We’re usually trying to do everything, achieve everything, all at once – usually not very successfully.
You ever heard the story of the hungry, thirsty donkey, standing midway between a pile of hay and a lake? He wants to go drink from the lake – but also to go eat hay – so he just stands there, being emotionally pulled equally in either direction, until he starves to death.
I think a lot of us tend to do the same kind of things in our own lives, and with our own fitness.
Here’s my theory:
In fitness (and in life), you can only OPTIMIZE for so much at a given time.
You can do a little bit of everything if you choose, but you can only really Optimize for so much at a given time.
- You can train to become the fastest marathon runner in the world, but you probably won’t be the world’s strongest man. At least not at the same time.
- You can train to have the most muscle mass possible, but you probably won’t be the fastest person in the room.
- You can train to lose as much fat as possible in a given time, but you probably won’t gain a ton of muscle mass in that period.
Does that make sense? Sound pretty reasonable? People might point out, “well, you can train to have a good balance of things.”
Sure. For example, you can attempt to have a good balance of athletic skills (speed, strength, balance, mobility, general ability in multiple sports).
But then you’re not really optimizing for any particular ability, or any specific sport – you won’t be breaking any world records; you won’t be the fastest, strongest, or best, and you may very well not generate any rapid improvement in any one area. You’ll probably be generally healthy, but you won’t be rapidly gaining a ton of muscle mass, or losing a ton of fat.
(In other words, even when optimizing for “overall balance,” you’re still giving up something.)
Again, we can only optimize for so much in a given time.
And the truth is, this is an enormous relief.
You don’t have to try to achieve everything, all right now.
(In fact, you couldn’t, even if you tried.)
You can only optimize for so much – so what do you really want, more than anything, right now? And what’s most useful and effective?
Instead of trying to achieve everything all at once, what do you most want for the time being?
In a broader sense, you could be optimizing your life in such a way that you make the most money. Or so that you’re the healthiest and happiest; least stressed. Or so you have the deepest relationships. Or so you can be the most athletic, or the most famous, or so you achieve the most advancement and prestige in your career.
In fitness, you could be optimizing to gain the most muscle mass, lose the most fat, gain the most strength, achieve a specific athletic performance goal, maximize your cardiovascular health, or focus on well-being, to name a few. (Btw – there IS a big difference between optimizing for specific athletic performance goals, and optimizing to be as healthy as possible.)
So many options… So what to optimize for?
And the real question –
Are some optimizations “better” than others?
Read through those list of options I mentioned. Life-wise, and fitness wise. Now just try picking only one option from each, that you want to prioritize, for the time being (e.g., say, the next 1 to 3 months.)
(Again, if it’s hard to choose just one, it’s helpful to realize – this is just for now.)
And keep this in mind, too – you’re probably going to have some secondary or tertiary priorities. While you can choose to optimize for maybe just one thing (say, running the fastest mile in your life) you may still have “doing a solid job at work” as a second place priority. Or while you may choose to focus on “gaining the most muscle mass” as your singular optimization, you may have “gain some solid strength” as a secondary priority. (Yes, there’s a difference between optimizing for strength vs. mass.)
And before you finalize your answer, let me pose this food-for-thought question one more time: are some optimizations generally ‘better’ than others?
You may notice that some of the above options have a lot of implied overlap, while some don’t. For example, optimizing your life for healthy relationships, and happiness/well-being, probably will have a lot of overlap. Similarly, even though strength and mass are two different things, gaining strength is probably going to facilitate muscle mass gain.
Which leads me to this pro tip:
Some “prioritizations” are unexpectedly useful, having secondary benefits in many other areas of your life.
Some prioritization wear you out, or have diminishing returns. On the other hand, some priorities feel wonderful, can be combined with others very well, and may even unexpectedly help you achieve secondary goals.
(Thought: If you’ve been struggling to achieve something lately, is it possible you could just try optimizing for something else entirely? Something which feels better, that may inadvertently help you achieve your original goal as a pleasant side effect?)
So maybe ask yourself next – “As long as I’m actually being conscious of what I’m optimizing for, what feels best and is most useful? What will have the most positive ripple effect on my life?” And if you’re torn between equal desires, then try “What comes first?”
(i.e., “I really want X and Y! But which one will actually have a bunch of other useful benefits in my life and make me happiest?” Or, “I really want both Y and Z! But as long as I want them both, and will eventually get them both, which most naturally comes first?“)
So, in summary, instead of just trying to achieve everything you want right now, and being frustrated as nothing really happens, try optimizing for just one or maybe two things, for the time being.
And before you do, maybe ask yourself – are some optimizations going to make me happier (or have bigger positive ripple effects) than others? What comes first?
Best of luck.
(P.S. – By the way, if I had to guess, I’d wager that that people far overestimate the benefits of optimizing for “money” and “prestige” and far underestimate the benefits of optimizing for “exercise” and “relationships.”)
P.P.S. – In addition to prioritizing general well-being/relationships, I’m currently optimizing really highly for……”excellent cardiovascular health.” (Which sounds super boring!!! …but I suspect actually has a ton of spillover into just about everything.)