The XX Factor

My Week of Satisficing 

Classic satisficer, keeping up her new-ideas document.

Photo by auremar/Shutterstock

A few weeks ago, just in time for my January rebirth, my friend tweeted out a link to a site she and her business school friends all read. They seem like they’re on the road to success; since I too would like to be on that road in 2014, I decided to take a look. The online magazine, 99U, relays “insights on making ideas happen” and also hosts a conference and puts out books with to-do lists for titles. (Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind is one. Maximize Your Potential Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Careers another.) It’s owned by Behance, a New York City–based “design-centric technology team” launched in 2006 that vows to “remove the barriers between talent and opportunity.” “As a unique business unit within Adobe,” they write on their website, “we’re crafting the future of creative workflow. … leveraging the latest technologies and design thinking to create revolutionary products that connect and empower the creative world.”

Language like this—the product of a best practice fellating a thought-leader—would have left the 2013 me unseduced. But the 2014 me is more open-minded. She wants to precision-tune her core competencies, imaginate a synergy or five. So instead of leaving 99U because I had no idea what the site was talking about, I clicked on the first post I saw.

It was about satisficing, a decision-making heuristic that marries the concepts of “satisfying” and “sufficing.” Coined by the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon in 1956, the term means picking the first option that meets an acceptability threshold, rather than trying to optimize or maximize. Simon’s work as a professor at Carnegie Mellon centered on the limits of rationality and rational choice; in his economic vision, we rarely know enough to select the actual best outcome—and even when we may find it out, the concomitant expenditure of time and resources is often too high. Simon also realized that mushrooming possibilities can paralyze people. Together, these insights led him to the conclusion that, in a lot of cases, our best strategy when faced with a decision is simply to devise a list of guidelines and adopt the first solution that satisfies them all.

Empirical data bears out his supposition. In 2002, researchers from Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania created a personality scale that measured the desire to maximize versus satisfice. They administered this questionnaire, along with a battery of well-being tests, to 1,747 people. Maximizers reported “significantly less life satisfaction, happiness, optimism and self-esteem, and significantly more regret and depression than did satisficers,” the researchers found. In a second study, the maximizers also felt more remorse and less happiness after making a hypothetical consumer decision.

Why might this be? The simplest answer, according to a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is that we live in a world of abundant choice—Simon had no idea. Researching every last option in order to select the best one is daunting and stressful. If you’re a maximizer, you might choose, instead, to throw up your hands—to make a random and inferior pick out of desperation. (And even if that weren’t so, as alternatives proliferate, choosing the optimal thing becomes statistically less likely.) Also, more options mean higher expectations, which means there’s a higher probability that perfectionistic maxers will be disappointed. Not to mention that whatever regret you experience in the wake of your choice gets compounded by self-criticism, since in a paradise of plenty, you suspect that any deficiencies in the solution you end up with are your own fault.

Compare satisficers. As long as they’ve stayed true to their criteria, they don’t care if another, better option shimmers on the horizon (in theory). And managing expectations proves easier when you know exactly what it is you seek—a series of concrete bullet points, not a spectral superlative reality can’t match.

The 2002 study also found that maximizers are more likely to engage in, and be more sensitive to, social comparison than satisficers. They rubberneck. They feel especially bad when their peers outperform them and especially good when they’re the ones excelling. Again, this may be because the criterion “best” is mistier, more nebulous and imprecise, than a set of guidelines defining an acceptability threshold. How do you know when you’ve ordered the most sumptuous dish on the menu? You have to glance around the restaurant at what everyone else is eating. If you’re only trying to determine whether your entrée is adequate to your needs, you can just taste it.

So, long story short, maximizing may make us miserable and competitive. I’ve often found that the quest for the perfect story idea (or word, or pair of pants) severely hinders the execution of any story (or sentence, or morning ritual of dressing myself). I like choice, but it scares me. A typical optimizer, I’m haunted by counterfactuals and want everything both ways. But there can be a salvation in picking sides, in the bright flash of deciding. Could satisficing make me more of an actor, less of a ditherer? I decided (decided!) to find out.

According to the 99U post, satisficing has four steps.

