The Optimization–Cognitive Load Tradeoff

How perfectionism can lead to procrastination and lower performance

Lately, I’ve been exploring what the tradeoffs of optimization are. That is, when we try to optimize what we do in work and life, what are the effects? What actually gets worse when we try to make things better?

One that seems obvious is that more optimization leads to higher cognitive load. The more we want to do something well, the more mental effort we’ll have to put into doing that task. This doesn’t just amount to the additional work needed to do something well, but I hypothesize that optimizing also seems to involve a second track of thinking, running alongside the track of the action itself, that is dedicated to observing how we are doing that action and evaluating whether we are doing it well or not.

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The Listserve is an email listserve with about 25,000 subscribers, in which one person every day is selected to email the entire group. A few days ago, the random number generator smiled upon my user ID (or some such). I didn’t know what to write about, and I didn’t want to give some obvious life advice—so I asked for some, and told a story to add some value.

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A technique for starting new habits and maintaining motivation: Attack Doses

Riding motivation waves to build instinctual evidence

I’ve always had a nagging feeling (since writing Building Sustainable Habits: Why We Make Excuses and Resist Habit Change) that sometimes building habits using small steps isn’t always the right way to go. There are people who are able to start a new habit, ramp up fast, build a self-reinforcing loop of motivation, and continue to execute over and over—without the need for small steps. So, which one is the right way to build a new habit? Using small steps, or using the fast-track approach of getting motivated and going hard on the new habit?

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I’ve had an peculiar experience with minimalism. I’ve spent most of my (short) adult life living out of a suitcase or a backpack, always ready to pack, zip, lock to go to the next destination, whether that was a city or a stage in life. After doing long-term travel for nearly a year, I recently came back to New York, signed a lease, and started accumulating stuff. Stuff, like headphones, blenders, sofas, laundry hampers, flatware, and coffee tables.

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Time constraints can increase efficiency

When less time leads to better results

In design, constraints can actually be beneficial in the creative process. For instance, designing for a specific size or form factor, such as a small mobile phone, can make you think in ways that bring about new design concepts that would never have emerged without the constraint.

So too are constraints sometimes beneficial in other parts of life. Putting a time constraint (also known as a timebox) on a task can make you focus on that task more effectively. Conversely, having a lax timebox can result in Parkinson’s law, that is, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

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