A Satisficing Solution

Satisficing is the art of meeting minimum requirements, rather than wasting time and energy on finding the absolute best possible solution to a problem. The word “satisfice” is a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice.” Using this strategy can free up time to spend on optimising your priorities.

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Satisficing is the art of meeting minimum requirements, rather than wasting time and energy on finding the absolute best possible solution to a problem. The word “satisfice” is a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice.” It’s a strategy often used in business decisions, when diverting resources to weigh up the pros and cons of different options would cost more than simply choosing the first option which meets all the criteria. As a recovering perfectionist, the idea of satisficing made me a little queasy –– why would anyone select a solution which probably isn’t the best one, on purpose? Shouldn’t we all be doing our best to get the best? Well, no.

We all have limited time: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If we were to optimise every decision in our lives –– that is, put as much effort as it takes into choosing the best option –– we would quickly run out of time. It’s impossible. For most of our daily decisions, optimising doesn’t make sense. Why waste hours researching the best route to work, for example, if your current route takes a reasonable amount of time and you consider it good value for money? Unless you are unaware of a major shortcut, chances are you would waste hours researching alternatives just to shave a few minutes off your commute. I doubt any of the meal choices I make are optimal, but they generally satisfy the minimum requirements of being within my budget, dietary constraints and accessible (either in my usual supermarket or, on a day to day basis, in my kitchen). Ditto my choice of shampoo and usual outfit –– my sweatpants might not be photogenic, but they are practical and comfortable.

The most important decision to optimise is picking your priorities. 

When you know your current priorities, you know what is worth your time and other resources –– and, more crucially, what is not. I understand the desire to be perfect, or to do your absolute best even if it falls short of perfect. I spent a huge proportion of my life believing I was not good enough. I knew I would never be the cleverest, prettiest or sportiest person among my peers, but for a long time I decided to try my hardest to keep up, despite knowing I could never meet the impossible standards other people seemed to demand.

I now realise that I was the one setting those impossible standards. Sure, the majority of teachers at my grammar school cared most about grades, criticising or ignoring those of us who didn’t get straight A stars and displaying an astonishing disregard for pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, but I bought into that mindset. I never thought to challenge it and sadly, as is the case for many young people, I didn’t have the skills to critique this toxic attitude. Similarly, I was the one who bought into the concept that I had to be thin to be even vaguely attractive, pulling the trigger on a binge-starve cycle of disordered eating which lasted for years. While it’s tempting to rehash and regret these memories, ruminating on them is unproductive (and not one of my priorities!). Instead, I can observe my experiences with the skills I now possess and learn from them. I did the best I could at the time, but I don’t have to keep setting impossible standards for myself now –– especially not standards which are defined by other people.

Trouble is, society teaches us that satisficing isn’t good enough: we are told to do our best and expect the best. I think this was true before social media, but social media has made this attitude more visible and pervasive. Previously private aspects of people’s lives are on display to family, friends, colleagues and strangers. Photos of our homes are posted on Instagram for the world to see. We share what we are reading, watching, wearing and eating. We know, logically, that social media presents us with a curated and edited version of people’s lives, but that doesn’t stop our emotional responses –– which often make us feel as if we are failing to meet the standards set by social media. 

Comparing ourselves to edited and filtered versions of other people’s lives sends the message that only the best is good enough. Satisficing is framed as settling. And why settle when “the best” seems so accessible thanks to photos of people, some of whom we know in real life, looking amazing and doing wonderful things? But nobody has the time and energy to optimise every action and decision. We will always fall short. Why set yourself up for failure when it leads to misery?

YOU get to decide what’s good enough.

Would you give your best friend the standards you set yourself? If you take a moment to pause and ask yourself this question, it’s amazing how quickly the excuses start bombarding your mind. 

“No, but she’s already achieved so much more than me.” 

“She’s already gorgeous and talented.”

“She’s got kids and a husband, whereas I don’t.”

“But she has a good job and nothing to prove, not like me.”

“No. She’s amazing just as she is.”

We judge ourselves so harshly that on the rare occasions we give ourselves some respite, we start worrying that we need to raise our standards. Expect more of ourselves. Do more. Do better. Yet most of us are good enough most of the time –– not perfect, but enough.

Set your own standards with the compassion you would show your best friend. What are the minimum requirements for a specific task, decision or relationship? What would be good enough?

