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Jun 17th, 2021 Share: Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn

Premature Optimization

In 1968, the computer scientist Donald Knuth, in his book “The Art of Computer Programming”, penned the now famous (at least in the programming circles) sentence:

“The real problem is that programmers have spent far too much time worrying about efficiency in the wrong places and at the wrong times; premature optimization is the root of all evil (or at least most of it) in programming.”

What Knuth refers to is an all-too-common tendency to start tweaking and optimizing things before we have developed the proper solution (or in more business-terms: before we have achieved product/market fit).

I see this problem creep up everywhere (including in my work) and it is one worth keeping a regular check on. A classic example is debating the specific shade of a color, the placement of a logo, the concrete wording on your presentation — all before much more fundamental parts have been done or solved.

Personally, I might spend too much time polishing my slides or agonizing about the sentence structure in a piece I wrote — instead of moving on and tackling the (often much) bigger problems and questions.

It goes to the old saying of “perfect is the enemy of good”, the Pareto principle, and newer ideas such as MVPs and Lean Startup. We know these things. Alas, we often don’t (fully) adhere to their teachings.

The next time you find yourself agonizing about the question if you should use 12 or 13 point font — ignore the urge to engage with the question and move on to the actually important questions.

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