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How “Satisficing” Can Save Time and Avoid Problematic Perfectionism

By Mary McCoy

womanNo matter who you are or what you do for a living, you have a limited amount of money, time, and energy in each day. Therefore, on a daily basis, we all have to make decisions about how we use our limited resources to solve our problems and dilemmas.

Surprisingly, one of the best things you can do to maximize your time and resources is to worry less about making the right decisions. Some decisions in life are worth spending a lot of time, money, and emotional energy to come up with the best possible solution for, but the consequences of other decisions aren’t important enough to warrant the same level of effort.

You can use the concept of “satisficing” to determine which decisions in your life need optimal solutions, and which ones only need to satisfy the minimum requirements. If you’re able to wisely pick and choose which decisions to satisfice and which to perfect, it’s more likely that you’ll feel happier and more relaxed with your decisions.

Satisficing Defined

Satisficing is a conjunction of the words “satisfy” and “suffice,” and intends to capture the concept that even sub-optimal solutions that satisfy the minimum requirements of a company, family, or individual can suffice in many instances. The term was coined in the 1950s by Herbert Simon, a professor of political science and sociology, and its idea is that optimal solutions are sometimes only discovered through more time, energy, and effort than they are ultimately worth, especially when sub-optimal decisions can deliver good enough outcomes.

In management, a satisficer is the opposite of a perfectionist. Satisficing managers can usually work on a really tight schedule and budget because they don’t spend their resources on maximizing their products, services, or solutions to the neglect of deadlines and bottom lines. On the other hand, a perfectionistic manager may find himself or herself agonizing over decisions in a way that delivers excellent solutions but with a slower pace and higher budget. Neither management style is right or wrong. Rather, the best managers – whether we’re talking business or life – know when to satisfice and when to perfect according to the situation and its requirements.

The Benefits of Satisficing

It’s easy to see the benefits of perfectionism in cutting-edge innovations, masterful pieces of art, and even successful business development. Sometimes perfectionism has its place. But if you hesitate to cut yourself some slack on a daily basis, consider the following benefits of satisficing certain decisions:

  • Purpose in Thought. The human mind can only fire on all cylinders for so long before it exhausts itself. If you’re trying to perfect every decision, your mind will have little ability to relax because it will be too busy deliberating its choices. Letting go of some of your potential solutions and opting instead for the bare minimum allows you to turn your thoughts towards the things that really matter.
  • Time for Enjoyment. When you let go of the decision-making that engulfs your personal resources, you’ll be surprised by how much extra time you have on your hands. With your extra time, it’s possible to play and enjoy life. You may even find that using your time for playfulness can spur you towards new ideas and innovations.
  • Goal Orientation. People who satisfice wisely aren’t the people who float through life without goals or ambitions. Instead, satisficers can be extremely goal-oriented. They just don’t waste their precious time or energy on activities that don’t move them closer to their largest priorities in life.
  • Consensus Building. In business and in life, it’s important to approach decisions like a team player. Some solutions are worth a heated discussion around a conference table, but most solutions are not. Satisficing allows you to approach joint decisions like a member of a team, rather than the sole producer of perfect decisions. After all, compromise is created when both disagreeing parties decide to satisfice.
  • Efficiency. When decisions seek to satisfy the bare minimum requirements, products and services are churned out quickly and with minimal overhead costs. Satisficed solutions are often efficient with both time and money.

Satisficing in Practice

The definition and principles of satisficing remain purely theoretical until they are put into practice. Thankfully, you can likely recognize the concept of satisficing in both your personal and professional life.