Satisficing and optimising don’t have to be mutually exclusive. While some decisions are almost never worth a great deal of effort, such as things we don’t care about and routine choices, others occupy a more ambiguous zone. These ambiguous decisions are not priorities, but aren’t as unimportant as absolute non-priorities so satisficing works well when time is tight, but it might be worthwhile to spend more time on them if you have already optimised your top priorities. For example, choosing gym clothes is never going to be one of my top priorities, but I prefer to spend some time looking at different options, when I can, rather than picking the first which meets my minimum requirements of fitting my body and my budget. I’m also unlikely to optimise this decision, even if I have hours to spare, because I’m not an elite athlete and spending hours researching workout gear won’t give me a good return on that investment. 

You get to decide what you optimise and satisfice. Your priorities might not be the same as other people’s, so what you choose to satisfice will probably look different to what your friends or family choose to satisfice. It’s vital to decide what you want to prioritise, not what you think you should prioritise based on what other people say, do or post on social media.

Procrastination is perfectionism’s best friend.

When we attempt to optimise every action and decision, we hold ourselves to impossible standards and are often so daunted by those standards that we procrastinate, afraid of doing anything because we know it –– and we –– can never measure up. I have fallen into this trap more times than I care to remember. I messed up my art GCSE because I threw away a whole sketchbook of coursework which didn’t meet my perfectionist standards –– I intended to redo it at some point, but ran out of time and had to explain what I’d done in an embarrassing  (and tearful) phone call from my art teacher. I would like to be able to say that I adopted my mantra of “done is better than perfect” at that point, but it would be over a decade until that lesson became internalised. 

Many of us would rather fail by default than risk failing through not measuring up to a defined set of standards, whether those standards are our own or other people’s. If we don’t stand up and make ourselves vulnerable, we can convince ourselves that we would have been able to meet those standards. So we don’t complete the task. We stop working towards our goal. Or we half-ass a piece of work, knowing we can shrug it off if we fail to meet our standards because we didn’t try very hard anyway. “If I’d really put in the hours,” we tell ourselves, “I would have done a lot better.” This messed-up logic is usually the result of believing that if we fail to measure up to our standards (or someone else’s), we aren’t good enough. We aren’t good enough friends, daughters, partners, mothers, colleagues. We aren’t good enough people.

So we might convince ourselves that our intentions make us good enough –– as long as we intend to do everything perfectly. We might procrastinate, but we do try. Often, we show how hard we try by taking on more challenges and responsibilities, which also gives us another excuse: “I didn’t do well on that project, but look at how much I’ve got on my plate! It’s a miracle I even finished it.” Often this is done in earnest, believing we need to take on more because it’s the right thing to do, or other people expect us to do more. I convinced myself that the only way I would be offered a place on my university’s Creative Writing MA was if I did an Open University diploma in the subject alongside the final two years of my (full time) undergraduate degree, so I did –– at massive cost to my mental and physical health. When we try to squeeze more priorities into our lives, something always has to give.

Optimising differs from perfectionism in several key ways:

  1. It means choosing to actively work on something, not avoiding it because you know it won’t meet your perfectionist demands.
  2. Optimising requires you to deal with procrastination and actually complete what you set out to do.
  3. You risk making yourself vulnerable to criticism or rejection by presenting work which represents the best you can do at this particular time, in your current situation.
  4. It gives a true measure of your abilities, not a pseudo-measure which can be swept aside by making excuses about how you rushed the work to meet the deadline.
  5. Optimising means cutting through your excuses and completing the work on time, rather than letting other people and/or yourself down by failing to do your best work, or failing to do anything at all.
  6. You need to examine and challenge long-held beliefs about yourself, including choosing your priorities and acknowledging that you are good enough –– regardless of your achievements.
  7. It means being assertive enough to say “these are my priorities, whether you like it or not” without being swayed by other people’s opinions.

I think so many of us cling to our “perfectionist” identities because we are scared of admitting we are not perfect and never can be perfect. As long as we believe perfection is possible, there is a chance we can achieve it. By acknowledging that we never can, or will, be perfect we have to deal with the messy reality of life.

Satisficing in less than optimal circumstances.

