Satisficing vs. Optimizing, and Understanding the Usefulness of Both

Hi friends!

Today I want to talk about satisficing vs. optimizing. Yes, satisficing is a word. Sort of.

This is a subject that was inspired by a talk I saw at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) this year. The talk was by Tynan Syltvester, of RimWorld fame (pretty famous and successful indie game). One of the things he brings up in his conference talk, on the subject of task selection, is the idea of satisficing vs. optimizing.

2017-03-28 Balance

Satisficing means to choose the first acceptable choice which matches the criteria. The word combines “satisfying” with “sufficing”, in a tongue-twistery way that second-language English speakers would probably be unhappy with. The term was created by Herbert A. Simon, a psychologist, sociologist, computer scientist, and all-around genius in the cognitive psych world.

Optimizing, on the other hand, means choosing the best possible choice with respect to those criteria after looking at all of the options (within reason, usually). This word is less confusing sounding, and comes from the Latin word ‘optimus’, which means ‘best’.

Wordy trickery aside, in the task-selection world for work purposes, it’s important to be able to optimize. The idea is to be able to choose the best option when considering added value vs. cost vs. whatever else you need to keep in mind in your industry or for your product. But I want to talk a bit more about life and a bit less about business here.

2017-03-28 Decision

I’m an optimizer. This isn’t something I necessarily put a label on before hearing this talk, but it’s very true. I like to know that I’ve checked all of the possible options before making a decision. When it comes to important life decisions, I’m proud of this trait because it means I rarely make hasty decisions that I regret. On the other hand, when it comes to choosing a soup or salad with my meal, it’s unnecessarily stressful. I’ve always been bad a small, meaningless decisions because I always think about what I might miss out on.

What I’ve come to realize over the last few years, and this thought is being reinforced by the understanding of things like the comparison between satisficing and optimizing, is that sometimes it’s better to just choose the option that’s good enough for my needs and be happy with it, especially if it’s more or less inconsequential in the long run. If the T-shirt I want is overpriced by $3, or I didn’t check the reviews of the restaurant to make sure we’re going to the best one in a new area in town, the world won’t end. I don’t need to compare price-to-value for the $3 difference on a shirt, and I can be happy so long as the food I’ve gotten is good, regardless of whether or not there’s a better place for the same price nearby.

2017-03-28 Puppy

Another way that understanding this distinction in decision-making helps is in understanding why people choose the things they choose. A good personal example of this is the Apple vs. PC debate. Being a PC person, I could never understand why people would choose to buy Apple computers (or products in general). I just didn’t get it. I looked at the specs, looked at the price, looked at the performance. There’s no question that, looking at the components and functionality and price of a computer, one could rationalize getting a Mac over a PC.

But, before you start yelling at me, hear me out. I now understand the distinction between satisficing and optimizing, and the choice to go with “the thing that just works” is no longer such a mystery. Without labeling this, I’ve had these thoughts for many years. As a baseline, Mac computers just work. They do what you need them to do, they fit all of the criteria, and they can’t do more. PC computers, often, take more work before they do what you want them to do, but they have the potential to do much more for the same price. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people who took the time to research different PC specs and who purchased something with more potential don’t use all of the things they’ve optimized for. So depending on the type of person you are, you might simply choose the option that “works right out of the box” and that doesn’t make you have to think too much.

2017-03-28 Grandpa

This brings me to a major point, which is that I believe that the majority of people are satisficers. That doesn’t make them bad people, I just don’t think I’m one of them. For most people, they need the right thing for the right purpose, and beyond that it doesn’t really matter. They won’t spend as much time looking into details before making decisions about material things, and that might even extend to immaterial things too. What that leads to, I might hypothesize, is a simpler but more satisfied existence than someone who tries to optimize for everything and might not be able to appreciate the simple things without questioning the “what if”.

This is starting to ramble on and get introspective so I’ll cut it off here, but I think it’s useful to bring this distinction to the front of your mind once in a while to better understand why you make some of the decisions you make, and why other people might make decisions that you don’t understand.

