In Issue No. 21 of The Proof, a wellness platform focused on actionable habits, Tonal Co-Founder Nate Bosshard opens with an amusing anecdote about his morning routine, neatly encapsulating the hyper-optimization mantra of Silicon Valley gurus. Wake up at 4 am, Jocko Willink style. Grind up some matcha sourced from artisanal farmers in Japan. Then hit a 2-hour workout, sauna, and cold plunge circuit.
Nate quickly ends this thought, “Just kidding. I have three kids.” He takes this point further, arguing, “It’s completely unrealistic for most people to achieve that level of consistency.” I agree. It’s simply not feasible to turn every minute of your day into a routine optimized for maximum performance and upgraded lifestyle design. That being said, there’s also no right or wrong path — it’s about individual fit.
Despite his lighthearted tone, Nate touches on something important that pushed me to think deeper about the negative externalities associated with this productivity and optimization craze. This report seeks to answer a simple question: What are the costs associated with endless optimization?
More importantly, how can we develop actionable solutions without creating a parallel optimization treadmill filled with digital minimalism, Zen philosophy, and Marie Kondo lifestyle design?
Fueled by the tempting riches of Silicon Valley and promoted by influential figures like Gary Vaynerchuk, hustle porn has reached a peak. Hustle porn, for lack of a better term, broadly refers to the trend of hyper-optimization. This paradigm consists of a relentless focus on improving one’s underlying operating system paired with a seemingly endless cycle of productivity hacks.
Though a number of media outlets have covered the negative ramifications of this trend, the majority of their proposed solutions fuel a parallel treadmill of self-improvement hacks. For example, the New York Times recently published The Case for Doing Nothing, in which the author argues for the benefits of idleness. Citing psychologist Sandi Mann, the author writes that doing nothing “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, [and] better at coming up with creative ideas.”
While the author’s points are empirically valid, the piece quickly devolves into useless directives like “reorganize your environment” and “think outside the box.” More importantly, it leans into the parallel optimization treadmill popularized by Marie Kondo.
Both cycles are equally appealing to the type A, overachiever personality commonly put on a pedestal in startup-land. However, the lack of closed loops inherent to endless treadmills puts your brain on overdrive. This state of overdrive leads to stress, anxiety, and multiple forms of burnout — often manifesting as health issues, sleep difficulty, and social isolation.
The unsettling conclusion here is that these optimization treadmills work.
Really damn well.
This concept is similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s original Facebook mantra: “Move fast and break things.” At first, this motto worked wonders. At a certain point, however, it created more problems than solutions. As we now know, Zuckerberg has just begun to experience the negative consequences stemming from this original principle.
Move fast by optimizing your lifestyle and daily habits. Yeah, you move fast. It works. But at what cost? It’s critical that we proactively examine the treadmills we’ve jumped onto while considering the associated costs that have yet to be called into question.
Another interesting parallel develops here. As the most recent wave of direct-to-consumer brands has raised war chests of venture capital, they similarly have found themselves stuck on an inevitable treadmill of customer acquisition to hit pre-defined growth metrics. On a quarter by quarter basis, DTC brands can point to their early acquisition metrics and conversion rates, and say — hey, it’s working! But it’s important to remember, it’s a treadmill.
Inherent in that definition is that it never ends.
In a similar fashion, emerging DTC brands are beginning to proactively (or retroactively, in some cases) think through the consequences of raising too much venture financing too early in the game.
If there is an argument here, it’s one for awareness. An argument to be aware of the individual actions you’re taking on a daily basis. If you do a cost-benefit analysis and decide, hey, these habits and optimization tools are too helpful to stop, that’s perfectly fine. To be frank, I’m on that train as well. That being said, awareness about how fast you’re moving, what you’re giving up, and what inadvertent stress might be accumulating should be taken into account.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.” Kahneman argues that experts in any given field have superior intuition through decades of experience. At the risk of oversimplification: in order to excel, one must improve intuition, and in turn, recognition. Critically, world-class recognition requires heightened awareness and sustained attention.
Pay attention when you’re over scheduling, over tracking, over monitoring. Be aware when you’re “busy” just for the sake of it. Notice when you’re leaning into motion over action, to borrow from James Clear. Increased awareness allows you to harness this “busy” time to expand the surface area of your interests, desires, and relationships outside of the optimization treadmill. More importantly, heightened awareness creates time in which the serendipity you’ve engineered can naturally occur. It’s where creativity can flow unencumbered by routine.
To avoid leaning into another habitual treadmill, I’m not advocating for a specific path, directive, or anti-cyclical hack. Rather, I’m advocating for awareness. The fruits of that awareness you can then employ at your own discretion. Doing nothing has its benefits, specifically in the creativity department — an incredibly useful tool for building startups. However, I don’t believe that scheduling the act of doing nothing is helpful by any means.
Rather, being aware of the upsides of doing so, and the downsides of hyper-optimization, can be extremely advantageous.
In 2017, Booker Prize-winner George Saunders wrote an op-ed in the New York Times covering the release of his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Getting at the root of his book, he writes “We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that?”
Saunders refers to this question as a terrible conundrum, a dilemma that I’m similarly facing. The uncomfortable reality is that my experience with optimization treadmills has proved incredibly beneficial for my career. At the same time, it’s led to periods of burnout and forced me to sacrifice a lot — late nights, vacation, and time with friends — just to name a few. While I’m wary of entering deep philosophical theory through Saunders’ writing, he beautifully articulates the difficulty in navigating this treadmill.
The treadmill works, but it never stops. What do we do with that? I’m not sure what the answer is, but awareness is a good first step.