I hastily jammed the last piece of the sandwich into my mouth and slurped what was left of my soda, spilling it down my shirt. Time was running out and I had to get back to my car before my parking meter ran out. “You idiot!”, I said to myself as I hurried past a group of schoolkids on the escalator. Wasn’t that a parking inspector I saw roaming the streets next to the mall before lunch? Maybe I’ll be lucky and he won’t have been anywhere near my car to give me a ticket.
Sadly this is a situation that has happened to me more than once. I have a bad habit of trying to pay for exactly as much parking as I think is required. It upsets me to spend good money for parking that I don’t use, so I only put enough money in the meter to avoid wasting any.
In retrospect, and what is obvious to everyone else before the fact, trying to be a parking savant is a terrible idea. I need to give up on my obsession with optimization.
If I instead had paid for two hours parking for lunch, enjoyed the $12.99 taco special with extra cheese and sauntered back to my car in 90 minutes, my life would most likely be better overall.
Unnecessary optimization turns out to be my nemesis. There are a few things in life where careful thought and planning can have a big upside, or can avoid a big downside. Minimizing the cost of parking isn’t one of them.
This behavior leaks into other parts of my life. Is it more efficient to do two loads of laundry then hang both out at once, or wash the first load, hang it out then repeat? One of these options is definitely more efficient than the other, but choosing the right option will save me a grand total of a few minutes. (I’m actually more likely to completely forget about the dirty laundry at all until dinnertime approaches and it’s too late, but that’s another problem).
There’s something both satisfying and exciting about getting a good deal. The reward system in my brain squirts some yummy chemicals when I save $1.50 on parking, totally out of proportion with the real-world value of that money. Brains work against their owner in the opposite case as well. Loss aversion is a cognitive bias that says the psychological pain of a loss is twice as powerful as the equivalent gain. I’d have to find $500 in the gutter next to my car to make up for the loss incurred by a $250 parking ticket.
One way to think about the value produced by a process is to consider a cost/benefit analysis. The idea is simple. If the cost of something exceeds the benefit provided then, all other things being equal, you should not do the thing. Creating $100 worth of drama and anxiety over saving the price of a candy bar is obviously a bad deal. But over analyzing things is itself another form of unnecessary optimization! The lesson I came up with is that nearly all of the time optimizing or even thinking about optimization is not worth the effort. Just don’t do it!
“The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one”, said fictional character Will McAvoy. I’ve decided to not be interested in optimizing for tiny amounts of time and money, but rather to optimize my life for fun. If I’m a few minutes late to an appointment that’s OK and I’m there in a more relaxed frame of mind. An unrushed lunch is a joy. There’s always plenty of clothing that isn’t in the dirty laundry hamper. In the grand scheme of things, all those little things don’t matter.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is more than a bumper sticker and multi-million dollar publishing empire. It’s a mantra you can use to avoid getting caught up in unnecessary optimisation. Sure, it might make a difference taking out a larger home loan or choosing to buy a luxury car over a reasonably priced second hand model. Definitely spend some time thinking about the costs and benefits there, but spending time worrying about parking? That’s just bonkers. I just need to convince my brain of that.