productivity tips

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.

46 Responses to Continuously Increase Productivity by Embracing the Optimization Mentality

  1. Pingback: The Philosophy Behind Continuous Productivity - Personal Development for Smart People Forums

  2. Decheron says:

    Interesting article and prompts some questions. I think you may well be right about highly successful people. Their road to success isn’t often detailed until several years after their initial achievement. On the other hand, some successful people really do seem to have had everything handed to them on a plate, no effort required – I’m sure we can all think of several. Either way, both sides are very discouraging to the person who lacks confidence or motivation.

    What about those people who never give up, never stop learning and expanding, yet still, they fail? How do you become successful if you live in a world that negates all you do, no matter how much effort you make to succeed? I speak from experience, having had to fight all the way for every little progression; always beat back by prejudice, maliciousness and wilful interference in my private affairs.

    I ask because I’m, yet again, at the beginning of a new attempt to live my own way and free of outside hindrance. I’ve started learning about a whole new range of subjects utterly unfamiliar to me, such as blogging and computer programming. I’ve spent much time researching and absorbing knowledge about ecologically friendly ways of living. I’m also striving to regain the creativity that was crushed by two emotional breakdowns that have kept me disabled for the past ten years.

    For me, these efforts are my last chance to break free of the drop out curve. I read such sites as yours, seek the wisdom of others’ experience and continue to look for means to realise the potential I’m sure I have deep down. In the end, I’ve lived along the drop out’s path by constraint rather than choice and any advice to change that would be very welcome. Could you perhaps compose an article on this issue?

  3. Sara says:

    I think #4 is key. Ever noticed that as soon as you accomplish a goal or get to a new level of improvement, you immediately want more? I’m convinced the enjoyment and satisfaction we get out of life has everything to do with the challenge/struggle – not the eventual result or goal. (I realize this is nothing profound, but not everyone understands it in a profound way, or everyone would be living this way. If that makes sense!) I can’t remember whose blog I read this on, but it was something along the lines of “successful people who stop growing/changing become dull and stagnant”. Quite boring, actually. West LA is full of this 😉 Personally speaking, in the last two years I have radically changed every area of my life and taken some huge risks. It’s been the most worthwhile roller-coaster ride of living – lots of pain, lots of adventure. Looking back, it’s like the 7 years prior of “adulthood” were nothing but a dull fog. It only makes me thirsty for more. What I wonder, generally, about people: how much of this “risk taker” behavior is an internal character trait that, frankly, not everyone possesses? Is this a matter of the cream always rising to the top because that is its nature, or can anyone’s consciousness be raised? John, what I like about this post is the general message that we’re never done. (Why “retire”?) Anyway, everything I’m saying here has been said on many a blog, so at this point, like Hofstadter’s book title, I am just a strange loop… Time to get back to work. 😉

  4. John Wesley says:


    You raise a good point, what about the people who try hard, continue learning, but still fail? There isn’t easy answer to this. The way I see it, all success is relative. Where would these people be if they never tried? Probably a good deal worse off. They definitely wouldn’t have the same experience. In many ways, persevering is an accomplishment in itself.

    We can worry about failure and blame the outside world, but ultimately we don’t have any control over it. All we can do is our best. I’ll definitely write again about this in the future.


    You make a good point about the reward of a good struggle, and even though it has been said many times, it’s one of those ideas that people seem to forget.

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  6. I quite like it – thinking models for continuous self-improvement. (Hey – you’ve given me a new entry in my “Cool Job Description” list I’ve been keeping: “Continuous Self-Improvement Guru”.)

    I think it’s hard to make significant changes, and I’m reading about why this is the case – from a neurological standpoint. I think that it argues (for most people) for an incremental approach. I’m reading “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way” by Robert Maurer, which I hope to apply to my personal productivity coaching.

    This also reminds me of “The Self-Talk Solution” by Shad Helmstetter, and Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” which analyzed companies (rather than individuals) and identified patterns in which made it and which didn’t.

  7. Hi John

    This article got me thinking a lot about success and also what Decheron said about failing even although you keep plugging away.

    I think a lot of people who succeed are the ones who have a one track mind, they keep plugging away at the same thing or in the same field, they don’t change track.

    Great article John

  8. John Wesley says:

    Thanks Steven,

    You make a good point about staying on track in one area. On the other hand, sometimes it may be better to cut your losses and move on.

  9. John, thanks for accepting the tag! Excellent article.

  10. Pamela says:

    We certainly need to get rid of our pessimistic behavior because of their effects to our lives. Our success depends on our way of thinking and beliefs. If we stay focused on the point where we stand and don’t plan on venturing somewhere else, we surely won’t get anywhere.

