At Cornell I’m currently taking an engineering course called Optimization I. The basic format of the class is to define a problem in terms of something to maximize/minimize and a set of constraints. For example, you may be told that you are running a grocery store and are then asked to buy some produce in order to maximize your profits given the constraints of what the supplier will currently sell.

Although I’ve largely been learning about optimization in the context of problems that organizations face, the truth is that individuals face optimization problems too.

For example, In selecting your classes for next semester you may determine that you want to minimize the number of courses that you are taking given the constraints of i) the number of credits you need to graduate and ii) the distribution requirements that are specified by your college. Similarly if you have just starting a new diet (let’s say you are trying out the Paleo diet) and you find yourself in the supermarket, then you might face the problem of minimizing your food costs given the constraints of i) adequate nutrition and ii) adherence to the diet plan.

One benefit of thinking about your goals in terms of something to maximize/minimize and a set of constraints is that it becomes possibly to see where you are being limited.

In thinking about my math work I can set up the following optimization problem: I want to maximize the amount of hard, deliberate work I put into problem sets and learning new concepts each day given the constraints of i) a limited amount of time, and ii) my limited ability to sustain mental focus.

The benefit of thinking about my work in this way is that it enables me to see which constraint is the most limiting factor. Surprisingly on most days I am not limited by the amount of free time I have, but instead tend to be limited by my ability to sustain mental focus. This realization has prompted me to brainstorm ways to increase my focusing abilities– a well timed cup of coffee, more sleep, better nutrition, and physical activity are what I’m thinking about at the moment. By improving my limiting constraint I’ll be able to achieve more.

If there’s a goal your working towards at the moment where you feel your progress is stalling I would urge you to try and think more about your constraints. Are then any constraints that you haven’t made explicit? What are your limiting constraints? Is there any way that you can improve your limiting constraint?

Something else that is important to consider is whether you need all those constraints in the first place.

The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell requires students to satisfy a number of distribution requirements– two first year writing seminars, a science course, a course that gives you some historical perspective etc… When I started my freshman year I thought, like all other students, that I would need to fill these requirements to graduate. It turns out, however, that Cornell offers something called the College Scholar Program, which gives students the ability to pursue a course of study without the usual distribution requirements. By applying for this program, I have gained the ability to remove my distribution requirements and now I face fewer constraints on what courses I choose to take.

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Think about which of your constraints are absolutely necessary and which ones you can drop. Instead of looking for a job in a specific field, it may be useful to broaden your constraints and instead consider work that provides you with a certain lifestyle. Instead of constraining yourself to only getting in shape when you are at the gym, you may want to allow yourself to do a few push-ups when you have fifteen minutes of spare time during the day.

The application of this kind of thinking is extremely broad, but it does take some time to get used to thinking this way. Give it a try and see if it works for you.