The word optimize gets thrown around all the time these days. We’re supposed to optimize our schedules, optimize our routines, and optimize our lives. This is generally taken to mean doing more and doing faster. But the actual definition of the word is significantly different. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, optimize means “to make as perfect, effective, or functional as possible.” Optimize is derived from the Latin optimus, which simply means “best.”
To optimize anything is to make it its best. For many people (and organizations) that doesn’t mean doing more or doing faster. It means doing less and doing slower.
Consider a few examples: The number one cause of impending burnout I see in my coaching practice is high-performing individuals trying too hard to optimize too much. People looking to optimize their health with data-driven devices often end up frustrated at best, and less healthy at worst. The Iowa caucuses earlier this week were supposed to be optimized with a new digital voting app. Look where that got us. Theranos, the horrendously fraudulent and failed biotech company, promised to optimize blood testing.
Far too often and in far too many domains efforts to optimize lead to frenzied and frenetic energy, chaos, and getting worse not better.
The point of optimization isn’t to do stuff just for the sake of doing stuff. The point is to make something its best. This doesn’t always mean adding or making something more complex. In today’s day and age, it often means subtracting and simplifying.
For lots of people, the perfectly optimized day probably has time built in for reading, mind-wandering, walking, intimate conversation, a few blocks of deep-focus work, enjoying meals, and eight hours of sleep. When you optimize for real you move deliberately instead of rushing. You are in control of your day instead of being controlled by your day. And you own your energy and attention, the two most precious resources you have.
So here’s to reclaiming optimize, in the word’s truest sense. It doesn’t always mean less. And it certainly doesn’t always mean more. What it means is best. The best lived experience and, in a performance sense, the best product or result, inputs and outputs almost always go together anyways.