  11. Decheron says:

    to John Wesley

    Thank you for your comments – I’d forgotten the aspect that failure is a relative term. I don’t feel like I’ve failed, only that I haven’t achieved what is actually a simple goal.

    Worry, blame or control over the world isn’t applicable, it’s just a fact that deliberate persecution has hindered my achievements. I’ve not had an ordinary life and the ordinary rules don’t apply, current progression is a matter of succeeding against the odds.

    I’m glad you plan to add to the current article – information from trusted sources is invaluable.

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  13. rhbee says:

    Every time I read about someone’s idea for maximizing my output by focusing my attention towards positive behaviors, I remember the high school track coach who took over our squad when we were the defending league champs with 12 athletes that had placed in the CIF Finals. Our previous coach had a laid back style that taught us much by not seeming to. The new coach came in with a whole notebook for each event, a whole workout strategy that would teach us how to “peak” for each meet, and a complete set of goals that would let us optimize our abilities. By mid season all 12 of us seniors had quit the team. The previous coach had no vocabulary that he needed us to learn. He just let us run, jump, and compete. The new coach though he had to teach us what we already knew. We, however, weren’t blank slates.

    As much as I admire your obvious interest in this subject, I have to point out that you are couching your theory in an error. No matter what someone’s graph may show, we do not all start in the same place. And some of us have the ability to learn one way and others have the ability to learn another. Judging a person by how they learn is what our school systems do. To my way of thinking the only failure that counts is the one that lets you or me give in to this way of categorizing.

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  17. Helen says:

    I agree with having no satisfaction. We will not be able to enjoy the fullness of success if we experience it only once. If we are in need of success, we should be willing to discover new things.

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  19. Slaptijack says:

    John, thanks for this. I really found it inspiring.

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  22. Obvious? Well, obviously not! As you said, there’s a difference between intellectually grasping a concept and emotionally embracing it. In many ways, I’m still waiting for my intellect and my emotions to accept common ground.

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  28. neha says:

    real an amazing i m feeling more confident an looking forward to tackle life challenges.

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  30. ORI says:

    Talking about ongoing improvement, I really recommen
    some brain training, you can chack out my favorite here

  31. Liked the post and mostly agree. I think it’s easy for people to lose focus of other important areas we all have in our lives. All in all, great message though. People don’t succeed because they lose momentum, they don’t follow through, and let small bumps in the road become road blocks.

  32. Gabriel says:

    True experts are never-ending learners themselves. Those who claimed to have found all the answers, are the ones to watch out for.

  33. Everybody’s an expert at something, but nobody has all the answers. You can always learn something from other people. Ignorance is only your greatest enemy.

  34. wow this is amazing ive just saved that diagram as my desktop background!!!  i will keep pushing

  35. great suggestions! Don’t forget to always keep your “beliefs” in check.  If we are not successful then it means that there could be “limiting beliefs” that is holding us back.  Take some time to identify those limiting beliefs and change them to positive ones that is aligned with your desires.

  36. I think this is for me. I really need this because I am eagerly wanted
    to have a successful life. I always like to be productive most of the time but
    sometimes it’s hard to maintain because there are instances that’s it’s really
    hard to deal with. I like that list of four, I will really take it as an advice.

  37. Prasad says:

    A very good article, if applied properly this will change our fortunes.

  38. jack says:


  39. Richard says:

    Great article. How true it is that the world is constantly changing, so must we. Adapt, be flexible and ready to try new approaches to life, work and family is needed at times. Just keep in ploughing away and success will find you.

  40. Anitra Sailor says:


  41. Kat Sinha says:

    I believe that there is an easy answer to this first question. Although I definitely agree that success is relative, and that perseverance is a success in itself; I don’t consider failing to be be outside the realm of this philosophy because the whole point of the “optimization mentality” is to never stop learning from life. This includes the decision to learn from a failure and keep moving forward. Even a major failure (from which one learns he or she doesn’t currently have the resources, whether natural or financial, for the chosen endeavor) doesn’t have to be a permanent situation. This person may then need to reconsider and alter his or her next step or goal, but that doesn’t have to mean completely changing course. Failure is just a common side stop on the way to success =) And the more times you fail the more prepared you are for success!

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  43. Tim Duesing says:

    The most important thing you said was “there is a big difference between understanding a concept on an intellectual level and taking it to heart.” Once it’s taken to heart on an intellectual level, it all seems to combust into ONE concept. If you follow me…

  44. Tim Duesing says:


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  46. Quoc Huynh says:

    Never being satisfied is key for me b/c I think there isn’t anything I can’t do if I never give up.

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