Things are going well. Actually, they’re going GREAT. But….couldn’t they be going even better? You start looking around frantically for any opportunity you’re missing. There has to be something to improve!
It’s the optimization twitch. I’ve got it bad. And it’s becoming a problem.
The action of making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource
Who can argue against the best use of a resource?
I love optimization. I always have. There is something so satisfying about finding a way to make something just a little bit better.
It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about gaming – the opportunity to repeat something, learn a new approach, or hone a skill, to improve your performance. You score higher, get farther, or win more often.
I brought the same approach to sports and my school work. It made me a decent but unimpressive athlete who worked hard without exceptional skill. It made me a great student – natural gift combined with a willingness to do the hard work. An optimal combination.
In my professional life, my constant belief that something can always be better has served me well. Student results have improved in every classroom and school I’ve served. Partnerships have led to new resources and staff morale has climbed.
If I’m honest, it’s also something that’s appealed to me about personal finance. When I went from clueless to actually paying attention, I was hungry to learn everything.
It’s a key part of so many messages. The aggregation of marginal gains. Constant small improvements lead to large improvement over time. 1% better every day.
If knowing a little bit about credit card rewards is helpful…what about using a spreadsheet to track every opportunity, minimum spend, and relevant date! A group that talks about it every day? Join!
High interest online savings accounts are great – they pay so much more interest than a brick and mortar. Awesome – but which one will pay me the most?!?!
I’ve stopped eating lunch out. We meal prep and plan. But what is our real cost per meal per person? How can we push that even lower?!
Tweaks, hacks, bonuses. Must optimize everything!!!
My constant search for little financial optimizations has now surpassed mindlessly unlocking my phone as the most disturbing aspect of my life.
I just realized recently how bad it has gotten. We made a major life decision (I’ll be writing more about it soon) that means we’ll be spending a good chunk of money.
It’s going to impact our quality of life (for the better) and shorten our FI timeline. It will be a major change with exciting opportunities and implications for our future.
But that’s not what I woke up thinking in the middle of the night. Instead, my mind blinked fully on with “We’re going to be spending money. I need to figure out which rewards card to get next for a minimum spend!”
The optimization twitch.
Now, don’t get me wrong – thinking about the opportunity to get a credit card bonus is good. (And trust me – I won’t let it pass by unused.)
But, it certainly shouldn’t have been top of mind, and there is no world in which it should wake me in the middle of the night.
But it caused me to pay attention. And I realized my mind almost never stops searching for ways to optimize everything.
My pursuit of financial independence has made it worse. There are just so many opportunities to make things 1% better!
Stealing The Joy
We’ve made massive changes in our lives over the past five years.
We’ve unwound our lifestyle inflation. We now spend what we did fifteen years ago.
Downsized our home and cut our housing costs in half.
In 2019, we maxed all our retirement options (including 403b and 457b) for the first time ever.
Our net worth crossed the seven figure mark.
For the first time in my life, I think I’m overcoming my feelings of financial insecurity.
And you know what? I can’t just enjoy it. Instead, I’m constantly searching for the next thing to accelerate our progress.
The optimization twitch causes me to focus on improvement instead of experience joy at all we’ve accomplished.
Sure, things are good. But they aren’t optimal!
The Loss of Stillness
Sitting still has never been my natural state. I’ve written before about how I’m primed to move on and do the next thing. Patience is not a strength. My bias for action is real – and dangerous.
Yet, I used to be able to recover from my bursts of productivity with long periods of reading, slow bike rides, or mindless gaming. No longer.
We’re going to be financially independent. Very soon. Barring a black swan event, we’re within two years of our FI date.
Unfortunately, I believe we’ve made every major life adjustment we can. There are no more big swings left. Now’s the time to be patient and let the system work.
It should be a time of stillness and preparing for the victory.
There has got to be something else. We’ve got to make a move!!!
If everything is already working – a move may be unnecessary risk. I don’t need additional risk to achieve my goals, but the twitch sometimes tells me to seek it.
At the very least, I certainly should be able to relax and enjoy a bit more.
Instead, I feel like a moment of stillness is wasted opportunity. There is always something else I could be doing, making better, learning about. (And in all honesty, writing for this site doesn’t help.) Sometimes, the twitch even interrupts my sleep.
Fortunately, I recently read Why We Sleep so I may be able to convince the twitch that pursuit of sleep is optimal. Ha!
Focusing on the $3 Questions
A recent common refrain is “focus on the $30,000 questions, not the $3 questions.” Ramit Sethi is the one I see this most often attributed to, but I know others have expressed similar concepts.
The twitch causes you to look constantly for small optimizations. It can keep one focused on the small questions and changes – thereby missing the big opportunities.
I know it’s better to stay focused on the big items that really matter.
Uh oh – is that just another form of optimization? Damn it!
Resisting the Twitch
What is the optimal amount of optimization? I don’t know, but I’m not there. Now, I’m aware of the impact my constant search for optimization is having and I’m going to work on pushing back.
Here are things that are helpful to me:
I’m going to add in time each day where I purposely don’t accomplish anything meaningful. Yes, I’m aware of the irony of scheduling time to not optimize.
In these times, I won’t let myself read (or write) personal finance information. I intentionally won’t try to learn something new.
Maybe I’ll play games (non-optimally) or simply read fiction. I used to do that a lot more, and need to get back to it.
Meditation is attractive, but at this point adding that in would feel like optimizing my unscheduled time. Mediation, and exercise, are for other parts of my day.
Rely on Automation
It’s a challenge that everything is on autopilot at the moment. It’s also a good thing.
There is friction involved for me to make any tweaks or adjustments to our finances. We do our quarterly goal reviews and make adjustments then. This friction helps preserve the eventual outcome.
Automation is the enemy of the twitch and I will continue to embrace it in my financial life. For a variety of reasons – you should too!
The Pareto Principle – Focus on the 20%.
I’ve always been a big believer in the Pareto principle – summarized simply as “80% of effects come from 20% of the causes.”
I preach it at work, and hammer on it in change management. Yet, somehow the twitch makes me forget about it entirely.
We’ve actually done an amazing job of identifying and hitting our 20%. We’re probably close to 60% of causes and 90% of results at this point. It’s enough!
Whenever possible, I will intentionally remind myself that the twitch is forcing me to look at the 80% of actions that will only give me small results.
Focus on the Future
This is a bit of a cop out, but I know that part of resisting something is giving in to it in strategic ways. Rather than letting the twitch derail the now, I’ll allow it to roam free on the future.
We will achieve FI. Sooner than I ever dreamed. That will give us options.
Many of those options we aren’t prepared for. I don’t know enough about drawdown strategies. I haven’t looked deeply at options for non-employer healthcare. I certainly haven’t thought through tax optimization strategies in the case of early, or even normal, retirement.
In those moments where I lose my fight to the twitch, I’ll release it on subjects that will benefit future me most.
Keeping my eyes up and what’s ahead on the road, rather than directly in front of me, is a good strategy when riding a bike (or skiing) and a good release for the twitch.
Optimizing. (sigh of relief)
Optimizing the Twitch
Look, I’m not going to pretend that I’m going to stop searching for optimization. I’ve been conditioned to do it – it’s a rewarding part of my life. I’m just overdoing it.
There is no world where I’m going to just sit back and let things play out. I’ve got zero chill.
What I will try to do is try to turn it down a notch. Or two.
Whatever the optimal level of turning things down is….
How about you? Do you sometimes find yourself feeling frantic in a search for optimization? What strategies do you use to cope or combat it?