May 1, 2024

The Pitfalls of Over-Optimizing Your Digital Workspace — Insights from Tem Nugmanov, Founder & CEO of Optemization

Key Takeaways:

  • Over-optimizing your digital workspace is like overwatering a plant - too much of a good thing can drown your productivity.
  • Notion's flexibility is awesome, but it can also lure you into the trap of endless tweaking and complexifying.
  • The 80/20 rule suggests the majority of your productivity comes from a small portion of your Notion setup - so keep it simple!
  • Beware of "work theater" - busywork masquerading as productivity that feels good but doesn't move the needle.
  • Let your workspace evolve with you, not ahead of you - optimize in response to real constraints, not imagined future needs.

The Allure and Pitfalls of Over-Optimization in Digital Workspaces

Tem Nugmanov, Founder & CEO of Optemization was our guest on the Minimum Viable Podcast this week. He shared a story with me about a hard-hitting question he was asked by some VC and founder types during LA Tech Week:

"If you come across a Notion workspace that's a 4 out of 5, how do you make it a perfect 5?"

It's a question that makes you think about a big issue in digital workspace design - the dangers of over-optimization. With tools like Notion that let you customize everything, it's super easy to get sucked into tweaking and perfecting, trying to chase that perfect 5/5 workspace. But when do the benefits start to fade? When does all that complexity actually start to slow you down?

In this article, we'll dive into keeping things simple in digital workspace design. We'll look at the psychology behind why we love to over-optimize, the pros and cons of Notion's flexibility, and why simplicity is ultimately the secret to a workspace that helps you get stuff done. Because as Tem puts it, "There is a diminishing return. At some point, you just have to draw the line and use the workflow, and that's going to be good enough."

But before we get into it, check out the full episode with Tem Nugmanov here:

The Psychology of Over-Optimization: Why We Can't Help Ourselves

If you're the kind of person who color-coded all your notes in school, had a planner packed with to-do lists, and got a thrill out of a perfectly organized binder - odds are, tools like Notion are your digital happy place. Being able to customize, categorize, and optimize to your heart's content scratches a specific itch for all you Type A organizers out there.

"I think a lot of people get too excited and just keep building and keep optimizing," said Tem. This urge is hardwired into our psychology. Research has shown that our brains are naturally drawn to finding patterns and putting things in order. So when we find a cool new tool like Notion, our instinct is to shape it into our personal vision of perfection.

When it comes to digital workspaces, that means all that endless tweaking and perfecting can start to work against you, dragging down your productivity. It's a bit like overwatering a plant. You think you're helping it grow by constantly fussing over it, but too much of a good thing ends up drowning the roots. The same goes for our workspaces - we can smother them with so much optimization that they stop being functional. It's a delicate balance and one that requires a bit of restraint.

The Power and Pitfalls of Notion's Flexibility

Notion's superpower is its insane flexibility. It's less an app and more like a box of digital legos - you can build practically any workspace you can dream up. Want a simple to-do list? No problem. Need a complex project management system? Notion's got you covered.

This flexibility is awesome, but it's also where Notion can trip you up if you're not careful. With endless customization options, it's easy to fall into the trap of constantly messing with your setup, trying to get it "just right."

Take a scroll through Reddit's Notion subreddit and you'll see tons of examples of workspaces that have gotten way too complex. We're talking multiple levels of nested databases, dozens of properties and views - these setups might be impressive displays of optimization prowess, but are they actually usable? At some point, the complexity starts working against the whole point of the tool - to make your work simpler and more streamlined.

It's like having a closet stuffed with clothes but feeling like you have nothing to wear. Sometimes less really is more. A workspace that's simple, intuitive, and easy to navigate is going to serve you much better than some intricate, over-engineered monstrosity.

Simplicity: The Antidote to Over-Optimization

So, how do you avoid falling into the over-optimization trap? According to Tem, "Simplifying and not over-optimizing is the best advice that I would have for users who are enthusiastic about the tool," he says.

This idea perfectly aligns with the good old 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. Basically, it states that around 80% of results come from just 20% of efforts. Applied to digital workspaces, it suggests that most of your productivity probably comes from a small portion of your Notion setup.

In other words, you don't need some crazy elaborate system to get a ton of value out of Notion. Focusing on the core 20%—the databases, views, and functions that move the needle for you—will give you way more bang for your buck than endlessly tinkering with the other 80%.

You can see this principle in action with some of the most effective Notion workspaces out there. Take Nathan Barry, a writer and creator. His setup is basically just one database for tasks and projects. There are no crazy templates, no complicated nesting, just a simple, straightforward system that lets him concentrate on what matters: his actual work. And I'd bet that simple setup drives the lion's share of his productivity.

So next time you find yourself deep in a Notion customization rabbit hole, take a step back and ask yourself: is this actually making me more productive, or am I just optimizing for optimization's sake?

Balancing Optimization with Actual Work: Avoiding "Work Theater"

We've all been there - spending hours color-coding our calendars, reorganizing our task lists, and tweaking our workspace setups. It feels productive because hey, we're working on our productivity system! But there's a sneaky line between optimization and what Tem aptly dubs "work theater" - busywork that feels important but doesn't actually accomplish much.

It's a trap I've definitely fallen into myself. I'll find myself spending way more time prettying up my Notion pages than actually using them to, you know, get work done.

So how can you tell if you've crossed over into the "work theater" zone? A good gut check is to ask yourself: am I spending more time tweaking my system than actually using it? Am I using my setup as a way to procrastinate on the real work I need to do? If the answer is yes, it's time for a reality check.

Remember, your productivity system should be a tool, not a stage for performative busyness. If you find yourself using it more for the latter than the former, it might be time to simplify. Strip your setup back to the essentials and redirect that optimization energy into doing the work that really matters.

The Lifecycle of Workspace Needs: Crawl, Walk, Run

Here's the thing about workspace needs - they change over time, especially if you're using Notion in a business setting. What works great for a solo entrepreneur or small team could buckle under the strain of a company of 50 or 500.

The key is to let your Notion workspace evolve with you, not ahead of you. Tem warns against the dangers of pre-optimizing: "A lot of users of this tool, whether they're product leaders or founders, are using the tool even though they haven't met a constraint, even though they're not overwhelmed. So they're pre-optimizing."

That’s the equivalent of buying a full suite of professional kitchen equipment when you're just starting to learn to cook. Sure, that sous vide machine and industrial stand mixer are cool, but they're overkill for where you're at right now. It's better to start simple, master the basics, and level up your tools as your needs and skills grow.

The same principle applies to your Notion workspace. When you're first starting out, keep it lean and mean. Stick to the essential databases and views you need to run your business or manage your projects. Then, as you start to bump up against limitations or feel friction in your workflow, that's when you iterate and optimize. Always let the actual, real-world needs drive the evolution of your system, not some speculative future state.

Conclusion: Embracing Simplicity for a More Productive Workspace

The promise of endless customization and the satisfaction of a freshly tweaked system can be tough to resist. But as we've seen, chasing after that mythical 5/5 workspace is often a one-way ticket to diminishing returns city.

The solution? Simplicity. By zeroing in on the core 20% of your Notion setup that's driving 80% of your productivity, you can craft a workspace that's powerful without being bloated. By being vigilant about "work theater" and letting your system grow with you, not ahead of you, you can sidestep the pitfalls of pre-optimization.

So if you catch yourself disappearing down the rabbit hole of endless tweaking, take a breather. Ask yourself what's truly essential, and mercilessly cut the rest. Embrace the power of simplicity, and watch your productivity take off.

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