It’s Easy to Hear What You Want to Hear (i.e. Confirmation bias is everywhere)

Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconception”¹. In wake of the recent goings-on in the U.S. with the fake news and skewed perceptions of reality due to our tiny little Facebook bubbles, we’re seeing this kind of thing come up again and again.

2017-02-10 Confirmation

I won’t get too much into that stuff because it’s literally everywhere now, and someone has probably written it better than I will. So, I wanted to broaden the discussion of this and warn against this in general, not only when it comes to news or American politics.

As you probably know, I work in game development. One of my colleagues has been trying to convince our team to get into VR (Virtual Reality) stuff for a little while, and showed me a demo of his setup at home a couple of weekends ago. I thought it was awesome, but still had my questions: will the tech become cheap enough, is it too immersive, will the technology advance fast enough, etc. I started looking a bit further into it and watched some talks about the future of VR and the technology related to games and other things, and am slowly starting to be convinced.

2017-02-10 VR

But what happened to those questions? They’re still as valid as they were previously, and nothing that I saw even attempted to answer those doubts. But after about three videos of 40 minutes each, I felt convinced. Thankfully, I was able to stop myself and realize my bias: I had completely forgotten about one side of the story because I was inspired by the other side.

That brings me to another point, and one that 2017-02-10 Blindersrelates back to the politics thing. When something is emotional or inspiration or heated or you feel like it directly affects you, not only are you more likely to find sources that confirm your ideas but you’re even more likely to believe them. I could easily hop on the VR train now and keep watching stuff, keep getting inspired, and completely forget (or worse, ignore) some of the very relevant counter-arguments.

By the way, I’m not claiming that my colleague is missing the other side of the story, I think he just thinks the risk is lower than the reward might be for going into that kind of thing… and some of us aren’t convinced yet. But the fact remains that it’s easy to dive in and confirm all the things you thought or wanted to think or were inspired to think and black out the rest of the world without noticing it… so keep your eyes open and your field of vision wide!

One day I’m going to do a post about what I find are some of the most important cognitive biases but… I’ll do it later.

Could Routine be a Replacement for Motivation?

People often say that they don’t want to work a 9-5 job or that they hate routine. As much as we hear this over and over, we still see the majority of people doing exactly that. Humans are creatures of habit, we tend to eat the same thing for breakfast at the same time, in the same place, get our coffee from the same Starbucks, do the same activities each week, etc.

I’m going to propose something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, and it might be a bit counter-intuitive. Usually, we imagine motivation and drive (in business, in relationships, in life) as actively thinking about how to do better or how to do more. But maybe, just maybe, routine can act as a replacement for long-term motivation.

2017-01-23 Routine

What I mean by this is that if you can ingrain certain things into your daily routine and make them habit, you won’t need active thought to try to get such things done. For example, going to the gym every morning before work (which I don’t do but I should) is something that can become so second-nature that people will feel worse if they miss it. Even if you hate the gym, doing it enough times at the same time will make it become part of the routine and you won’t think about it more than you’d think of eating breakfast or brushing your teeth.

When you see people who are “super motivated” because they’re going to the gym every morning, you might be overestimating their motivation; they might have only needed motivation for the first two months. I won’t argue that you can slip into a good routine or healthy practices without any motivation at all, but that down the line, establishing good routines can help lead toward the same results as “being motivated all the time”, as some people seem.

Routine is something that should be avoided if the routine leads to bad habits: eating right before bed (though I believe the science on this is questionable), smoking when you drink, forgetting to put the toilet seat down when traveling with a female, etc. BUT, in some cases, you can probably develop some great habits that can come to the rescue when you say “I should go to the gym, but I’m feeling kinda lazy and I’m hungry and tired”.

Fun fact, that was my excuse and now I’m here writing this. But don’t follow my example!

2017-01-23 Healthy

Another decent example is eating healthy. I already mentioned the idea of not eating before bed as a good habit to get into, but it can even extend to buying food. If you’re lacking the motivation to eat healthy, getting into the habit of buying healthier food will break that. Of course the first time avoiding the soda and chips aisle might be painful, but eventually it becomes second nature.

