Time strategy #4: Satisfice

IMG_1220Back 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.

12 thoughts on “Time strategy #4: Satisfice

  1. I’ve become more of a satisficer with time and the realization that nothing is actually perfect, and you can almost always try again next time. I agree it does take a sort of confidence that you will make it through no matter how imperfect a choice you made with the dishwasher purchase.

    1. @Ana, are you living my life?! Our crappy dishwasher that we bought under duress in 2009 refuses to die but I can’t replace it in good conscience (yet).

      I’ve found that almost no decision is irreversible, especially the “littler” stuff like jobs, purchases etc. I also see bad decisions as a valuable source of learning about what you DON’T want (just like bad boyfriends). In some ways, I’ve learned a lot about what I do like from the crappy choices I’ve made 🙂

  2. This is perfect timing. My husband and I finally found a house after searching for several months and looking more than 60 houses (online and in person combined). After a while, they start to all meld together! When we had put in an offer and had it accepted, my husband still sent me links to view other houses. I told him that he had to STOP looking for that OTHER perfect house! I think I’m a total satisficer and he is a maximizer. And he’s NOT a perfectionist, he just wants to be sure he’s seen ALL the options. Also, exactly what you said happened, we took so long to find the “perfect” house that the pool of available houses has diminished and we were down two literally almost the LAST three houses that fit our criteria. It has been a difficult journey (especially because this is the second time in 3 years that we’ve done this, we’re just moving across town to be closer to his new job) but we have found a house and we’re both pretty happy with it. The big move happens in August! Thanks for sharing this, I think it is a good reminder that people are different and it’s good to be aware that your spouse may not be the same as you. Finally, when you said the perfect spouse is like the real estate thing, I thought you were going to say that after a few years you learn to love the quirks.

    1. @Anna- thanks, and congrats on your new home! I’m sure it will be great. The issue of satisficing/maximizing probably gets into the narratives we have about ourselves. I’m sure it is very important to some folks to believe that they are the kind of people who never settle. Who want to make sure they and their loved ones have the best. It can be a very positive trait sometimes (you care so much about your friend that you want the perfect gift and need to see all the options) but it can also be an exasperating one. Especially for those of us who believe that nothing is perfect.

      And there are probably many ways the real estate metaphor also works with spouses!

  3. I have really enjoyed this week.

    I too have moved towards satisficing as I get older and wiser. My mother once described a colleague as having “islands of perfections in a sea of chaos”. That can happen to maximizers. On a small scale, I used to have perfectly organized drawers in a messy bedroom. Now I am able to, without angst, jam some unfolded clothes into a drawer in pursuit of a neater room. Satisficed.

    PS. The Philadelphia suburbs can be a sublime place to live/raise a family/stay forever. In many senses, we have access to anything you could want.

  4. Like other commenters, I’ve become a satisficer over time. I’m getting more efficient every year–I’m getting married in November and when discussing honeymoon options, I chose a place my friend had gone two years ago and loved. Done.

    Confidence has a lot to do with it–I know that not only is no situation going to be perfect, but generally I can fix things or make adjustments to make anything better, and that goes a long way in making me comfortable with making decisions quickly and with decisions I’ve made in the past. I would also add that going with your gut might sound trite, but I think it’s honed through being a satisficer–sometimes you know that something meets your criteria faster than you can reason out why.

  5. I enjoyed reading this. I am totally a satisficer. I let my husband pick out a new car for me as long as it had room for my baby stroller in the back. I will buy clothes without trying them on, as long as they are the color and size I wanted. I tire quickly when researching things and tend to choose the easiest or most convenient option. Maybe I am just lazy? I also wonder if there is a correlation between being a satisficer and general happiness, or happy marriage. My marriage is not perfect but it is generally happy, and certainly preferable to being divorced.

    1. @Sarah – rather than laziness, I prefer to view it as not caring too much about things that aren’t that important to you. Probably most of us are on a spectrum, and there are some things we tend more toward maximizing and some toward satisficing.

  6. Satisficing FTW!

    In our personal lives, my husband and I embrace this approach wholeheartedly. We purchased our home after touring nine houses in a two day period. Seven years later, we still love it. It’s our “forever home” and we’re doing a major renovation. For the reno, we interviewed one contractor. The neighbors used him for their gorgeous addition, and they couldn’t stop singing his praises. Why waste time interviewing 10 more people?

    We’ve decided upon cars and couches and many other things the same way – set some (high) standards and say “yes!” to the first option that meets them.

    Unfortunately, satisficing isn’t much embraced in my profession of choice: biglaw. You can call a brief a “draft,” but it’s supposed to be as finished as your skills can make it before sending it to the partner.

    1. @Kathleen – I think your approach to hiring a contractor is smart. If people you trust are raving about him that’s about as good a vetting process as you can expect.

  7. What you say about saticficing is so true. As a writer specializing in time management, I’ve learned to save time by asking myself “Is this it good enough for what it’s for?” This helps me to avoid unjustified perfectionism and have more time to spend on things that are more important.

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