The Perils of “Optimal”

In the self-help community, the word “optimal” surfaces as a staple buzzword – especially in the introduction to the Tim Ferriss Show. YouTube videos all contain titles that suggest optimal performance tips.

“The optimal way to lose weight.”

“The optimal way to grow huge muscles.”

“The optimal way to study.”

“The optimal way to teach.”

The dictionary defines optimum (an adjectival alternative to “optimal”) as “most conducive to a favorable outcome; best.”

What is “optimal”‘s place in the self-help community?  Sometimes, “optimal” conjures up the concept of euphemisms and how they morph to match societal norms and expectations.

One great example of euphemism transformation comes from the labeling of students who have slower cognitive development relative to their peers, work with paraeducators in schools, and participate in the Special Olympics.

One called these individuals “retarded” or “slow.”

But many dismissed this term as demeaning.  So these individuals later became “mentally handicapped” or “mentally challenged.”

Which speakers later replaced with “mentally disabled.”

But these terms too imputed a negative stigma on otherwise kind, thoughtful, students.  So the term “special needs” became more commonplace. And then yet again stigma caught up. By labeling these students as both “special” and “needy”, one suggested an inferior status.

Now the term “differently-abled” seems in-vogue – a term that suggests that they are no better or worse than other more normatively-developed individuals.  They are just different. We all, in fact, share different abilities. However, as the time of this publishing I wonder if society has yet again usurped a now-offensive slur in favor of a more progressive alternative.

What is happening?  Perhaps as we slowly (ever so slowly) progress toward a more tolerant and accepting culture, that we are revising our language to fit these shifting norms.

But language is not a system of inherent meaning, but a system of abstract symbols. There is nothing inherent in the word apple that means a round, tree-sprung fruit that once fell on Sir Issac Newton’s head.  If it was, millions of other humans would not use words like pomme, 林檎, manzana, яблоко, or 사과 to describe the same fruit that English speakers call apple.  An apple is called apple because English speakers all agree to identify that object as “apple.”

Likewise, there is nothing inherently derogatory about the words “retarded”, “handicapped”, or “disabled.”  Their stigma is a social construction. We say the word “retard” is an insensitive word because millions of English speakers agree that that word is insensitive.  Nothing more.

Cool. Thanks for pushing your linguistics degree on me, Ian.  But so what? What does this have to do with “optimal”?

I wonder if “optimal” has replaced the now-stigmatized word “perfect.”  Consider the Youtube video searches above, but replace “optimal” with “perfect”.

“The perfect way to lose weight.”

“The perfect way to grow huge muscles.”

“The perfect way to study.”

“The perfect way to teach.”

Again, the dictionary defines optimal as “most conducive to a favorable outcome; best.”

People in the self-development community often eschew perfectionism.  It is a paralyzing fear and concern that bring harm to our well-being.  The desire to achieve an unattainable flawless ideal produces disappointment, procrastination, and listlessness.  How can we motivate ourselves to do something impossible? Not unrealistic, but impossible.

Many philosophers have said “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Absolutely.  In 90% of our daily actions, we do not have to make perfect choices.  We just need to make “good enough” choices. Should I eat chicken or fish?  Should I lift weights today or go for a run? Should we go bowling or hang out in a cafe?  Should I read this book or that book? We would drive ourselves crazy if we agonized over every “perfect” choice.  Rather, we are better off with quicker, good enough decisions (a.k.a. satisficing) in most situations.

We would be wiser to move forward and take action rather than spend endless time researching “optimal” plans.  We can always learn and make adjustments in the face of unsatisfactory results and new information. but forward momentum overpowers any stagnant search for the “optimal.”

People who search for and tout “optimal” solutions often reference scientific literature to justify their decisions.

“What does the research say?”

“Show me the evidence.”

Now there is nothing wrong with considering scientific opinion when making decisions for health and well-being.  Science is a wonderful tool that helps clarify a murky sea of misinformation.

But we should also take a step back to recognize the practical conclusions we can draw from scientific studies.

For example, suppose a study published in the Journal of Gainz concluded that individuals exercising in the early evening produced more testosterone than individuals exercising in the morning.  Many associate the masculinizing hormone testosterone with bodybuilders and muscle growth. Therefore, I ought to switch my workouts from the morning to the afternoon if I want to optimize my muscle gains.

But wait.  Who were the study participants?

“The study participants included 148 untrained males.”

What if I have been lifting for two years?  What if I am a woman? Do these findings still apply?  I don’t know.

But I am male, so maybe afternoon workouts will still help me.  

How much extra testosterone are we talking about?

Well the average male has a testosterone level of about 679 ng/dL (nanograms per deciliter).  The study concluded that the average testosterone of afternoon gym goers was 790 ng/dL. This 14% increase was found to be statistically significant.  How much testosterone do I need to induce muscle growth? Some sources say 300 mL (300 million nanoliters) per week should be enough – the equivalent testosterone of three men.

So a 14% boost in testosterone sounds great by itself, but is not even a drop in the bucket of the required testosterone to accelerate muscle growth.

Just because a study boasts a “statistically significant” effect does not mean the effect is significant in practice.

Finally, I should consider whether shifting my workouts from the morning to the afternoon is a practical idea in my own life.  It is my life after all.

I have several after-school classes, volunteering, and Korean lessons on many evenings.  Moreover, I often finish the day feeling tired and worn down. The last thing I want to do is hit the gym after work.  Other people thrive at this time, but not me.

So in this case, working out in the morning is optimal for me.

Every time we consider “optimal” and evidence-based tweaks in our daily routines, we ought to consider three questions.

  1. Who participated in the study? Would I fit into this sample?
  2. Is the effect size worth altering my daily routine?  Statistical significance differs from practical significance.
  3. Is the “optimal” prescription compatible with my daily schedule?  Can I alter the habit to incorporate it into my daily life?  

Consistency in a sub-optimal routine is far superior to sporadic adherence to an optimal one.

The most optimal habits don’t harm others, don’t harm ourselves, and produce positive mental, physical, and emotional health.  It is up to us to choose what habits and behaviors fit within our own lives. Scientific studies can help. Friends can help. Self-help gurus can help. Sometimes.  

But ultimately we must do the research on ourselves. We must test these ideas in our own life, make adjustments, recognize what is realistic, and be consistent.

It’s not optimal, but it can be “good enough.”

And “good enough” can still improve piece by piece.

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