This might seem obvious, but the key point I’d like to make here is that finding motivation to do healthy things and make good choices can be hard, but baking it into routine (with a bit of initial motivation) will save you from constantly needing to find (and feel bad about not finding) it later.

The Art of To-Do Lists

I was going to name this article “The Joy of Checking off Little Check Boxes”, but I figured this was more appropriate. Checking off little check boxes is only joyful if the list on which you’re checking them is well-made, and if the boxes actually mean something.

2016-09-22-checkboxes

 

Making a to-do list isn’t difficult. Simply write all the things you need to get done on a paper or on your notes app on your phone. Right? Welllll… sorta. Have you ever had the feeling where one day you’ve worked a ton but you got nothing done? You know you did a lot, but you have nothing to show for it and your to-do list certainly doesn’t look like it’s getting any shorter. That’s probably because your list wasn’t well made.

A good to-do list needs to have two things.

First, the tasks on it need to take more than a minute. If the tasks take less than a minute (or a few minutes), you can probably lump them into one bigger task. For example, “confirm lunch with the marketing person” and “thank Maria for sending over the shipment” can both fall into one task called “Answer immediately relevant emails” or something similar.

2016-09-22-multitask

 

Second, the tasks have to be short enough that you don’t feel like you’re working on them for more than half a day. The reason it feels like you’ve “been working all day but didn’t get anything done” is because the tasks you’re working on are just too big. For example, “research different artificial sweeteners” can be broken into

  • “determine which artificial sweeteners to research”
  • “find some sources on sucralose”
  • “find some sources on aspartame”
  • “find some sources on Acesulfame K”

and so on.

If the tasks on your list are not too long and not too short, and are actually meaningful toward reaching your goal, you’ll feel more productive when you accomplish those tasks.

I think that while it’s really important to know what your goals and tasks are, it’s equally important to feel like you’re actually reaching something when you work. It’s taken me a little while to get to the point where I feel that most days, my lists are well made and my work is productive, but now I feel confident about it and I’m going to go check off “write an article about to-do lists” from my to-do list.  ?

Sometimes, You Can Just Move a Little Faster

I’m assuming you’re expecting some long elaboration on the title of this article… maybe I’m talking about work, production processes, maybe fitness? Nope.

This is something I realized, not sure how, not sure why, and I’m not really sure when I actually implement it. But sometimes, just sometimes, I realize that I’m just not moving as quickly as I could be. Emptying the dishwasher, for example. Going down the stairs to put the garbage out, or even just getting ready in the morning. Sometimes if you just take a second to realize the speed at which you’re doing stuff, you’ll realize that you could be going a hell of a lot quicker, and there’s simply no loss. It’s not even more difficult most of the time!

2016-08-09-speedy

 

I get the feeling that a lot of people will read this and think “uhhh, yeah no sh** dude” but I find that it occurs to me at random times, and when I do speed up, things go impressively quickly. Then I imagine what life would be like if I just did all of my monotonous tasks quicker than usual, and I think about how much time I would save. Anyone who knows me knows I’m huge on efficiency and doing things the right / logical way, and this is just an example of my realization that we simply don’t move as quickly as we could.

Counter-argument, you say? I’m tired! I’m lazy! Yes, those are valid arguments. But the biggest thing that I’ve noticed, is that it actually doesn’t feel like it takes more energy to speed up just a little bit. Just enough to give you those extra five minutes in the morning, enough to let you take an extra minute at the coffee machine (do people have watercoolers anymore?), enough to get you to bed just before that time where you look at your clock and you say “Damn! Past ___ o’clock again! I really need to go to sleep earlier.”

So, my friends, my message is simple. Think about it a couple of times when you’re doing simple, generally monotonous things, and just speed up. Juuust a lil bit. Try it sometime… either I’m a bit OCD and a productivity-freak or maybe it actually makes sense.