advice to myself

I spend a lot of time trying to save time.

Buying nonperishables online, to avoid lugging them around the grocery store. Ordering coffee from an app, so it’s ready when I arrive. Composing blog posts right in WordPress, like some kind of madman, where one stray click could send a half-baked draft to 10,000 subscribers.

I can’t help noticing that this optimization fails to make me any happier or more fulfilled.

A person sits at a restaurant. "Every factor has been itemized! Every item has been factorized! I hereby order... the beef!" A moment passes. They sadly add: "I think I wanted chicken."

No surprise, really. Efficiency saves resources; it doesn’t lend resources meaning. My carefully husbanding time doesn’t make me a better husband — or, for that matter, a better father, friend, writer, brother, pen-pal, or survivor of late-stage capitalism.

Yet it’s hard to turn off. My drive to optimize runs deep.

Maybe I’ve taken one too many economics classes. Or maybe I inherit the legacy of my hominid ancestors, who lived and died by the speed of their grocery checkout line. Or maybe I’m just a broken soul. Whatever the cause, I sometimes despair of turning off my optimizing brain.

So I’m trying to teach myself the next best thing: to treat time not as the objective, but as the constraint.

In any optimization problem, we try to maximize an outcome such as profit (or else minimize an outcome such as cost). This is our objective. While doing so, we must obey certain limitations, perhaps dictated by our budget or available materials. These are called constraints.

The thing is, many optimization scenarios allow multiple formulations.

Here’s one way of optimizing tonight’s dinner: Minimize the time required, as long as the meal meets a certain threshold of tastiness. I.e., what’s the fastest I can make a meal that scores at least a 6 out of 10?

Here’s a second approach: Maximize the tastiness, as long as the meal takes no longer than a certain maximum time. What’s the best meal I can make in the next 40 minutes?

Both seek tasty, fast-to-cook meals. But the difference is vital. Constraints tend to get just barely satisfied. (Optimizers call these “active” or “tight” constraints.) So which do we want: a meal that just barely clears the tastiness threshold, or a meal that just barely fits in the allocated time?

Put that way, the choice seems clear.

When it comes to optimizing one’s life, I’ve come to believe that simple constraints are healthy, but simple objectives are not.

The constraints in my life — time, energy, money — lend themselves to varying degrees of quantification. That’s the nature of being a mortal creature with a finite balance in my savings account. But the objectives I care about — writing with candor, parenting with love, cooking with cardamom — generally do not. That’s the nature of being a complex soul in a universe full of mysteries.

A conversation on a mountaintop. "Oh wise guru, what is the true source of happiness?" "A bagel with lox." "Really?" "I mean, the profound solitude of existence is nice too, but it's getting towards lunchtime."

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