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Why optimisers are always late

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
Why optimisers are always late
Photo by Christopher Luther / Unsplash

There are probably a lot of reasons why people who are always late are always late, but here's one I haven't heard talked about much.

Being an optimiser is one of those things that sounds braggy but actually has downsides. An optimiser does all the research and gets the very best vacuum cleaner available within her budget, a satisficer finds the first one that will do a decent job for a reasonable price and moves on with their life. Their vacuum cleaner isn't as good but they also don't care and they have a lot more free time.

Optimisers break stuff because they try to carry everything down to the car in one go instead of making multiple trips. They save all their errands up for one day and then do an optimally plotted out trip that hits the post office, the hairdresser and the hardware store in one circuit - if they have to double-back for something, there's a good chance they'll just abandon that errand for another day, where it can be fit into another optimal circuit. They will never go out of their way to cross at the lights. It can border on pathological.

An optimiser's perfect trip (to work, to the airport, to the doctor) is one where they hit each connection and arrive at exactly 9 AM on the dot, with no waiting around whatsoever. They will do the research to make sure this can happen with precision. They will probably plan to take the trash out on the way for optimum efficiency.

People who are not late all the time often actually do way less planning than people who are late. They just say "it usually takes 45 minutes so call it an hour" and they get there early and wait around.

The basic problem is that optimisers don't leave a margin of error, so if anything goes wrong they end up late. This is kind of obvious but people don't get the heart of it, it's not stupidity (well, kind of) or laziness or disrespect for others' time - it's just such an intrinsic motivation to try and optimise the journey and make it as efficient and neat as possible they often don't even realise leaving a margin of error is something other people do (I had to be told, now I'm telling you) because doing things "efficiently" (not a wasted minute) seems so obviously the only way anyone would do anything.

(If I seem like I'm being too harsh, it's because the benefits of optimising are self-explanatory - I couldn't be an editor if I was happy to leave 20% of issues in a document and move on to the next one.)

Anyway, for people who struggle with lateness, I think you will have more luck if you recognise that you're going against not just a bunch of ingrained habits and probably a terrible sense of time, but also the wrongness you feel when you try and do something in a way that feels inefficient.

Other reasons non-obvious:
- Anxiety about leaving the house, anxiety about how you look or present (getting dressed can be stressful if your clothes don't feel comfortable / make you look like who you feel you are / general appearance dysphoria and wish to not be seen - it can help to think of it as putting on a costume rather than dressing yourself. Like office drag or brunch drag. You still feel alien but at least you feel like you're succeeding at being an alien instead of failing at being a human.)

- The sudden burst of productivity you get as a deadline approaches can make you want to clean your house or whatever when you should be getting ready.

- More disorganised in general so getting ready does actually take you longer because you won't be able to find one of your shoes and you'll have to run back to get your glasses, etc. If you're already anxious you'll make more mistakes and your brain won't work properly to tell you where you are

- generally being overwhelmed by the 18 little different things you have to remember and freezing up instead of doing the first of the 18 things

There's a lot more to this - not being late all the time is a bundle of related skills you can teach yourself, along with some emotional management; it is a surprisingly complicated knot for something that's so basic to everyday functioning, but it is a finite set of things that you can actually learn and substantially improve at.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #43 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

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