My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Are you a satisficer or a maximizer?

Last night, at dinner with some friends, we talked about whether we were satisficers or maximizers.

Satisficers (yes, satisfice is a word, I checked) are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.

Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice.

Most people are a mix of both approaches. For example, one friend was a satisficer about renting an apartment, but a maximizer about buying an apartment. As a consequence, he and his wife are renting an apartment now, because they had to move, and they’re still searching for the perfect apartment to buy.

In a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice.

My mother is a good example of what I’d call a “happy limited maximizer.” In certain distinct categories, she’s a maximizer, and she loves the very process of investigating every possibility. My sister is getting married next year, and I know that my mother would love nothing more than to see her try on practically every possible wedding dress, just for the fun of it. But too often maximizers find the research process exhausting—yet can’t let themselves “settle” for anything but the best.

The difference between the two approaches may be one reason some people find a big city like New York overwhelming. If you’re a maximizer, and you live in New York, you could spend months surveying your options for bedroom furniture or even wooden hangers. In a smaller city, like Kansas City, even the most zealous maximizer can size up the available options pretty quickly.

In almost every category, I’m a satisficer, and until I read the Schwartz book, I felt guilty about the fact that often I make decisions without doing more research. For example, when I wanted to start a weight-training program, I didn’t study the options at all. A friend of mine told me she loved her trainer and regime, and I just got the number and called. In law school, one friend interviewed with something like fifty law firms before she decided where she wanted to go as a summer associate; I think I interviewed with six. And we ended up at the same firm (which I found both reassuring and vindicating).

It’s one of Life’s True Rules: let someone else do the research.

  • http://www.monicaricci.typepad.com Monica Ricci

    How interesting. I’m a combo of both. If I’m purchasing something I consider to be a “major” purchase (electronics, cars, major appliances, etc) I’ll research the heck of it. I’m definitely a maximizer in that department.
    But for most things, I’d say I’m a satisficer, I make pretty quick decisions and that works for me. ~Monica

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1175531659 Alice Kell

      I did the same thing with my appliances, when I finally had no choice but replace them and couldn’t find used ones. For pretty much anything but groceries and heat, I will make the decision quickly, then deliberately wait 2 weeks, and often I find I don’t need it after all. What would that be called, maxificer or sacrimizer?

  • http://www.celiacchicks.com Kelly

    I definitely want to read The Paradox Of Choice! I read a fantastic book titled Learned Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman where the last chapter sums up his belief that our culture now with it’s vast array of overwhelming choices is the cause of massive depression problems. Very interesting concept. He introduced me first to the word “satisfice”! ;)

    • ed

      a little Learned Helplessness can go a long way to becoming a satisficer I guess

  • http://www.celiacchicks.com Kelly

    I just went to buy The Paradox Of Choice on Amazon and sure enough, Martin Seligman (mentioned above) is quoted on the back cover! Small literary world!

  • http://mforbes321.livejournal.com Melanie

    I really like your blog and have been reading it for the past couple weeks.
    What an interesting topic! I’m fascinated. I think I have a tendency toward maximizing that goes very well with my overly analytical personality. Your post helped me understand how anyone could not like a city like New York or large menus at a restaurant.
    However I cannot agree with your last sentence because of course I LOVE research. So let it be me!

  • araceli abutin

    ist time reader

  • Sam Kaufman

    Thanks for the vocab! Now I just need to master the art of saying “satisficer” with a straight face.
    Also, my two cents: I’ve moved (rather quickly) from being a maxmizer to a deliberate satisficer over the past year, and it really does beget happiness. I try not to weigh simply costs (the time) versus the gain (the benefits of a better choice), but also the uncertainty involved. Do I really know that this is a better choice? Do I have a clue? It would scare my parents to hear it, but that came in handy when choosing a college!
    I just hope my doctor is a maximizer…

  • http://chrisyeh.blogspot.com Chris Yeh

    I’m a maximizer that wishes he could be a satisficer.
    Or more precisely, I’m a maximizer with my own money, and a satisficer with other people’s money.

  • Caren

    Just wanted to thank you for your site. I’m a middle school teacher teaching special education (past 18 years LAUSD). Your tips have made this group of students (and their teacher) happier than our life circumstances would lead anyone to believe. I’m a satisficer!

  • http://www.tandheelkunde.nu/ Gerald

    I also think I’m a combination of both, wonder if that’s right or not..

  • http://www.smp-ltd.co.uk/product/productid/50/productname/SMP%202%20Diver%20Radio/ Diver Radio

     I am here through Google search engine. I have read this post. Now my
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  • seventythree1144

    I like to spend lots of time picking the cheapest possible option that meets my minimum requirements. What’s that called?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1175531659 Alice Kell

      Minificer?

    • sue

      careful… frugal…

  • scarlett

    Thanks !blog owner! Now I know I am maximizer about what I worried now, whether I should work first or go abroad first.

  • TJ

    I’m a maximizer and will research every option before buying something. This can be maddening (to me and others), so, to combat this, I impose limits, say, a dollar amount I can afford, a deadline, or a location (say, a mall). This seems self-evident, but having those limits in my mind limits my options and allows me to make a decision, since I only have to chose between, say, 5 things rather than 100. It helps.

    • gretchenrubin

      Such a good strategy.

  • Rajkumar

    I have just mimic you in http://aninteriorforest.com/blog/satisfice-or-maximize/

    Minor correction: let someone else do 99% of the research

  • http://www.thenewyorkbudget.com The New York Budget

    I am a maximizer in too many ways (thankfully, furniture is not one of them). I think my two biggest vices are electronics and travel. The one benefit of being a maximizer is that you get frozen into not making a decision and consequently you don’t move forward with a purchase. In the past I have avoided some pretty stupid/superfluous purchases by over analyzing and not being able to pull the trigger.

  • Free to Pursue

    I was absolutely captivated by that book. I am an absolute satisficer and thank my lucky stars for it. I find it almost counter-intuitive that maximizing a decision leads to more regret than when making a decision of “good enough” based on set personal criteria a reduced decision-making time and energy. That was the single most important finding that convinced me to stay the course and not change a thing!

    If anyone wants to get the gist of the concepts covered in the book “The Paradox of Choice” and don’t have the time for a 300-page read, B. Schwartz’s Ted Talk is available online at http://www.ted.com.