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The Perfectionist’s Guide to Making Decisions: The Art of Satisficing

You’re awesome at your job. You know it, feedback from colleagues and clients has affirmed it, and you consistently deliver results that are above and beyond what’s been asked of you. You repeat this pattern enough times and it becomes the norm—which, frankly, can be exhausting.

High achievers are prone to this pattern of behavior, which is usually completely unsustainable. Eventually, you realize that no matter how many cups of coffee you drink, after-work happy hours and gym sessions you cancel, or calls from your parents you send to voicemail, there’s no possible way to create what you really need: more hours in the day.

This leaves you in the tricky situation of having to take stock of everything on your plate and figure out how to make it all work—without going crazy. But if you’re used to doing it all (and doing it well), just the thought of prioritizing some of your to-dos over others probably makes you break into a sweat. How can you not do everything—and at 110%?

This is where you can employ a decision-making hack called “satisficing,” which combines “satisfying” with “sufficing.” It’s all about finding the solution that satisfies most criteria, rather than searching and searching for the optimal solution. Using this process to decide where to focus your time and energy will help you take care of everything that needs to be done, while still preserving your sanity.

Here’s how it works: Say you’ve taken on a huge new project at work that requires you to write a report on some research your team has done. You commit to writing 100 words each day, but find that you end up obsessing over quality of each day’s quota so much that you can barely get through the otherwise-reasonable daily goal you’ve set for yourself. This optimizing approach can quickly become problematic as you near your deadline.

However, if you use the satisficing approach instead, you’d simply crank out those 100 words each day, aiming for consistency, instead of perfection. Rather than scrutinizing each word you put on the page, you simply focus on getting them written. In the long run, having a long rough draft gets you closer to your end goal than not enough almost-perfect paragraphs.

Ready to give it a try? Here are some tips to make it work for you.

Accept That “Doing it All” is a False Ideal

The first step is to understand—and accept—that you are human and will never be able to achieve the impossible standard of “doing it all,” especially perfectly. Satisficing helps you recalibrate your expectations about what is realistic versus what’s a false ideal—which will help you better set yourself up for success.

Define the Critical “Must Dos”

Before you start on a project, take a moment to determine the base expectations or goals of the assignment, so you understand what exactly is required of you. For example, say you have a meeting to discuss the development of a brand new product and your team manages to fill up three whiteboards worth of notes. While everyone is excited about the new venture, it feels totally overwhelming. Using the satisficing approach, you could create a 30-day roadmap of the one or two initial key steps you’ll take to do your part getting the project off the ground, along with a task list of other tasks to accomplish in the next 60-90 days.

Parking-Lot New Ideas

As you come up with new ideas about how to improve or re-approach a project, be sure you have a repository to write them down, so that you can prioritize the critical must-do, and then return to your additional ideas afterward. Overachievers tend to try to juggle multiple things at once, so this system allows you to get your ideas out of your head and into a safe place that you can later return to. This “idea vault” not only serves as a home for brainstorming, but also allows you to objectively evaluate your ideas away from the chaos of your day-to-day to-do’s. You can then decide if they’re really worth your time, can remain on the back burner, or should be eliminated completely (because you’ve outgrown the idea or it simply no longer aligns with your goals).

Ship Often and Early

In the end, satisficing is all about execution. It emphasizes making smart decisions that allow you to create faster. So, as you execute, it’s important that you ship the results out into the world, rather than sit on them until you’re sure they’re perfect. Think of it as a beta test through which you gather valuable real-world feedback before moving on. For example, say you were asked to develop a new reporting format for your sales department. The satisficing approach would be to develop the format, then send it to your team for review and feedback before you spend weeks building a complex algorithm that no one ends up needing anyway.

Maybe you’re thinking that by using satisficing, you’re settling for “good enough,” which is just not how you operate—and in fact, you can’t imagine getting any “satisfaction” from the satisficing equation. But, I urge you to try it. Experts say that using satisficing to make decisions and complete projects can actually produce more happiness than optimizing or settling, because it minimizes the angst of doubt and over-analysis. It may feel uncomfortable at first to experiment with a new way of operating, but it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself from burnout and to ensure you’re continually taking action toward creating your own success.

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Master your psychology with therapeutic insights for your life, relationships, & career