Back in 2011, when we learned that our third kid was on the way, my husband and I decided to cast our real estate sights beyond our already crowded New York City apartment. While much of my industry is in NYC, I seldom have to be there more than once a week. My husband is a consultant and often travels to clients. In other words, we didn’t have to live anywhere.
It could have been an occasion for all sorts of decision-making angst. Instead, here is the process we used to buy a house. My husband had done work over the years in Philadelphia, and we liked the city. It is a city (art! restaurants! concerts!) but a manageable city, and it is close to NYC. We had heard the Main Line was nice and had a good school district — one of the township board members had been on a group Peru trip with me years ago and talked it up quite a bit. We came out one Friday and had a real estate agent show us around. We really liked one house that met our criteria: big enough, right price, nice yard. We thought about it a bit, drove back out for an open house on Sunday, and made an offer early that week. In six weeks the house was ours.
Was our new bucolic corner of PA the perfect location? No. Was it the perfect house? No. There is a bit more traffic on our street than I would like and I wish we had sidewalks. The house has needed several repairs. Then again, I know no house is going to be perfect. Every house will need repairs, and once you make a commitment on something that meets your criteria, it becomes yours. You come to love it just for that. Five years later, we are quite happy here.
My husband and I are classic “satisficers.” In life, you can be a maximizer, or a satisficer. The former wants to keep examining all options to make the best possible choice. A satisficer chooses her criteria, and then goes with the first option that clears the bar. There is a fun quiz here from Prof. Barry Schwartz on how to determine what you are (WSJ; may require subscription – or try Googling Barry Schwartz and satisficer quiz and it should take you in). I answered no to a lot of these questions. There is some research that satisficers tend to be happier, perhaps because we are not constantly second guessing ourselves. We are not haunted by the idea that there is something better out there.
Happiness is great, but for our purposes here, the best thing about satisficing is that it saves incredible amounts of time. We could have hunted for a house for months. Years! As satisficers, we didn’t. A satisficer’s standards can be very high. After all, the choice has to clear the bar, and for many things my bar is quite up there. But once the bar is cleared, you’re good.
Our personalities are somewhat set, but anything you can do to tilt more toward the satisficing side is probably smart. It saves much time in wasted perfectionism and the corresponding procrastination. Or to sum up this foundational time management habit:
Done is better than perfect, because there is no perfect without being done.
I know this is true for our real estate journey. Holding out for the perfect house could have led to three outcomes. One is that we would have found it. Unfortunately, I am pretty sure that if this ideal house exists, it is not in my budget. Second, we would have held out so long that we would have had to make a choice in a far more constrained situation and with a shorter timeline (e.g. doing renovations and getting furniture right as our baby arrived) than our satisficing approach allowed. Or, third, we never would have chosen a house, and we would still be renting a small apartment in New York, crammed in there with our four children, dreaming about the perfect house that would someday appear. That is hardly a perfect situation, and certainly a worse situation than being in a less-than-perfect abode.
Satisficing is often good in a work context too. Much of life turns out to be iterative. I hear from writers all the time lamenting the extra hours spent polishing something past the point of diminishing returns, when an editor is just going to add her own questions and comments. Better to finish a reasonable first draft, send it out for its debut, and see what you get back.
So if you are a satisficer, great. Embrace it. That just leaves the question of whether you can become one. Perfectionism in general is hard to overcome, and there are whole books written on this question. It might help to start with small stakes decisions, and remind yourself how little the outcome matters. The restaurant you went to on Friday — was it the best? No. Was the meal decent and the company fine? Most likely. Try asking the waiter what’s good on the menu and just ordering that. Note that at the end of the meal you are generally happy and full, regardless of what you ordered.
I think it also helps to approach life from a perspective of quiet confidence. Individual decisions start to matter less when you honestly believe that you will be able to pull together the resources you need in the future. This is not your last supper. It is not your last client proposal. It is not your last car purchase. While you probably hope that your spouse is your last marriage, what makes a marriage good is so often what happens after the wedding. (Also, much like the real estate problem, the perfect spouse might not be in our metaphorical budgets.)
Finally, it helps to remember that the definition of good is highly variable. If you are aiming for perfect instead of done, consider this: if you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing for a while, you’re probably quite good at it. Your “done” could be someone else’s perfect! Doesn’t that feel better? Try reviewing past accomplishments and reminding yourself of all you’ve learned. Then make your decision with your eyes open. It won’t be perfect, but it will be fine.
In other news: This is part of a series on foundational time management habits. I will be back with more next week.
In other other news: I have a new weekly newsletter called “A Week’s Worth” that comes out on Saturdays. It has links to my articles published around the web, and blog posts. If you don’t come here regularly, it’s a quick way to get it all in digest form. Just go here and update your subscription preferences to include A Week’s Worth.