I first became familiar with the term maximizer from Penelope Trunk’s blog. According to Trunk, a maximizer always wants the best, and spends a great deal of time and energy trying to make the best decisions, acquire the best things, and have the best life. Maximizers are competitive, ambitious, and according to Trunk, have more interesting lives.
The term originally comes from psychologist Herbert A. Simon, who contrasted maximizing with satisficing, mostly in the context of organizational decision-making. Satisficing is characterized as making the “good enough” decision; picking the first option that meets the basic criteria. Even though maximizers are more concerned with optimization and perfection, Simon concluded that satisficing is often the more optimized decision-making strategy because of time and mental energy conserved in making quicker, more cavalier decisions. For low stakes decisions (like which movie to see or which menu item to order) satisficing is probably the better strategy, while maximizing may be better for high stakes decisions regarding medical treatment, where to live, what career to pursue, etc.
So that’s the technical origin of the term. Penelope Trunk uses it a little more loosely to refer to ambitious types who are more concerned with achievement than happiness or comfort, and to New Yorkers and liberals in general.
My own associations with the word go even broader. I include:
- People with extreme FOMO
- People who see wasting time as a terrible sin (what does wasting time even mean?)
- Social climbers
- Parents who will do anything to get their children into the “best” schools or train them intensely from a young age
- Anyone who thinks more is always better when it comes to activities, status, money, toys, number and attractiveness of sexual partners, awards and honors received, countries visited, etc.
Some people seem to be natural maximizers, and don’t have much choice in the matter. Entrepreneur/filmmaker/vlogger Casey Neistat is a good example. The guy has a “work harder” tattoo and is willing to endure large amounts of sleep deprivation, physical and mental strain, and boatloads of difficult work to achieve his goals. He states that he has never had a problem with motivation (around 3:30 in the video below) and in this video he literally says he wants to “maximize every waking second” (around 2:30).
Pathology of Maximizing
It’s easy to make fun of maximizers. They interrogate the waiter for twenty minutes before ordering and then agonize over their decision. They fight to get their kids into the most competitive schools even though grouping high achievers together often leads to terrible outcomes. They try to go to four parties in one night and end up stuck in traffic, missing the best parts. They keep trying to accumulate wealth well beyond the amount that can contribute to happiness. They lose sleep, endure hardship, degrade their health, overcommit, increase their stress, and generally suffer, for no good reason.
I’ve been chuckling smugly at maximizers for years. But lately my thinking has changed. Maybe I’m the one who has been missing out.
Maximize For What?
I’m not a natural maximizer. I’m somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between satisficer and maximizer. Sometimes I want the very best; other times I’m perfectly happy with good enough (like when ordering food at a restaurant).
Being “naturally” (genetically?) in the middle of the spectrum, I feel like I have more choice in terms of what kind of decision-making behaviors I engage in. Lately, I’ve been leaning towards maximizing. This doesn’t mean I’m going to start asking the waiter what my chicken was fed. But recently I’ve made the following observations:
- When I push harder towards my goals, with higher, more exacting standards, I feel better (more motivated, more satisfied, more excited).
- Pursuing leisure, fun, relaxation, and entertainment often backfire — I feel more relaxed (and more entertained) during and after a busy, productive day (as long as I get enough sleep and spend some time with my family and friends).
When I work harder towards my goals (especially when these goals involve helping or working with other people), it enhances my sense of meaning. What I learned from this fascinating article in the Atlantic is that an increased sense of meaning is associated with a healthier immune system. Pursuing hedonic pleasure is associated with an immune system primed for adversity, or threat mode (specifically, fighting bacterial infections with natural inflammatory compounds). Having a strong sense of meaning (which may or may not be coincide with feeling happy) is associated with an immune system more primed to fight viruses (needed for being around a lot of people) and less likely to create the inflammatory compounds that are good at fighting bacteria in the short run, but in the long-term can contribute to heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune problems.
I’m not saying maximizing is healthier. Usually, it’s probably not. But pursuing meaning through work and community is healthier.
What I’ve come to realize is that working harder and doing more (my own expanded definition of maximizing) and obsessing over making the best decisions (the classic definition) both make sense in terms of pursuing my life purpose and major goals. Maximizing can be applied to some aspects of life and ignored in others. At this point in my life phrases like do more and push harder resonate with me, at least in terms of doing what I consider to be my life’s work. These feelings may be attributable to some natural, cyclical fluctuation of my dopamine levels, or they may be the result of choosing to behave this way. Not sure, and I don’t think it matters. It’s feeling right to maximize more.
So what exactly am I doing to become more of a maximizer? In order of perceived importance:
- Block out my day in half-hour or hour chunks. What exactly am I going to get done, when? I already have a loose work day schedule (writing in the morning, consulting work in the afternoons, music in the evenings) but I’m trying to be more rigorous in terms of micro deadlines. Sometimes pushing the tempo improves quality instead of degrading it. Can I write 1000 words in an hour? In half an hour? Is there a school of writing by moving your fingers quickly? There should be. It’s a good way to access your subconscious, and you can always tighten it up later.
- Push through fatigue and difficult problems more often. Sometimes taking a break (of ten minutes to a year) is essential to the creative process. But sometimes a 1 minute break filled with intense exercise is all you need. I’m going to be harder on myself. Not to the point of masochism, but I’m going to embrace the grind.
- Get up earlier and exercise more.
- Watch less TV, spend less time on the internet, spend less time gaming; instead work and create more.
- Last but definitely not least, be more strategic about my decision making and action plans, including regular (but not too frequent) evaluations of if my strategy is working. Hard work, more work, and efficiency are wasted if not combined with an effective approach.
I realize you can’t just burn willpower, not have any fun, and expect to succeed. That’s not what I’m going for. I’m not planning to burn the candle at both ends — I still intend to take rest days.
But by pushing myself harder and working smarter, I do expect better results. Better results provide additional energy and motivation. That’s the positive feedback loop I want to enhance and amplify.
Avoid the Maximizer Traps, Productive Boredom
If you want to be more of a maximizer, there are some obvious traps to avoid. Pushing too hard to earn, achieve, excel, or experience the best can easily backfire. Some common sense behavioral safeguards I use:
- Don’t sacrifice sleep more than one or two nights a week
- Don’t say yes to any commitment that doesn’t offer a clear benefit (and even if there is a clear benefit, say no if you are already fully committed in terms of time and energy)
- Don’t sacrifice socializing, experimenting, wandering, or any other source of joy and/or inspiration
I talked about similar safeguards in my Super-Momentum post. Basically, try to avoid becoming a dopamine-resistant, strung-out, manic overachiever.
These are my own guidelines; they may or may not be suitable for you. Casey Neistat seems to be doing perfectly well with three hours of exercise a day, five hours of sleep a night, and no free time. For a writer, on the other hand, periods of “boredom” (understimulation to the degree that the brain basically starts to hallucinate in order to entertain itself, aka imagination) are essential.
It may not be generally known, & it is not an exciting thought, that, ideally, for a writer, protracted periods of "boredom" are the secret.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 18, 2014
This kind of productive boredom isn’t necessarily achieved by doing less. A better approach is to remove extraneous stimulation (the internet, TV, noise, loud people, even books and music) or to remove yourself from those things if that’s easier.
The Experiment Begins
I’m just a few days in to this attempted behavioral change — far from having established a new set of habits. I’ll report back in a month or two and let you know if I’ve stuck with it, and if I’ve noticed any changes in my productivity, efficiency, effectiveness, happiness, energy levels, or anything else.