Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Satisficing: How Overachievers Stay Sane and Avoid Burn-Out

One of the fastest paths to burnout is when brilliant people get so stuck on making everything they do AMAZING that all they have to show for their efforts is a string of sleepless nights, broken commitments, and work left undone. But life doesn’t have to be this way.

It is possible for overachievers to get more done, improve their performance, and be less stressed, but it doesn’t always mean grinding out that extra task on the to-do list. Sometimes, we need take a step back and embrace the concept of “satisficing.” The power of this concept was explored by Dr. Barry Schwartz’s team in a 2002 paper and is probably best summarized by researcher Emilia Lahti:

 “Satisficing simply means to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.” 

Here’s how Lahti personally applied this powerful principle to her master’s degree program (emphasis added): 

For my second semester at Penn, I tried this satisficer tactic. I approached the assignments without my usual over-achiever angst and “must seek validation for my existence on this planet and exceed all expectations” -mentality. I began my course work with a conscious attitude that “I will simply do enough, and enough is what I can do within reasonable limits… The result of not giving a damn: three A’s and an A-, but most importantly I enjoyed every minute of the ride. The trick: your mind believes you when you tell it something. We CAN override old patterns of behavior and create new associations.”

Here’s how you can apply this principle to your life to get more done, be happier, and feel more successful:

Accept you’ll never get everything done: You haven’t “done everything” until you’re dead. So instead of freaking out about the fact that there will always be more to do, decide which activities really fall within the “Critical must-do” category and let go of the rest. If the activities in the second “Would be nice to do” category get done, great. If not, it probably doesn’t matter very much. Stop and invest in your key projects even when you haven’t completed all the “little things” and you’ll feel way more accomplished

Keep a “new ideas” document: Creative people have the blessing of having the Ideation strength, meaning ideas thrill you and you typically have much more new ones than most people. However, this can turn into a curse when you feel like a failure because you don’t act on all of your ideas. Instead of feeling badly that you have so many ideas you haven’t pursued, celebrate the thrill of the thought and be content with jotting it into a journal or putting it in Evernote for now. Capturing it should appease your impulse to act, and if you still feel as excited a few days later, you can revisit. After all, you don’t have to do everything that pops into your head. As Cal Newport explains in his post “New Year’s Advice from [Stoic philosopher] Epictetus: Don’t Get Started.”

[My friend] recently sent me a smart quote on this subject from the first century stoic philosopher, Epictetus:

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.

Epictetus doesn’t reject action. But he believes commitment to a pursuit must be preceded by the careful study of what is actually required for success.

Ship early, then iterate: Another blessing and a curse of the creative mind is that you tend to see all of the potential things you could do all at once. This makes it difficult to discern between the essentials and the embellishments.

For example, maybe you need to create a website so you have someplace to refer potential clients. Instead of putting something together within your time and budget constraints that has the critical information, you may not move forward at all because you can’t complete the videos, special features, and design exactly how you would prefer.

Take this as a bit of honest, tough love: that’s stupid. To not do anything—to the extreme detriment of your creative career—because it can’t be exactly how you imagined in your head on the first run will hinder you immensely. Instead of aiming for brilliant out of the gate, do the basics and then recognize that with almost anything you can refine, edit, and iterate. Ship first

To not do anything because it can’t be exactly how you imagined in your head on the first run will hinder you immensely.

Prioritize your well-being: As author Danielle LaPorte said in this interview with Marie Forleo ”‘No matter what’ is a dangerous phrase.” She’s right. Consistently sacrificing your health, your well being, your relationships, and your sanity for the sake of living up to impossible standards will lead to some dangerous behaviors and, ironically, a great deal of procrastination. Instead of saying, “I’ll stay up until this is done,” say, “I’ll work until X time and then I’m stopping. I may end up needing to ask for an extension or complete less than perfect work. But that’s OK. I’m worth it.” Making sleep, exercise, and downtime a regular part of your life plays an essential role in a lasting, productive creative career. And what’s more, you’ll be better positioned to enjoy the ride.

Over to You…

How have you tried to satisfice?

What results did you experience?

More insights on: Time Management

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at www.ScheduleMakeover.com.
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