It’s your first snow day of the semester. You want to make the most of it and catch up on schoolwork, but you also want to take advantage of your day off and kick back with your friends. Do you maximize, or do you satisfice?
“Satisfice” is a term that was coined by Nobel Prize laureate and Carnegie Mellon professor Herbert Simon in 1956. The idea sprang from his research on rational choice, and in Simon's words (as quoted in this research paper from Journal of Documentation), it refers to a decision-making strategy "through which an individual decides when an alternative approach or solution is sufficient to meet the individuals' desired goals rather than pursue the perfect approach." Here are a few more definitions you might find helpful:
"picking the first option that meets an acceptability threshold, rather than trying to optimized or maximize" —Katy Waldman, "My Week of Satisficing," Slate
"to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI" —Emilia Lahti, "Satisficing: How to Reach Your Best by Not Giving a Damn," The Creativity Post
So how do you satisfice? This article from 99U breaks it down into four steps:
- Accept you'll never get everything done.
- Keep a "new ideas" document.
- Ship early, then iterate.
- Prioritize your well-being.
You might accomplish this by making a list of needs versus wants, then tackling the former without worrying so much about the latter. The other key to satisficing is weighing the benefits of having more information versus the cost of seeking more information (time and resources). Keeping in line with the snow day example, let's say you don't really want to waste your snow day researching all the ways you could spend your snow day—after all, the more time you spend researching and texting all your friends to see who's free, the less time you'll have to actually spend your snow day productively. So, you satisfice by determining your needs (finishing a brit lit paper and hanging out with friends) and fulfilling them with minimum effort (finishing your paper in the fewest pages possible and hanging with your roommates, who are also trapped inside because of the snow). This is in contrast to maximizing, i.e. when you try to do everything to produce the best possible results—which can often land us in Lahti's idea of "the negativity spiral, which is triggered by the 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."
So where does satisficing go in the context of information technology? It exists in a web of other decision-making theories used in economics, such as role theory and rational choice theory. Role theory places individual preferences in a social context—that is, we search for information based on the roles we perceive ourselves to play in a social system of needs. Rational choice theory deals with how we decide how much time and resources to put toward our information quests to accomplish objectives. Both theories can play into how we choose to satisfice, since we satisfice to fulfill needs and meet objectives with as little effort as possible.
This is all pretty significant when discussing how we process information and how we search for more, especially in a world that critics like Keller, Carr, Pariser, and Stoll (identified in The Information Diet) would argue is oversaturated with information. In "What is enough? Satisficing information needs," researchers categorized a sample of undergraduate students' information search stopping points as either quantitative or qualitative. Students built their search quests according to quantitative assignment guidelines, e.g. "required number of citations," "required number of pages," and "time available for preparing." Qualitative goals were met when they found "same information repeated in several sources" or "sufficient information was gathered." When do you consider your research goals fulfilled? Food for thought when you're writing your next research paper!
But how do we take all this information about information-seeking and turn it into valuable insights? In the case of the Journal of Documentation paper, researches reported that "studies of information seeking and searching make oblique inferences to satisficing in the context of disengaging from the information-seeking process." So as long as we're satisficing, we might be suggesting we're not all that invested in the personal quest for knowledge. Which also might offer an opportunity for reflection on academic achievement and responsibility—we have to spread our research in a lot of directions, so how do we stay passionate in all of them? There does seem to be a point where we concede we can't do it all, so we satisfy ourselves with the bare minimum. According to Waldman, satisficing also presents a paradox in the professional world:
Satisficing—at least as it has been cooped by professional culture—is itself a form of maximization, a way of squeezing you for as much productivity and creativity as possible. It is pressure dressed up as self-care, the kind of noble lie a gentle dictator might tell his workers in order to increase their output.
All this considered, the continued importance of satisficing will depend on our ability to evaluate our individual needs. It would be nice if we could always be content with satisfiction, but we're human beings with passions, not automatons with information thresholds. There is definitely a valuable lesson in setting aside our perfectionism for the greater good of turning something—anything—in, but we wouldn't be ourselves if we didn't get personally invested in the areas of research that get us excited about our vocations, in the projects we toil over for days. As 99U pointed out, well-being comes first. Stay passionate, productive, and healthy, and you'll meet your goals one way or another.