Optimize your way to a miserable life!

March 23, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Fitness trackers! Efficiency compactors! Productivity maximizers! Optimization obsessives of all shape, gender and addiction level! I have some news: It’s not going to work.

You will never be efficient enough. You will never get everything done. You will never perform sufficient quantities of pull-ups to impress Jesus and you will never climb enough steps per day, perfect your sleep habits, eat just the right amount of carbs versus proteins, maximize your core workout regimen, pack a five day work-week into four. How silly you are! What’s more, you will die, miserable and largely unfulfilled, trying.

Do you know why? That’s easy: Because life is not a goal. All the masters, wise ones, Buddhas since just about forever agree: Life is many things, but one thing it is not is merely a set of challenges to be overcome, a series of bulls-t obstacles placed in your way by a bored, sadistic God, an endlessly scrolling To-Do list with a coffin at the end.

“You ran 2.7 miles this morning! Well done! But you should have run four. Your shame quotient is now 96.2″

“You ran 2.7 miles this morning! Well done! But you should have run four. Your shame quotient is now 96.2″

Are you disappointed? Life is not, in short, a competition; you versus me, you versus the urban jungle, you versus your body, your day, your kids, your task list, the planet, time itself – all of it an antagonistic, perhaps even violent dash to make sure you snare a pile of fool’s gold before someone else and oh, the shame, if/when you fail.

But hey! I could be wrong. After all, we are told, and trained, to believe the exact opposite. From bitter church leader, crazy workaholic boss, 10,000 efficiency apps and now the new Apple Watch itself: modern life is all about how you measure it. And then cram it, beat it, medicate it into more.

Who cares if it’s a vicious myth? Keep pushing! Keep measuring! Track your every footfall, bite, blink, news feed, drop of sweat! You’re almost there! Except not really! Because there is no “there”! Ha.

It all comes to mind as I’m enjoying Virginia Heffernan’s terrific piece in the NYT Magazine, about the current, ruthless “optimization” trend swarming all over your life and its Internet habits right this very second, to the detriment of that other now-passé trend, human intuition and instinct. “Gut is dead,” she writes, referring to the practice of maybe holding still for a goddamn second so you can check your inner compass, your “true self” as we like to say in the yogic world, before launching forth into whatever.

So much for that hippie BS. Data is, arguably, the new god. Crunching the numbers to maximize not merely efficiency, but dollars spent, time wasted, photographs uploaded, emails deleted, heartbeats wasted, calories exploded, workouts grunted – this is all that matters, to you, to your new Apple Watch, to “smart” devices, to Facebook and Google and every other website in existence.

Do you feel it? You’re no longer a human. You’re not an individual. You’re an algorithm. Part of a vast, infinitely complex marketing/advertising schema meant to make you click, stick, share, buy, work harder and not feel anything and then of course, die. Dot com.

FitBit. Or is that a FuelBand? Does it matter?

FitBit. Or is that a FuelBand? Does it matter?

I hereby confess: I do not monitor a single iota of my body’s actions throughout the day (Facebook surely does, but I don’t). I have never owned a FitBit, FuelBand, or any wearable that tracks my workouts, my lifestyle, how many times I’ve blinked or not blinked in a given hour. I love me some Apple, but have no idea if the Watch will find a place on my body (I still love mechanical watches of the Omega and Cartier variety, but then again, I’m over 40. And I like fashion).

Thing is, optimization isn’t really how we’re wired. We are not a logic board gone awry. We are not a collection of quantifiable data points in need of more processing power. How do we know? Try it yourself: Maximize everything. Track and schedule, hone and refine and make more ultra-efficient. Cram more into less. Squeeze, categorize, app-ify. There now. Feel better? More whole? Thought not. Probably just the opposite.


Nice steel band, Apple. Might give you a try after all.

Why doesn’t it work? Because you can’t find it there. There’s no answer waiting just around the next data set, no “ideal” mix of work, food, love and exercise just waiting to be mapped out just right. You change every day. Every moment. The cascading, swirling, looping, backflipped, self-creating/self-destroying madhouse nature of life is not to be optimized, pinned, aggregated and boxed up neatly. But hey, don’t take it from me. Try all you like. See how it feels. Hear the gods laugh.

Do not misunderstand. Goals are great. Achievements can feel wonderful. Fitness trackers can motivate you to stay healthy and workout more. Lists, efficiency, hard work – all lovely and powerful and, done correctly and with an open heart, laughter and good bourbon, fine playthings indeed.

But when they rule your world? When you can’t feel anything, connect to fellow humans, love or cry or enjoy your goddamn drink for a second because you got too much to do, places to go, scores to settle, appointments to keep, apps to download? When they replace intention, touch, a deep and connected pause?

Pure poison. The Void simply cannot be filled from the outside. Which is not to say that new, all-steel Apple Watch isn’t sort of gorgeous. Why not play with it? Enjoy it? And then laugh at its adorable attempts to tell you about something about the meaning of walking?

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Mark Morford

About Mark Morford