Satisficing: How to Reach Your Best by Not Giving a Damn

Satisficing: How to Reach Your Best by Not Giving a Damn

Psychology November 19, 2013 / By Emilia Lahti
Satisficing: How to Reach Your Best by Not Giving a Damn

Check yourself before you wreck yourself - aim to 'satisfice' to make sure your nervous system works for you, not against you.

I am fully aware of the fact that my spell-checker shows a bright, blinking red line under the word satisficing. This likely means that the word is outside the realm of commonly used constructs and therefore you may have never heard of it. Over the past year, however, this previously unknown term became part of my essential vocabulary. As a matter of fact, I have learned a wonderful new strategy, which not only increased my subjective well-being (by freeing me from being the anal-retentive nitpicker/ruminator that I used to be), but also enabled me to tap into my full potential more than ever before. This is a quick post about harnessing your nervous system to get the results you want, while remaining happy as you pursue your goals.

I recently graduated from a master´s program that was as intense as it was mind-blowing and amazing. For the first four months, I was working full-time for the Consulate General of Finland, which meant that I usually put in 80-90 hours of combined academic and professional work each week. However, being a degree in positive psychology, it meant I also learned a trick or two about using your strengths and keeping your head above the water (well, at least most of the time).

It was one of our magnificent guest lecturers (honestly, have you ever heard of a program where most of the classes end with standing ovations from the students?), Dr. Barry Schwartz, who introduced me to the concept of satisficing. It simply means to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI. It took about three months for the idea to marinate in my head, before I finally gave it one hesitant try. The results were revolutionary! Reduced anxiety (the opposite of what I thought would happen), a more pleasant work process with results which actually never turned out to be mediocre, and more quality time with my parasympathetic nervous system (which is the key here).

We know that having one’s sympathetic nervous system (the fast, flight-or-fight mechanism) call the shots narrows down our cognitive action repertoire and simply reduces our brain’s processing power. So, for my second semester at Penn, I tried this satisficer tactic. I approached the assignments without my usual over-achiever angst and ´must seek validation for my existence on this planet and exceed all expectations´ -mentality. I began my course work with a conscious attitude that “I will simply do enough, and enough is what I can do within reasonable limits. Whatever I am doing now is not nearly as serious as curing world hunger or eradicating domestic violence. So: who cares!”. The result of not giving a damn: three A’s and an A-, but most importantly I enjoyed every minute of the ride. The trick: your mind believes you when you tell it something. We CAN override old patterns of behavior and create new associations. 

Going into a task worried that your contribution may not be enough will actually make you more likely to fail. Or perhaps it may prepare you to succeed, but often at the cost of being utterly stressed, and not enjoying the process itself. What´s the point of that? Beginning to satisfice, for any over-achiever, is like trying mämmi for the first time (a rather scary-looking Finnish Easter dish; photo evidence here). You resist trying it, because you think you´ll simply die. First you take a timid bite of mämmi, barely even tasting it. Next, a tiny spoonful. By the time you have bravely scoffed down the whole box, something in your neocortex has permanently changed. You start craving for mämmi, and weirdly enough it doesn´t even get stuck in your throat anymore.

So, satisficing every now and then did not turn me into a slacker I feared it would. On the contrary, what I actually noticed is that it allows me to work more, and also produce more high quality results. This is because it enables me to avoid the impacts of the negativity spiral, which is triggered by the constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system when we ruminate ourselves to death in the little hamster wheel of self-criticism and assumed expectations of others. More seminal information on what positive emotions and negative emotions do (broadening vs. narrowing etc.) can be found here.

In order to not turn into a maximizer again with this blog post, I will end here and conclude that satisficing has been one of my biggest takeaways from the past intense year, on a personal level (quite ironic). I fully believe in hard work, but nowadays I do it with self-compassion and an understanding of how we are built as humans. There are tons of ways to allow your body and mind work for you. Learning about them can help you achieve your goals and also help you enjoy the process much more.

With sisu (but nowadays spiced up with smiles and self-compassion),

Photo credit: Saad Alayyoubi

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