Are You Satisficing When You Shouldn’t?

Wouldn’t it be nice if all the decisions we need to make could be resolved by selecting an option from a menu? It seems like all of those offering us digital products and services want us to do so. “You don’t need to think anymore,” they say. “Just choose from our menus and we’ll do the rest.” Of course, life is not that easy and never will be. But it sure is tempting, especially when we’re suffering from decision fatigue.

As I spend time with people every day, one of the patterns I see is a desire to make faster decisions, simply to get items off the to-do list. This is a reasonable goal, but we must be careful not to let the significant decisions get shuffled into this menu-driven process. In the 1970’s Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon coined the term “satisficing.” He defined satisficing as not making the best decision but the one that’s good enough. Satisficing is a perfectly acceptable strategy. In fact, it might be best approach for most of everyday life. Why would you spend 20 minutes selecting the perfect sandwich for lunch or perfect the entre for dinner?

But then there are those decisions that require the utmost of care. Maybe it’s which software application to choose for a new product launch. Perhaps you’re hiring for a position with which you will interact every day. Maybe, it’s that sales presentation that will have an out-sized impact on your annual commissions. These have gravity, don’t they? Yet too many times, we allow them to get squeezed by all the pressing matters that continually pile up. Truthfully, it just feels better to cross a bunch of little stuff off the list rather than one big decision. But spending your time “clearing the decks” will not allow you adequate time to give the big decisions the focus they deserve. In the end, you can make a choice that’s “good enough” but properly not serve you or the others involved.

So, how do you satisfice the majority of the time, yet preserve enough energy for the decisions of consequence? Here’s what I’ve seen the best decision makers do:

First, they work to reduce the number of decisions they make. They take stock of the digital distractions that worm their way into everyday routines. They say “no” to convenience apps that end up consuming more time than doing something manually. They refrain from accidental Google and YouTube binges when searching for relevant information. Most importantly, they set aside time to focus on significant decisions and protect that time by leaving the work environment. They are comfortable going “off the air,” and training their colleagues to respect these times. (They also encourage others to do the same. What times during the week can you take away from normal routines to focus?)

Second, they delegate decisions others can, and should, be making. A construction executive told me he sometimes struggles to delegate simply because he’s done everything he asks his subordinates to. “A lot of the time, I can do it faster,” he said. But then he reminds himself that each task still takes time and besides, those he supervises are not learning if he does it instead. How many times in the past week have you “done instead of delegate” and robbed someone else of the opportunity to learn?

Third, they expect those bringing decisions to them be well prepared with clear reasoning and recommendations. Another executive told me she divides her day into 15-minute segments, allowing her to better manage time and priority. “If you get on my calendar for 15 minutes, I expect you to be clear, succinct and ready with the alternatives from which I can make a decision. Spending ten minutes explaining the issue and then asking, ‘What do you think?’ does not go over well.”

Nothing I’ve mentioned above is rocket science. It is simply a matter of setting and enforcing standards of practice and expecting others to do as well. All this, of course, does not happen overnight. You be facing your own resistance to a change in routine along with that of others. But small and incremental changes in practice build over time and result in better decisions and outcomes.

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