill, but I have found that many tasks become easier and more enjoyable when they are optimized. When things aren't optimized, they feel like a chore, which is why people find it difficult to stay consistent.

The actionable recommendations below can aid in cultivating an optimization mindset:

Observe and understand

It is almost impossible to optimize a process you don’t understand. Performing a process from start to finish helps me fully understand it. Take note of the inefficient parts of the process. Identify waiting and slack periods in your process and ask the important questions: Are there tasks that can be done in parallel? Are there tasks that should be removed from the process? What is the bottleneck in the process? What takes the most time? What takes the least time? You should seek to answer these questions as you begin to understand your process. All that information will be useful within the context of optimization. 

Planning / Lookahead

The next step is to use the information gathered during the observation phase to plan. Planning is also called “look ahead” in CS lingo. It involves thinking about your process in its current state and trying to develop a next action strategy with the information you’ve gained. Depending on the inputs and outputs, a strategy might simply be a well-thought-out plan for reworking your process.

Explore before exploiting

During the planning stage, you probably thought about different ways to execute. Try out the different execution methods you have planned. If one arrangement seems better, begin to exploit it. The purpose of this phase is to try several ways of performing your process before you decide on one, depending on your objective. You’re either trying to save time, energy, or resources. A process optimized for time might differ from a process optimized for energy efficiency. As you try different methods, it’s always important to take notes of the changes as you go on. This ensures that you can accurately evaluate which method of performing your process is better. 

Identify and reduce waiting periods.

I already touched on waiting in the “Observe and Understand” section, but I wanted to expand on this. Waiting periods are one of the biggest causes of unoptimized processes in real life. You need to identify waiting periods and try to reduce or eliminate them. To achieve this, you can either identify operations that can be performed in parallel or reorder tasks in the process. It is okay to have slack periods in your process, but they should be minimized. It’s inefficient to have long waiting periods.

Tune and update

Processes and systems change every time. These changes are called "drifts.” Adding, removing, or changing something in your process can cause these drifts. Continued observation of a process is necessary to tune the process as these changes happen. 

While developing an optimization mindset can pay huge dividends, it's also important not to take it to an extreme. Obsessively optimizing every minor daily task runs the risk of becoming an energy and time drain itself. There is such a thing as "paralysis by analysis," where you spend more time tweaking and planning than actually doing. Additionally, removing all inefficiencies can make life feel overly regimented and sterile. A degree of spontaneity, imperfection, and slack is necessary for creativity, relaxation, and enjoying the journey. The goal should be to increase overall productivity while leaving room for flexibility, not transforming every waking moment into a tightly optimized process. Moderation and balance are key - optimize where it counts, but don't lose sight of other life priorities.

Beyond just saving time, an optimization approach makes life feel more effortless and joyful. Highly efficient routines become second nature, reducing friction and freeing up mental bandwidth. Chores transform from dreaded tasks into streamlined procedures. And by reducing waiting periods and leveraging parallelization, we regain precious momentum that would have been lost. While taking optimization too far carries risks, applying these principles creates an upward spiral of increased output with less expended energy. In our overworked, distracted era, that's an invaluable advantage. So start observing your processes today - a more optimized personal life awaits.

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