How to Reach Your Best
by Not Giving a Damn
by Emilia Lahti
As I type this, I notice the Medium spell-checker showing a bright red line under the word satisficing. This means that the word is outside the realm of commonly used constructs and therefore you may have never heard of it. However, over the past few years this previously unknown term has become part of my essential vocabulary. In fact, I have learned a badass new strategy which not only increased my subjective well-being (by freeing me from being the anal-retentive nitpicker/ruminator that I used to be), but also enabled me to tap into my full potential more than ever before. This post is about harnessing your nervous system to get the results you want, while remaining sane as you pursue your goals.
Almost two years ago I graduated from a master´s program at the University of Pennsylvania that was as wildly intense as it was otherwordly exciting (Honestly, have you ever heard of a program where most of the classes end with standing ovations from the students?). Exciting or not, for the first four months I was also working full-time, which meant that I usually put in around 90 painful hours of combined academic and professional work each week. However, since the degree was in applied positive psychology, it meant I also learned a trick or two about using my strengths and keeping my head above water (well, at least most of the time).
It was one of our magnificent guest lecturers, Dr. Barry Schwartz, who introduced our class to the concept of satisficing. To put it simply, satisficing means not being an obsessive perfectionist about every single task outcome and ROI. It took about three months for this concept to marinate in my head, before I finally gave it one reluctant try. The results were revolutionary: reduced anxiety (the opposite of what I thought would happen), a more pleasant work process with results which actually never disappointed me and more quality time with my parasympathetic nervous system (which is the key here). And I ate more cookies, too, which was fun.
What we know from the research is that having our sympathetic nervous system (the fast, flight-or-fight mechanism) call the shots may help us get out of a jam but it narrows down our cognitive action repertoire and simply reduces our brain’s processing power (see here). Highly useful if you are suddenly attacked by a vicious saber-toothed tiger on your way to work, but not so good when you are simply trying to handle your daily chores.
So, for my second semester, I tried this satisficer tactic and chose to approach the assignments without my usual ‘must seek validation for my existence on this planet and exceed all expectations’ -angst. I began coursework with a conscious attitude of “I will do enough, and enough is what I can do within reasonable limits. Whatever I am doing now is not nearly as serious as curing world hunger or eradicating domestic violence, so there’s no point in behaving like it is.” The result of not giving a damn: straight A’s but most importantly, I enjoyed every minute of the ride. The trick: your mind believes you when you repeatedly tell it something. We CAN override old patterns of behavior and create new associations.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself — aim to ‘satisfice’ to make sure your nervous system works for you, not against you.
Going into a task worried that your contribution may not be enough will actually make you more likely to fail because you are not able to tap into your cognitive resources fully. Or even if it prepares you to succeed, it often does so at the cost of you being utterly stressed, and not enjoying the process itself. Beginning to satisfice, for any over-achiever, is like trying mämmi for the first time (it’s a rather scary-looking Finnish Easter dish).
You resist trying it, because you think you´ll simply die. (I waited until I was in my mid-twenties.) First you take a timid bite of mämmi, barely even tasting it. Next, a tiny spoonful. By the time you have bravely scoffed down the whole box, something in your neocortex has permanently changed. You start craving for mämmi, and weirdly enough it doesn´t even get stuck in your throat anymore.
Satisficing every now and then did not turn me into the slacker I feared it would. On the contrary, what I actually noticed is that it allowed me to enjoy the work more, and also produce more high quality results. This is because it enabled me to avoid the impacts of the negativity spiral — this spiral is triggered by constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system (when we ruminate ourselves to death in the little hamster wheel of self-criticism and assumed expectations of others).
I do believe in hard work and sisu, but nowadays I do it with a healthy dose of self-compassion and a greater understanding of how we are built as humans. There are numerous ways to allow your body and mind work for you. Learning about them not only helps you achieve your goals, but also to enjoy the process much more.
So, off you go, my overachieving friend.
Smell the roses, eat that (one) cookie and hit the snooze button like a boss!