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

Originally posted at The Creativity Post column The Art of Braintenance.

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. This year, however, this previously unknown word became part of my vocabulary. 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 has also enabled me to tap into more of my full potential than ever before. This is a quick post about harnessing your nervous system (sort of tricking yourself) to get the results you want, while remaining happy as you pursue your goals.

Brooklyn Bridge sisu Karhu running Emilia Lahti

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 also working full-time, 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.

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 maximize every single task outcome and ROI. It took about four 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).

Karhu running sisu Finland satisficing

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, I tried this ´satisficer tactic´ of approaching an assignment without my usual over-achiever angst and ´must exceed all expectations´ mentality. I began all 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”. The result of not giving a damn: three A’s and an A- (not mention how much I enjoyed every minute of the ride).

Going into a task already worried that your contribution may not be enough will actually make you more likely to fail. Or perhaps it prepares you to succeed, but often at the cost of being utterly stressed, and not enjoying the process itself. What´s the point in 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 die; first you take a timid bite of mämmi, barely even tasting the stuff. Next, a tiny spoon full. 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.

sisu Emilia Lahti F

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 enables me to work more, and also produce more high quality results. This is because it enabled me to avoid the impacts of the negativity spiral, which is triggered by the constant activation of sympathetic nervous system ruminating in the little hamster wheel of self-criticism, and of expectations from others (who really don´t care all that much anyway). 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 still fully believe in hard work, though 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 (nowadays spiced up with smiles and self-compassion),
EL

www.emilialahti.com
www.facebook.com/inspiresisu

This post was originally published at www.Karhu.com

8 thoughts on “Satisficing: How to Reach Your Best by Not Giving a Damn

    1. Thanks, lovely anonymous! Applying the satisficing tactic on IM training will definitely be a tough one (especially when we are talking about working to fulfill a decade old dream : ) ). Excited to share how that goes!

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  1. I like the understanding you’ve arrived at. But sometimes we need that extra effort to break through our on built-in constraints that have kept us from being all that we wanted to be. Somewhere along the line we have to learn how much effort and focus is required to get what we want. The role of belief also plays a much bigger role that we are inclined to give it. Believe that you will do well and you usually will.

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    1. Hello, anonymous fellow explorer! Thank you so much for reading the post and taking the time to share your thoughts. I completely agree with what you wrote about beliefs. A great deal of my work on sisu is based on an idea advocated by the amazing Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford, who says that our beliefs are the biggest indicator of our future actions. Hard work is absolutely needed and required to achieve both long term and short term goals too. Being a long distance runner, I live with this awareness daily (Furthermore, see Dr. Angela Duckworth´s research on how grit correlates with achievement much more than intelligence does (unlike what the belief in psychology was for decades). My post is an attemt to present some ideas how we can make our nervous system work for us when we are facing challenges – instead of operating from a flight or fight mode as is does when our sympathetic nervous system is triggered.

      With smiles and sisu,
      EL

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  2. Hey, thanks for a really great blog post! I must admit, I don’t usually get that much out of blogs, but this writing of yours truly seems to have a great point worth sharing! It left me with one question though: Did the professor of yours introduce, or have you elsewhere come across any other techniques for learning and using satistificing in your every day life, except for beginning every task with a conscious attitude that you’re “simply doing enough”? So, any other uselfult tips for teaching ourselves to satisfice? :)

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