A Better Way to Optimize (And the Illusion of “Balance”)

Brad Stulberg
2 min readMar 21, 2023

Setting a goal on the edge of your comfort zone and letting it consume you can be as meaningful and invigorating as it gets.

Whether it’s a big creative project, an athletic feat, or falling in love, there’s something to say about going all-in.

The problem occurs when we get such tunnel-vision that we leave behind other important parts of our lives and the qualities that make us who we are. We run the risk of becoming too narrow — and distress, restlessness, and burnout often ensue.

A better way to optimize for a specific activity or pursuit is within the framework of one’s core values, or the foundational tenets and practices toward which you aspire. In particular, the work is defining a minimum effective dose for each of your core values, and then sticking to it.

Let’s imagine that one of your core values is health. You practice it by exercising for 90-minutes every day, eating nutritious foods, and spending time with friends at least once a week.

You are entering a period during which you want to optimize on a big creative project. How can you uphold your core value of health, even though you’ll need to de-prioritizie it?

Maybe the 90-minute workout becomes a 30-minute one. Maybe the weekly time with friends becomes every-other week. Maybe the formal workout goes away altogether and it becomes a brisk daily walk instead.

No doubt, this is an oversimplified example, but hopefully it illustrates our central point: it is okay, at times even desirable, to optimize for narrow projects, activities, and goals. The key is not to leave any of your core values completely behind.

This framework ensures that you can really go for something without losing what makes you, well, you.

Once you abandon your foundational principles you not only start to feel worse, but you start to perform worse, too. Sure, maybe you can get super narrow and crush it for a few days, or even a few weeks. But it’s not a recipe for longevity.

And most big and meaningful projects take time.

Optimization is not about perfect balance across all of your core values. It’s about consciously choosing when to emphasize some parts of your life and deemphasize others, all the while never completely leaving behind something that makes you who you are.

It’s an approach that will keep you grounded while you strive. It also ensures that when a period of intense optimization is over, you’ve still got a life and an identity to which you can return.

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Brad Stulberg

Bestselling author of Master of Change and The Practice of Groundedness