Satisficing: A Way Out of the Miserable Mindset of Maximizing

Chasing after the best of everything actually keeps us from enjoying nearly anything. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I was out to dinner with a co-worker recently. The restaurant was quite nice, and boasted a whole menu of dishes that sounded amazing. This was both of our first times there, and I was poring over the menu — going back and forth in my mind about what dish I should get. I wanted to get the quintessential dish to capture this place and its flavor. I wanted to nail it.

During that process, I couldn’t pay attention to the conversation going on between my colleague and our dinner guest. I heard what they were saying, and I wanted to join in, but I was hell-bent on making the most out of this dinner. My coworker, on the other hand, perused the menu for what seemed like less than a minute, and was ready to order.

When our meals came, I was happy to be able to eat, but as I tasted it, the worry crept up in the back of my head: could I have ordered a better meal? My colleague seemed pleased with his choice, and went on eating confidently. It was that quiet confidence in his choice that made me feel a bit silly about racking my brain to order “the best” dish. It seemed so important to me at the time, but in retrospect, it was absurd.

What I came to realize then and there is something that a few thinkers in the psychology community had come to realize already:

The drive to maximize the results of our choices often ends up limiting how much value we actually derive from them.

The more we demand of ourselves and others, the easier it becomes for the results to cause us stress and anxiety. What’s more, insisting on squeezing the most out of each choice makes it increasingly more difficult to be decisive — to be confident in your decisions. When you’re less decisive, you spend more mental energy on decisions, and thus have less of it to devote to the numerous other things that demand it.

The Dangers of the Maximization Mindset

The maximizing mindset can be summed up as the desire and inclination to try to get the most and the best out of decisions, interactions, and people. It’s a mindset that many high achievers in the business world champion. And here’s the funny thing: even the self-proclaimed minimalist is guilty of the maximizing mindset. The obsession with getting rid of things, having the least amount of stuff in one’s “daily carry”, and having the smallest house that can be packed up and taken the most places — it’s a maximizing mindset.

But there are 3 main problems with this mindset, and they negatively affect your quality of life. The problems are:

FOMO: fear of missing out
FOMO (the fear of missing out) makes anything you do less enjoyable, because you’re worrying that another choice could have gotten you more pleasure. That wouldn’t be a problem if you weren’t looking to maximize.

Paralysis: the inability to make decisions efficiently and effectively
When you’re looking to maximize, you can end up spending so much time deliberating which choice is going to yield the best results, that you create a lot of unnecessary stress & tension in the process of choosing, which sucks the joy right out of the whole process.

Stifling of Exploration: insisting on maximizing makes it difficult to simply explore — which is a hugely beneficial practice.
Focusing on the maximum return stifles a very beneficial process of human life: exploration. When we demand a certain level of return on our time and energy, we abandon the mindset of an explorer. And that mindset is more beneficial than many people realize — especially the most driven and ambitious among us.

The explorer — like the maximizer — wants to find something valuable at the end of the journey. But unlike the rest of us, the true explorer opens up to whatever she might find along the way, and chalks it all up as simply part of the journey. Truly opening up requires being somewhat detached from trying to get the best results; it’s a type of letting go. When you let go of trying to maximize, and simply let things unfold, wonderful things can happen.

Satisficing: A Smarter Approach

Rather than being maximizers, it often makes more sense to be a satisficer — or one who has a satisficing mindset. The word “satisfice” is a portmanteau of the words “satisfy” and “suffice”. The satisficer is not looking for the best or the most, rather, she’s looking for what will work, and allow her to go on living.

While it may seem like satisficing will just get you an average and lackluster life, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a study on worker satisfaction showed that though maximizers tended to get higher salaries, they ended up being less satisfied with their jobs.

Seem crazy? Sure, but the reason is straightforward: maximizers second-guess by nature. They devote so much time to pursuing the best that they can’t really be sure that they’ve gotten it. Perhaps they could have done better if only they had more time, or data. Satisficers see something acceptable, and move on. And they end up more satisfied than the maximizers — who eternally chase the elusive dragon of “the best”.

Satisficing in Action

As an example of satisficing in practice, imagine that you want to purchase a coffee maker. You go to different websites, pull up reviews, compare them, go to the store, look them over, and agonize about which of the few that you’ve narrowed it down to is going to deliver the best coffee brewing experience. When you do that — and you turn it over in your mind enough times — you train your mind to second-guess your decisions. And it robs you of some of the joy you can get when you do get something new, like a cool coffee maker.

A better option is to simply ask yourself: why am I getting a coffee maker? Likely, the answer is going to be: so that I can enjoy a good, hot cup of coffee every day to kick my morning off right. But do you need the best coffee maker in order to do that? Probably not. And even if there is a difference between the elusive best coffee maker out there, and the one you bought, how much will that difference really alter how well your life goes? If the answer is more than not much, then you’ve pinned way too much of your well-being on a piece of machinery.

The same goes for anything you can buy. Some amount of hand-wringing is acceptable, and maybe necessary, but anything more than a small amount is an indicator that you’re missing the forest for the trees. Simply choose what you’re leaning toward, and be okay with learning later on that it wasn’t the best. After the fact, the only difference it can really make is up to how much you choose to worry about it — and you simply choose not to worry about it.

Is it easy? For a person like me — who regularly spends what seems like an hour in the toothpaste aisle every few months — no, it’s not easy. But is it worth it to pick your battles when it comes to whipping out an intense and complex decision-making process? Absolutely. If you don’t, it’s a fast track to driving yourself (and your loved ones) insane.

The Takeaway: Choose Your Battles

Life is short, but it’s also composed of a lot of decisions. If you pursue any more than a few of them as battles where you have to get the best outcome, you may win some, but you’ll lose most. And the ones you win will likely have exhausted you — so you won’t even have the mental energy to enjoy what you’ve got.

The better way forward is to choose a few things that truly matter to you, focus on pursuing the best in those few areas, and let everything else ride. Whatever is good enough is fine with you. You’ve got bigger fish to fry. And maybe you don’t even have to fry the fish — sashimi is good enough.

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Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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