Saturday, December 18, 2010

Going Too Far: Getting Past Minimizing and Maximizing

Everything in everyday life has good and bad qualities. To simplify, though, we often focus just on the good qualities, or just the bad qualities. This leads us to try to minimize or maximize. These are simple, familiar examples of minimizing:

  • The noise from equipment can be annoying, and the accompanying vibrations shorten the useful life of the equipment, so engineers try to make equipment as quiet as they can.
  • Excessive salt in the body can contribute to some diseases, so many people try to eat as little salt as possible.
  • A computer manufacturer is concerned about the way customers can be misled by inaccurate information about products it is still designing, so it tries to keep its future products as secret as possible.

And these are examples of maximizing:

  • Trying to have as many friends as possible.
  • Keeping the refrigerator completely full of food.
  • A business that opens new locations as fast as it can.

Minimizing and maximizing make sense when you have relatively little control. If most of the food you eat is loaded is salt, and you get to choose the food you eat only on weekends, then you might well choose to eat salt-free food all weekend. In a difficult social setting where you will be lucky to have even one friend, it makes sense to do what you can do maximize the number of friends you have. The problem with minimizing and maximizing is that you can go too far. If you have more control than you realize, you can go from minimizing bad qualities to minimizing good qualities before you know it. For example, if you seal a house very well, you can save on energy costs for heating. But seal it too well, and you may see toxic fumes building up inside because of the complete lack of fresh air. At some point, you have to stop and ask, what is the optimum amount of air exchange between the building and the outside? Similarly, if you get into the habit of having as many friends as possible and then join online social networks — well, you know by now what would tend to happen.

The key to avoiding this kind of pitfall is to pay attention to how much control or influence you have in a situation. Minimizing and maximizing are useful simplifications in situations where you have little control. But if you notice that you have much more control over the situation than you expected, the usual impulse is to celebrate: “Look at how many cars I have now!” or “Really? I can eat the rest of the cake?!” This impulse to celebrate a breakthrough or unexpected success is your cue to ask what the actual optimum is. How many cars, how much cake, how much secrecy, etc., is really best? Then, make sure you’re still moving in the right direction.

I wrote about one example of this two days ago, when engineers testing the new electric cars discovered that they had made them too quiet. The shift from minimizing to optimizing is hardest to make in this kind of situation, where minimizing has been the rule for lifetimes, long enough for whole categories of social assumptions have been built around the idea of minimizing. A better example of this is the physical activity involved in office work. We all know that the physical movement required by the average office job is not enough to keep a person alive. The correct response to this is to find ways to do office work that involve more standing, walking, lifting, and carrying than the minimum needed to get the job done. Yet more office workers than not still look for ways to minimize physical effort in their jobs. The habit of minimizing physical effort goes back to the beginning of the agricultural age. This habit has been with us for so long that it will not be broken quickly.

These are other examples of situations that call for looking for the optimum:

  • You’ve been wishing you could earn more money, and your employer tells you that you can work as much overtime as you want for the rest of the year. Don’t just start working 24 hours a day! Instead, pick a good tradeoff between your need for money and the other demands of life, including sleep.
  • After years of eating mostly factory-made food that is loaded with salt, you start cooking for yourself. You don’t have to add salt to anything unless you want to. It then becomes important to know (particularly in warm weather) that too little salt is more dangerous than too much. You’ll need to add a little salt to your food.
  • Your new car has an engine powerful enough to drive at three times the speed limit. Drive at a responsible speed, even though you know you could go faster.

Minimizing and maximizing are simplified ways to look at a situation. They are useful in situations in which you have relatively little control, but when you gain more control, it is possible to go too far. To avoid going too far, it is important to stop and look for the optimum.

Read more: I look at several examples related to clutter in the Fear of Nothing blog.