Continuously Increase Productivity by Embracing the Optimization Mentality

The Difference Between Experts and Drop Outs

This chart I found at Creating Passionate Users illustrates the development curve of experts, amateurs, and drop outs. An important detail to note is that the line for all three groups starts at the exact same point. Everyone starts as an absolute beginner with no ability. The drop outs never get anywhere because they give up at the first sign of adversity. The amateurs achieve a degree of success but become complacent and stop improving. The experts are the only group to reach the top tier because they continuously improve.

Experts aren’t more productive because they’re more talented or because they work harder. The difference between the experts and everyone else is the optimization mentality: constantly striving for improvement. Although the mentality is mind numbingly simple, only a small proportion of people actually live by it. Why is this the case? I perceive the cause is a common misconception about the nature of success

The Gradual Nature of Success

When we think about success and look at the achievements of successful people, all we can see is the superficial layer. We see the successful business, the best selling novel, or the artistic masterpiece. Naturally, we assume that success requires a similar achievement and we’re discouraged because, as beginners, we’re incapable of reaching such heights. This is when most people start thinking in terms of “can’t”. If we could see successful people as beginners and understand every tiny effort that gradually contributed to their success, we wouldn’t be discouraged by our own initial ignorance. Instead of seeing the path to success as a gargantuan wall, we’d see it as a very long but climbable staircase.

Unlike a system with rules and procedures, the optimization mentality is a philosophy that can be applied to anything. The toughest part is thinking independently and motivating yourself to take action. These 4 ways of thinking all contribute to the optimization mentality.

  1. Keep an open mind – It’s impossible to improve when you aren’t looking for opportunities. Don’t stunt your own growth by believing you’ve already reached the top of the ladder. There is always some small way to get better. Keep your eyes and ears open so you don’t miss it, and seriously consider even the strangest sounding ideas.
  2. Stimulate your mind – We get better as we get smarter. Be curious. Experiment with different options until you find the best. Watch what other people are doing, preferably smart people. Read books and articles on a wide variety of topics. Follow up on the ideas that pop into your head at 3 a.m.
  3. Seek advice from superiors – For every aspect of your life, chances are you know at least one person who is a little bit better in that area. Ask your friend in finance how to invest. Ask your engineer brother-in-law what computer to buy. Leveraging the knowledge of others is the fastest way to improve.
  4. Never be satisfied – Don’t settle for mediocrity. We should be grateful for our good fortune, but we should shouldn’t stop trying to get better. Once we become satisfied we start stagnating. The world is constantly moving. If you aren’t moving with it you’re falling behind.

I already know what the trolls are going to say, “Everything in this article is completely obvious.” No kidding. There is a big difference between understanding a concept on an intellectual level and taking it to heart. The optimization mentality is easy to grasp, but comprehending it’s importance and implementing it on a day to day basis isn’t. If it was there wouldn’t be so many people wondering what went wrong.

Embracing the optimization mentality is something everyone should strive for. Every productive action is driven by the goal of continuous improvement. That’s why this post is my contribution to the Ultimate Productivity Guide. Thanks for the tag, Ellesse. I’d love to hear what Alister and Trent have to say.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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