Using diffusion processes, I model stochastic individual growth, given exogenous hazards and starvation risk. By maximizing survival to final size, optimal life histories (e.g. switching size for habitat/dietary shift) are determined by two ratios: mean growth rate over growth variance (diffusion coefficient) and mortality rate over mean growth rate; all are size dependent. For example, switching size decreases with either ratio, if both are positive. I provide examples and compare with previous work on risk-sensitive foraging and the energy–predation trade-off. I then decompose individual size into reversibly and irreversibly growing components, e.g. reserves and structure. I provide a general expression for optimal structural growth, when reserves grow stochastically. I conclude that increased growth variance of reserves delays structural growth (raises threshold size for its commencement) but may eventually lead to larger structures. The effect depends on whether the structural trait is related to foraging or defence. Implications for population dynamics are discussed.