Talking of messy realities, satisficing can be an effective strategy when we are struggling with difficult circumstances, such as long term health problems. It can feel horrible to satisfice when you would rather optimise a task, but when it’s the difference between something getting done and not getting done, especially if there are negative consequences to not doing it, satisficing is usually the best option. It means taking control instead of choosing the perfectionist’s route of procrastination and excuses.

I have had a tough few months, as in addition to struggling with chronic mental health problems, I had gallbladder removal surgery in December and no fewer than six university assignment deadlines in the following three months. I didn’t want to defer my modules as it would mean taking on more student loans and quite frankly, I feel that my health problems have stolen enough time from me already. Getting extensions would simply defer the problem for a week or two, placing me under more pressure in the long-term. So I asked myself, what would be good enough in these circumstances? I decided on my minimum requirements and executed them as best I could. 

I hated satisficing my assignments because my part-time Psychology BSc is one of my main priorities. It goes against my instincts to try to meet the minimum requirements, because I want to achieve the highest marks possible. But the bottom line is, trying to measure up to my highest standards when I was still recovering from surgery and feeling depressed would have been a disaster. I would have procrastinated and then struggled to complete something –– anything –– within the final hours before the deadline. By satisficing, I worked when I could and aimed to complete a draft, no matter how terrible, as soon as possible. Completing a draft meant I had something to submit, even if it wasn’t brilliant, which gave me a safety net and something to work with. As for my results, I had slightly disappointing marks for three of the assignments (although I try to be kind to myself and remind myself it’s an achievement given the circumstances) and the other two marked assignments (the sixth was submitted this week) surpassed my expectations –– that is, my expectations for any circumstances!

The reality of living with mental illness is that sometimes you can’t prioritise everything you would like to prioritise. It sucks, it really does, but that’s life. When trying to optimise a task or decision could cause more harm than satisficing, meeting the minimum requirements is the best choice you can make. You can try railing against the unfairness of the world, but all that does is waste time and energy which could be better spent elsewhere. 

Your definition of “minimum requirements” will always fluctuate and change throughout your life, regardless of whether you have chronic health problems, but when coping with long-term illness, your definition may change on a weekly or daily basis. At various points in my life, I have experienced depression so bad that the “minimum requirement” was simply to get through the day. On slightly better days, that would change to having a shower and getting dressed. Nowadays, my minimum requirements look very different –– apart from on especially bad days –– and a lot of them centre on self-care and managing my mental health. For example, I try to walk my dog, use my SAD lamp and eat at least a few servings of fruit and vegetables every day. On my good days, I add more tasks (such as reading, messaging friends, writing and studying), but I know that trying to force myself to do those things on a bad day will leave me feeling worse. 

Remember, you set your own standards and should do so with compassion. If your best friend was dealing with your circumstances, would you expect the same of her? Some days you may be able to optimise all of your priorities, but other days your priorities may change and you can only satisfice your most basic needs –– and that’s good enough.

So, how can you become an ace satisficer?

  1. Know your priorities. If it’s not important to you, right now, don’t try to optimise your decisions or actions.
  2. Value your time. Your priorities are worth spending a lot of time on; non-priorities should take a minimal amount of time.
  3. Create firm boundaries. Remind yourself why you decided not to prioritise certain tasks and decisions –– so that you can use your resources to do your best on what matters to you.
  4. Aim for good enough. Good enough is better than a lot of people manage, especially if procrastinating leads to a poorly-executed rush job or nothing getting done at all.
  5. Re-evaluate on a regular basis. Priorities change, so make sure you are not wasting time and effort on things which are no longer important to you.

Satisficing is something which requires experimentation and practice to find what works for you. There will be times when you find yourself reaching for the impossibilities of perfection, but don’t beat yourself up –– acknowledge your thought and behaviour patterns, then consider what might work better for you. The real magic of satisficing occurs when it frees up time, energy and other resources which you can spend on your priorities. Instead of wasting hours researching options for decisions which really aren’t very important in the grand scheme of things, you can use those hours to do things which you find valuable, enjoyable and exciting.

Hayley Jones

Writer/Psychology student, Freelance

I'm a writer and mental health blogger who lives with anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder. My daily functioning is significantly impacted by mental illness and it's always a work in progress, but I have achieved some of my goals – completing a trek to Machu Picchu, skydiving and starting a part-time Psychology BSc. I strive to make a positive contribution to the world and use my experiences to help and encourage others.