side-by-side images of Colleen White: on the left, she poses with a dog against a mural of moon and stars; on the right she sits on a horse with mountains in the background
Courtesy of Colleen White

The classroom full of eager MBA students was sharply divided. We’d all just read the same case packet, but we’d made drastically different decisions when faced with the simple yes-or-no question: “Would you race?”

We’d been asked to imagine we owned a car racing company. First, we were presented with the likelihood of catastrophic engine failure under various circumstances on race day—the odds were high. Then the author shared information on the prize money and sponsorships that would be thrust upon us if the race were a success. Tempting, indeed, but I was a “nope.”

However, the class was split down the middle, and I now understand our disagreement came down to the concept of optimization. With different worldviews and backgrounds, each of us MBA hopefuls was optimizing for different things. Some of us were looking to minimize risk and others hoping to increase our earning potential (go big or go home?).

Now, it’s certainly easier to make decisions with hypotheticals than with actual dollars or lives on the line, but I think my love for the art of optimization began in that classroom. I loved it so much I ended up taking a role as a manager of cost optimization in corporate healthcare, where every idea or proposal I dream up requires balancing a number of different interests, stakeholders, and considerations. It hurts the entire healthcare system if there’s excess waste, but, of course, every action to control spending must be closely examined and justified from a clinical, privacy, compliance, risk, legal, operational, and strategic perspective. For example, we have to make sure our patients have access to enough personal protective equipment to make their dialysis treatments safe without overspending (and potentially putting the care of other patients at risk). 

What makes all these decisions possible is knowing what I’m optimizing for, like patient safety and clinical outcomes followed by costs.

Optimization probably isn’t literally in your job title, as it is in mine. But the approaches I take to reach decisions in my professional responsibilities can be applied to how we find fulfillment—and happiness—in our careers and lives. The good news is, we’re already optimizing all the time, whether we consciously realize it or not. We’re constantly deciding whether we want to walk or take a cab, order a salad or make mac ‘n cheese, read or watch Netflix. We’re constantly striving to get more of what we want and less of what we don’t want in our lives. And we can be even more intentional about that process.

To use the concept of optimization to be happier at work—and in life—I’ve found a four-step process to be most useful:

1.
Pinpoint what you’re optimizing for.

This might sound easy, but it’s probably the most work-intensive step of all because it requires knowing yourself and your values. Here’s where I’ll make my plug that everyone should be in therapy, but if resources don’t allow, there are online personal values assessments you can complete gratis. This was one of the first exercises I did when I first started working with my own therapist, and through some refinement, I’ve discovered my core values are family, humor, creativity, connection, contribution, and learning. Each of these takes turns being my north star during different seasons, though they all remain prominent all the time.

We’re all optimizing for different things at different points in our careers. For example, early on, I prioritized roles that would allow me to try new things and help me gain a range of knowledge and experiences, even if they came with risks, which emphasized my core value of learning. I also went to business school and put a lot of energy into building a network, highlighting the importance of connection in that phase of my life. In my most recent career decisions, it has been most important to find roles that leave space for me to be present for my loved ones and allow me to tap into my creativity while also making a difference in the lives of others, meaning that core values of family, creativity, and contribution are at the forefront in my job choices.

Knowing the values I’m optimizing for helps me evaluate offers, opportunities, and projects—and I’ve turned some down without regret when I can sense my core values would be jeopardized.

2.
Figure out how you’ll measure success.

We all need a barometer that will let us know when we’re achieving what we set out to do, or if we need to course correct. For example, if a goal of mine is to be a force of good, success metrics might be an improvement in patient experience, number of patients my work touches, or dollars saved that are able to be reinvested in patient-facing innovation. If my goal is to be a present family member, is that measured by the number of dinners or trips I’m able to have laptop-free or the quality of conversation during said events? As Peter Drucker, a prolific businessman and author, famously stated: “What gets measured, gets managed.”

There are arguments that some of the most critical things in life simply cannot be measured, and perhaps some parts of our existence are best un-businessified. But as someone who did subconsciously put some critical values of mine (family and creativity) on the backburner for the sake of work for a while, I encourage you to try to develop a calibration system to check in with yourself before getting too off-course.


aerial view of a car on a road with a cliff on one side and water on the other
Benjamin Lee/EyeEm/Getty Images

3.
Use those priorities to guide you.

Once you know what it is you’re optimizing for at a particular moment in your career and life—and how you’ll know whether you’re doing it successfully—you can get to work making decisions accordingly. Practice makes perfect. When you’re thinking about what type of role you want, which specific openings to apply to, what organizations you’d like to join, what kinds of promotions or projects to pursue, what boundaries you establish, how you spend your time outside of work, and more, always think back to your values. In project management, you often do an intake process to help prioritize and scope requests, and I’d suggest making your personal process similarly systematic.

A recommendation from James Clear, the New York Times bestselling author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, resonates with me, which is to ask yourself: “What would a [insert aspirational quality here] person do?” and use that as a compass. It’ll help point you in the right direction, find a middle ground, or at least agonize less over opportunity costs, because you consciously chose them.

For example, if I asked myself, “What would a family-oriented person do?” when faced with the prospect of working late, the choice isn’t a zero-sum either-or. The answer to that question doesn’t mean I have to drop every other thing that matters to me to show up for my family and my family only. Rather, I could stay true to my values by communicating to my loved ones my need to spend some time cranking out a few key details on a project, while also sharing how important it is to me that we find time to connect later in the week, and then, of course, following through.

4.
Keep making micro-adjustments.

Even if we believe that the job or other commitments we signed up for are in line with our core values, there are still going to be a million times a day when it’s going to feel easier to let this system fly out of the window. And there will be moments when core values rub up against each other. For example, sometimes, my desire to contribute at work can get in the way of being a present family member. I figure I can just work one more hour, send off a few more emails, but suddenly, I’ve missed an opportunity for an evening walk with someone I care about.

In order to optimize for those two core values simultaneously, I’ve had to become hyper-conscious of what actions are actually needed to move a project forward vs. what actions soothe my need to people-please and appear productive. For me, this looks like creating detailed project plans and blocking off time for focused work and email checking. Staying glued to my inbox was making me more reactive and less effective, thus actually decreasing my contribution and leaving less time for family.

The term “work-life balance” has never resonated for me—it feels simplistic and precarious. Instead, I like to imagine we each have a DJ’s mixer with hundreds of tiny dials representing friendships, family, love, work, health, spirituality, fun, and more. Every minute, we’re twisting and tweaking those knobs, making micro-adjustments to account for our evolving dreams, dynamic priorities, and shifting circumstances.

So many of us have been in survival mode since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve spent some time there myself, and I know it’s a privilege to have the headspace and time to make conscious decisions about how to use our energy. For me, applying an optimizer’s mindset has helped remove the shame and guilt that can come with tough trade-offs or bumps in the road. I no longer bother looking for that elusive work-life balance, but rather seek to adjust all those tiny dials on my mixer to create a compelling and pleasurable track that ebbs and flows, just like life.