1. Accept you’ll never get everything done.

“Decide which activities really fall within the ‘Critical must-do’ category and let go of the rest,” writes Elizabeth Grace Saunders. “If the activities in the second ‘Would be nice to do’ category get done, great. If not, it probably doesn’t matter very much.”

I felt somewhat ahead of the game here, as I’ve already reconciled myself to the fact that many of my to-do lists are in fact catalogs of broken dreams. But I went ahead and created two columns: “Critical” and “Would Be Nice.” What did I have to do? I had to satisfice, so that I could write this article, which meant making a list. “One,” I wrote in the first column. “Make a list.” So far, so good. I also had some posts to pen and some office tasks to fulfill: I wrote those down too. Then there were longer-term tasks that I continued to put off. And I wanted to get a haircut and see friends and read my book and go to various movies. None of these felt “critical,” though several seemed more possible than a few of the work things I had classified as “must-dos.” Was it worth it to make certain easy tasks mandatory, so that I’d get more “done” overall? Was I even allowed to do things I hadn’t labeled mandatory? After about 20 minutes of this, I realized that I was wasting valuable time agonizing over my categories instead of being productive. “Finish the list,” I scribbled, under the “Would Be Nice” heading, and turned to step 2.

2. Keep a “new ideas” document.

Saunders: “Creative people have the blessing of having the Ideation strength, meaning ideas thrill you and you typically have much more new ones than most people. However, this can turn into a curse when you feel like a failure because you don’t act on all of your ideas. Instead of feeling badly that you have so many ideas you haven’t pursued, celebrate the thrill of the thought and be content with jotting it into a journal or putting it in Evernote for now.”

Evernote! Ideation strength! More lists! The less said about my subsequent effort to brainstorm ideas for the explicit purpose of sequestering them away in a journal and never doing anything with them again ever, the better.

(I can report, however, that at this point in my grand undertaking, I grew thirsty. I drifted onto the street with the intention of buying the first beverage product that met my criteria—cheap, liquid, caffeinated—which turned out to be a Diet Coke from CVS. It was delicious and I have no regrets.)

3. Ship early, then iterate.

What does this mean? I had no idea. But Google explained that “Shipping in the software sense means to deliver it to the customer. It derives from the old practice of literally shipping boxes containing disks/CDs in the mail.” And in the context of Saunders’ post, “iterate” seemed to denote revising, editing or updating. So the satisficer playbook must include a page where you roll out your product in stages, which—lucky for me—somewhat resembles the process of working with your editor on a post.

Perhaps I could most meaningfully apply satisficing to my own life by keeping in mind that the drafts I sent my editor didn’t have to be fully mature. I would establish a few ground rules (coherent English; include facts pertinent to the thing I’m writing about; filter in two to three points of analysis) and ship as soon as I satisfied them. The first time I tried this, it went fine (although a part of me wanted to affix a flaming banner to my email saying I AM SATISFICING). But the second time, even though I’d met my requirements, my work felt undercooked. When my editor sent the draft back with a bunch of questions, I couldn’t help thinking I could have saved us both a lot of trouble by dedicating more energy to iteration before shipping.

Of course, I am sure mastering the art of satisficing takes practice. (“Give satisficing another chance!” I wrote dutifully in my “ideas” journal, before shutting it away in a drawer.)

4. Prioritize your well-being.

“Making sleep, exercise, and downtime a regular part of your life plays an essential role in a lasting, productive creative career,” writes Saunders. It’s good, healthy, uncontroversial advice—and something that most of us are working on anyway. But I did make an effort to carve out some leisure time in the name of satisficing—and to think of it, in my head, as leisure time while it was happening. And then I felt virtuous for soaking in leisure. And then I worried that I was insufficiently blissful and restful during my allotted time off, and that it would impact my work.

Which is, of course, the paradox: Satisficing—at least as it has been coopted by professional culture—is itself a form of maximization, a way of squeezing you for as much productivity and creativity as possible. It is pressure dressed up as self-care, the kind of noble lie a gentle dictator might tell his workers in order to increase their output. Except we are generally the ones driving ourselves. At least we maximizers are upfront about it.