What are you optimizing for?

Asking the right questions is an important skill fundamental to critical thinking and effective communication.  I’ve come to realize that it’s not only a useful skill externally (in dealing with others) but also very useful internally (in thinking for myself).  One question I find myself asking increasingly more often is what are you optimizing for?

This is a useful question because it makes me stop and consciously evaluate my priorities and whether or not they align with my current actions.  Usage examples:

Example #1: Debating with co-workers (on design, implementation details, process… or whatever)

Asking “what are you optimizing for?” can help bring everyone to a common goal or bring out different perspective/goals to everyone’s attention.  It’s a constructive way to resolve certain types of conflicts because it naturally leads to other useful questions like “what trade-offs can we make?” and “is it worth it to optimize for this at the time?”

Example #2: Getting frustrated in traffic

The obvious answer to the question here is that we want to get to our destination faster, so we are optimizing for the time to arrival and any time spent in transit is deemed sub-optimal.  But is this really worth getting frustrated over?  Since getting frustrated doesn’t even help with the goal of getting to the destination faster, it can be safely discarded as a useless action that is overall detrimental.  This is a case of using the question to make internal adjustments, similar to would you rather be right or happy?

There are many more examples of this.  If life is a series of decisions, then this line of questioning can hopefully help us make better decisions quicker.  Perhaps we can even summarize its usage as a framework for thought:

  1. What am I optimizing for?
    • What should I optimize for?
    • What are others optimizing for?
  2. Is it worth it?
    • What are the risks / trade-offs at play?
  3. Make a conscious decision to keep going or shift focus

So next time you find yourself in a sub-optimal moment, stop and ask yourself what am I optimizing for?

2 thoughts on “What are you optimizing for?

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