over optimization

As a programmer, I often have optimization on my mind. I will think of a way to do something, then think of a way to do it faster. However, it’s easy to optimize the wrong thing. For instance, if you have a computation that takes five minutes to complete, and there is one function that takes 2 seconds, you are wasting your time if you try to optimize the function. Some marketing types might be inclined to reduce that 2 seconds to 1, then claim they’ve optimized their program by 50%.

The reason I’m talking about this is because I’ve heard people talk about speeding up a short task that they do on a regular basis, claiming it’s saving them an hour or two in a year’s time. To me, that’s silly. There are so many other things that you don’t have control over that take far more time than those. Things like using the bathroom, waiting at red lights, standing in lines, waiting for someone to pick up the phone when you’re calling, the time it takes to fall asleep and many more (those are just a few off the top of my head).

If you try to optimize some menial task like tying your shoes, you’re optimizing something that will have so little effect on the total free time you have during the day, it makes virtually no difference. Besides, are you living your life to the minute (or second) in the first place? Is the rest of your time so filled up that the few seconds you may save every day will really make that much of a difference?

Sometimes I’ll get in a daze, thinking about nothing in particular for a few minutes, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What about vacations and lazy days where you stay in your pajamas and do nothing? We get so wrapped up in doing more in less time that I fear we’re missing out on good old-fashioned laziness.

I agree that it can be helpful to optimize tasks that make a significant dent in the day. If I have something that takes me 2 hours a day, and I can reduce it to 1 hour, that’s a big deal. When you start optimizing a minute here and there, it’s not that important.

In case you’re wondering how I got on this little rant in the first place, it was this Onion Article.


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  1. I think that lifestyle optimization is a big reason why so many people are completely stressed and/or burnt out. We all need to take more vacations. And we need to take vacations without trying to optimize them by packing in as much as possible. We all just need to chill.

    Comment by Jan on February 22, 2005 @ 10:01 am
  2. This is so weird. I was just complaining about this type of thing last night. The problem comes after we optimize something and we get our well earned free time. Just then, someone comes along and spends your free time for you (someone asks for a time consuming favor). It’s a vicious cycle.

    Comment by Mel on February 23, 2005 @ 7:39 am

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