Most people go about performance optimization wrong. They’ll start with a lofty, ill-defined goal — to become more productive, for example — and end with a hastily-cobbled together regimen of experimental nootropics or far-flung meditation practices.
It doesn’t have to be that difficult.
At our core, we are animals. We respond primarily to the constraints of our environment, and operate relatively predictably to the same inputs; you are irrational, but predictably irrational, and that makes self improvement easy.
One of our irrationalities is the tendency to focus on positives rather than negatives. What we should add to our regimen rather than remove from our regimen, for example. Hence, many novices in the field of performance optimization turn to something tangible like adding a supplement, drug, or meditation practice, when they really should be removing constraints to their effectiveness.
Another irrationality is an unfortunate propensity to get lost in small details. Rather than worry about drugs or writing down what you’re grateful for each morning, for example, most people would probably improve their mental health and cognitive capacity significantly more by achieving a stable 8–9 hours of sleep every night.
Drugs are shiny and interesting, and sleep is boring, which explains our fascination with the former and general discontent with the latter. But modafinil might only ever yield you a 10% improvement to your overall output, while sleep has a wealth of literature behind it showing differences of 35% or more. Bonus points: sleep is free, completely legal, and biologically necessary to survival.
What other low hanging fruit can we find?
Allergies are a big one. Many people have seasonal or pet allergies and live with them their entire lives without knowing it. They suffer from mild headaches, uncomfortable breathing, and ultimately a substantial decrease to their productivity. If you find yourself stuffy and generally unproductive, it’s worth requesting an allergy test. You might see gains of 10% or more.
Water is criminally important too. Not as necessary as most people try and make it out to be, mind you — there is plenty of water in food, for example — but most of us can alleviate a significant fatigue burden by staying hydrated. Perhaps 5%-10%, depending on your normal hydration level.
Do your energy levels typically plummet after meals? I suggest looking into macronutrient tracking, with something like MyFitnessPal. Try it for a week and monitor your relative carbohydrate : protein : fat ratios. You are going to be eating nearly every day of your life until you die, making it an incredible opportunity for performance enhancement. An improvement of even a few percentage points to your productivity through dietary intervention can completely change one’s life.
How are your light levels? As mentioned previously, we’re animals. Diurnal animals at that. Light stimulates diurnals like us and improves our activity levels, which is why humans tend to wake up from the sun. Do you work near windows or large sources of light? If not, give it a try.
These are all simple things to optimize before you turn to drugs or other, less empirically-supported performance enhancers. If you’re not absolutely 100% on each of the above mentioned points, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
As a general rule for life, fix the big stuff before you focus on the small stuff.