In 2020, startups, new inventions, and apps are making it easier and easier to expedite and optimize our days. Especially as women, we’re deluged by opportunities for self-development, from makeup tutorials to gym memberships to yoga plans to Veganuary, sending a message that there is something more we need—a product, a skill, a service—in order to be comfortable with the way our lives are.
As I write, I’m sitting in a coworking space built to be the ideal place to work: chill music, comfortable couches, and the perfect coffee. As I browse the (high-speed) internet, I see promotions for discounted meal kits, free cleaning supplies, even a free trial on a couch or a mattress. If I want to get across town quickly, I can pull up an Uber and be out the (industrial chic) door in ten minutes. I have endless information at my fingertips: I can learn interior design, hand lettering, or the perfect cat eye on YouTube. There’s no need to waste my commute because I can listen to French lessons or a budgeting podcast.
Of course, I’m so thankful for all these remarkable opportunities, and I am aware that they are a special gift to my particular time and place. But that time and place—specifically the modern America of HelloFresh, Amazon Prime, and Airbnb—lends itself to a very particular problem closely related to productivity guilt: optimization obsession.
You might not have heard the phrase “productivity guilt,” but you’ve probably felt it. It’s that Sunday-night feeling that you just haven’t gotten enough done, the lingering anxiety that makes you check your email after work hours. Scott H. Young puts it simply: “It’s the constant nagging feeling that you should be doing more.” We’re all prone to productivity guilt, especially in a world where it’s possible to be always “on”; it’s a challenge to set boundaries and be realistic with our expectations of ourselves when the world around us seems to be moving forward at a breakneck pace. It’s the reason it’s so hard for us to do nothing.
The obsession with optimization is closely related, but different: it’s the sense that there’s an ideal life out there, one that you’re always on the brink of attaining (but falling sadly short of). It always hits me hardest when I’m reading Amazon reviews: I can’t just get a decent vacuum that meets my needs, or settle for reading one or two reviews; I have to use every filter, painstakingly read reviews trying to decide whether they’re real or fake, and maybe pull up a review website like Consumer Reports. Then I check lots of websites for free shipping, check my coupon plugin to see if it lowers the price, and place the order on my rewards credit card with the highest percentage back for this category. Even writing all of these steps makes me exhausted (and concerned that I’m slightly neurotic).
But in a world of optimization, these things just make sense, and what is more, they’re “easy” (why not use a free coupon plugin? Why not have a rewards credit card?). It’s the cumulative effect of these optimization steps that becomes exhausting—when you’ve spent two hours on Amazon combing reviews and can’t decide which white noise machine will have enough bass to muffle the noise of the neighbors’ garage. For this reason, optimization is a huge part of burnout: do you even want to buy a vacuum, or try to find the best dry cleaner, or book a doctor’s appointment when the process is laden with almost infinite sources of input for your decision?
Caught in a random reward loop
If it’s such a dreadful experience, why do we keep doing it? Because sometimes it works. We’ve all had the experience of, once or twice, getting a truly amazing deal, finding the perfect coupon, or ending up with the World’s Best Vacuum. But it’s an unpredictable rewards system like a slot machine or social media: while we know the pursuit of perfection is ultimately a futile effort, we’re motivated by the fact that it sometimes seems to happen.
In his recent book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford describes B.F. Skinner’s famous study experimenting with a “variable schedule of rewards.” In the study, mice were placed on this “variable schedule”: they were occasionally, not always, rewarded for pushing a lever. As Nir Eyal describes it, “Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards seemed to press the lever compulsively.” Optimization culture offers all kinds of unpredictable rewards systems, from flash sales to Instagram giveaways: because we never know when we’ll get a life-changing opportunity, we keep coming back.
Even though this doesn’t happen every time, the randomness of when our work does pay off—sometimes we succeed in optimizing some element of our lives—keeps us coming back. We put in all the work every time, even if the increase to our overall happiness is minimal.
The myth of the ideal lifestyle
This addictive mindset then begins to infiltrate the rest of our lives. Not only are we encouraged to do this kind of intense optimization work when looking for something in particular—a new mattress, an air purifier—but we’re also pressured into a mentality that “the ideal lifestyle” is out there. The implied message is that there’s always one more product that will push our lives from surviving to thriving, and the cumulative effect of all this review-reading and app-downloading and morning-routining is supposed to be the ideal lifestyle.
This is why Instagram influencers are so seductive: they seem to have accomplished that goal. We see the lives of Joanna Gaines and Gwyneth Paltrow and think that they are living the optimized life: the one where they’ve found the right products, the right attitudes, the right meditation practices to make their lives just right. Because they share about some of their struggles, we believe them to be presenting a genuine example of a life lived well. We consume daily schedules, self-help books, and life-improving podcasts with enthusiasm bordering on obsession because we have a distinct goal in mind: the mirage that influencers present.
So we get into a cycle of constantly “fixing”—from our mental health to our cleaning supplies, there’s always something to fix, with the ideal horizon constantly receding. Don’t get me wrong; all of these things can be valuable in the right time and place. But what motivates our feverish pursuit of them is, I think, a lie: that the perfectly optimized life not only exists, but is always almost within reach. And I’d be naive if I didn’t notice that there’s often a financial motivation behind this lie: not only is the optimized life always preached as reachable, the things that can theoretically lead you to it are often for sale.
The sad fact about optimization is this: it’s not possible. Outside of the Instagram illusion where CGI influencers can be forever 19, lives change, people age, and families develop. What “worked” one day might not work another, and even the world’s most perfect vacuum will eventually break. Optimization is just an unusually enticing myth.
But, of course, to offer a set of pat “solutions” here would be one more step in the direction of optimization culture: I’m not advocating that we optimize our optimization habits. Perhaps what we need is to step back: to consider what the obsession with optimization means in our own lives, and to see the world in a different way. Maybe we need to ask why we’re obsessed with optimization, whether it’s a way to dodge our own emotions or ignore unresolved trauma. In 2020, perhaps we can let go of optimization and embrace another ideal: a truly human life, with imperfections, inconveniences, and all.