Here are some examples of how satisficing actually works for the average person:

  • Finding the Lowest Price. Bargain shopping is smart, but overdoing it is not. For example, it makes sense to save money on gasoline, but not if you drive all around town to find the optimal price. In this instance, a satisficing individual can reasonably stop at a gas station with a decent price rather than the best price, so he or she can just move on with their day rather than spending valuable time and thought solving his problem optimally.
  • Choosing the Best Products. Consumers have a multitude of products to sift through prior to making purchasing decisions, but a satisficer will recognize that many purchasing decisions aren’t worth a whole lot of thought. For instance, rather than finding the best toothpaste on the aisle for the best price, a satisficing person will grab a decent tube at a reasonable price rather than spending time on product comparison. More often than not, the selected toothpaste will do the job just fine.
  • Making Business Decisions. You’ve likely seen satisficing at work when you sit around a conference table with coworkers. When you and your colleagues brainstorm solutions to a problem, you look at the problem from many angles and then settle on the solution that gains consensus. Rather than spending additional time agonizing over an optimal solution, you and your colleagues are probably comfortable with the fact that there is general agreement and that the solution will adequately solve the problem.
  • Delivering the Highest Quality Work. High-quality work is an excellent aspiration for employees and students, but sometimes it’s just not feasible with time constraints. For example, a student approaching finals week may need to take a pragmatic approach to studying. If she has an A average in one class but a C average in another, she should spend most of her time and energy studying for the C class while realizing that even a failing grade in the A class won’t bump her down to a B. In this case, delivering a poor grade in her A class may not impress her professor, but it doesn’t really matter. She’ll improve her chances of moving her C to a B, while maintaining her expected outcomes in the A class.

satisficing

How to Satisfice in Your Life

Surprisingly, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that individual preferences for satisficing versus perfectionism appear related to genetics and personality. In other words, satisficing is either a natural component of your personality, or it’s something that is challenging for you to do. You can think of it like the difference between a free-spirited person and a highly analytical person, in that most people are sometimes free-spirited and/or sometimes analytical, but one disposition comes more naturally than the other. It’s important to consider satisficing and how to do it wisely – especially if you’re a perfectionist.

But if you’re not sure how to get started (or if you’re a satisficer who could benefit from a hint of perfectionism), here are some ideas for how to use the technique wisely and for your benefit:

  1. Make a Priority List. If you’re aiming for perfection, then you’re fighting a losing battle. Perfectionism is not only impossible, it’s exhausting and can steal the joy from your activities. Instead, make a priority list of the things in your life that are most likely to benefit from perfectionism as opposed to satisficing. If an activity doesn’t benefit from perfectionism, then don’t waste your resources on it. For instance, if you’re making a casserole for a weekday dinner, you could either chop all of your fresh ingredients, or purchase a bag of frozen mixed veggies. The frozen veggies are far more convenient and efficient to use than the fresh produce. Since the taste of a dish using frozen versus fresh vegetables will be roughly equivalent (and since your kids likely won’t be able to tell the difference), it makes sense to satisfice your cooking choice rather than perfecting it.
  2. Think About Cost Versus Benefit. For decisions that are a little harder to understand, try looking at them from a cost/benefit perspective. If an additional hour or day spent agonizing over a decision can greatly improve its benefits, then by all means do it. But if an additional hour produces a negligible benefit, it’s not worth the time. In a classic example, you can assume that four hours spent studying for an exam will likely boost your score to an A. However, if an additional six hours of studying can only increase the A score to an A+, then it may not be worth the effort.
  3. Keep Worst Case Scenarios in Mind. The negative outcomes of an imperfect decision aren’t always as bad as people assume, so it’s important to keep the worst case scenario in mind when you choose whether to satisfice or maximize. In a humorous example, consider the worst possible outcomes of satisficing a wedding versus satisficing a choice in husband. The worst case scenario for a poorly contrived wedding isn’t all that bad. Everyone would still make it through and have a marriage by the end of the day. But the worst case scenario for satisficing a lifelong mate is pretty terrible. In this instance, it would be smarter to satisfice the wedding than the marital partner.

Final Word

Without a doubt, satisficing is more natural for some people than it is to others. Although perfectionism certainly has its place, there are many conundrums in business and life that just don’t warrant much thought. Try to free up your emotional and mental energy by satisficing your way through decisions and activities that have little likelihood of moving you toward your long-term goals and dreams.

In which areas of your life are you most likely to satisfice?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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