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Satisficing: How Overachievers Stay Sane and Avoid Burn-Out

Trying to maximize every task and squeeze every drop of productivity out of your creative work is a recipe for exhaustion and procrastination.

One of the fastest paths to burnout is when brilliant people get so stuck on making everything they do AMAZING that all they have to show for their efforts is a string of sleepless nights, broken commitments, and work left undone. But life doesn’t have to be this way.

It is possible for overachievers to get more done, improve their performance, and be less stressed, but it doesn’t always mean grinding out that extra task on the to-do list. Sometimes, we need take a step back and embrace the concept of “satisficing.” The power of this concept was explored by Dr. Barry Schwartz’s team in a 2002 paper and is probably best summarized by researcher Emilia Lahti:

 “Satisficing simply means to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.” 

Here’s how Lahti personally applied this powerful principle to her master’s degree program (emphasis added): 

For my second semester at Penn, I tried this satisficer tactic. I approached the assignments without my usual over-achiever angst and “must seek validation for my existence on this planet and exceed all expectations” -mentality. I began my course work with a conscious attitude that “I will simply do enough, and enough is what I can do within reasonable limits… The result of not giving a damn: three A’s and an A-, but most importantly I enjoyed every minute of the ride. The trick: your mind believes you when you tell it something. We CAN override old patterns of behavior and create new associations.”

Here’s how you can apply this principle to your life to get more done, be happier, and feel more successful:

Accept you’ll never get everything done: You haven’t “done everything” until you’re dead. So instead of freaking out about the fact that there will always be more to do, decide which activities really fall within the “Critical must-do” category and let go of the rest. If the activities in the second “Would be nice to do” category get done, great. If not, it probably doesn’t matter very much. Stop and invest in your key projects even when you haven’t completed all the “little things” and you’ll feel way more accomplished

Keep a “new ideas” document: Creative people have the blessing of having the Ideation strength, meaning ideas thrill you and you typically have much more new ones than most people. However, this can turn into a curse when you feel like a failure because you don’t act on all of your ideas. Instead of feeling badly that you have so many ideas you haven’t pursued, celebrate the thrill of the thought and be content with jotting it into a journal or putting it in Evernote for now. Capturing it should appease your impulse to act, and if you still feel as excited a few days later, you can revisit. After all, you don’t have to do everything that pops into your head. As Cal Newport explains in his post “New Year’s Advice from [Stoic philosopher] Epictetus: Don’t Get Started.”

[My friend] recently sent me a smart quote on this subject from the first century stoic philosopher, Epictetus:

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.

Epictetus doesn’t reject action. But he believes commitment to a pursuit must be preceded by the careful study of what is actually required for success.

Ship early, then iterate: Another blessing and a curse of the creative mind is that you tend to see all of the potential things you could do all at once. This makes it difficult to discern between the essentials and the embellishments.

For example, maybe you need to create a website so you have someplace to refer potential clients. Instead of putting something together within your time and budget constraints that has the critical information, you may not move forward at all because you can’t complete the videos, special features, and design exactly how you would prefer.

Take this as a bit of honest, tough love: that’s stupid. To not do anything—to the extreme detriment of your creative career—because it can’t be exactly how you imagined in your head on the first run will hinder you immensely. Instead of aiming for brilliant out of the gate, do the basics and then recognize that with almost anything you can refine, edit, and iterate. Ship first

To not do anything because it can’t be exactly how you imagined in your head on the first run will hinder you immensely.

Prioritize your well-being: As author Danielle LaPorte said in this interview with Marie Forleo “‘No matter what’ is a dangerous phrase.” She’s right. Consistently sacrificing your health, your well being, your relationships, and your sanity for the sake of living up to impossible standards will lead to some dangerous behaviors and, ironically, a great deal of procrastination. Instead of saying, “I’ll stay up until this is done,” say, “I’ll work until X time and then I’m stopping. I may end up needing to ask for an extension or complete less than perfect work. But that’s OK. I’m worth it.” Making sleep, exercise, and downtime a regular part of your life plays an essential role in a lasting, productive creative career. And what’s more, you’ll be better positioned to enjoy the ride.

Over to You…

How have you tried to satisfice?

What results did you experience?

More Posts by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at

Comments (51)
  • Leian Ivey

    I’m a 24 year old lead developer and designer and I constantly burn out and have those sleepless nights which I feel nothing gets accomplished the way it should have; and while going through the project, almost always, half way through discover some new technology or have some radical idea I’d much rather use. This has lead to a mediocre career at best and I love the idea of “satisficing” and though it may not work instantly I will make this a new part of my day to day mentality.


    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Excellent! I think you’ll be happy with the results of focusing on doing a strong job on the project at hand instead of changing strategies mid-course. Then you can choose to use the new technology/idea on the next project if it makes sense to do so.

      Satisficing is not about closing off room for improvement, but about realizing what’s good enough for now.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • jeffkaiserman

    Not only is it about what is critical, but it’s also about whether or not it is “mine to do”. Just because it’s critical doesn’t mean that I have to be the one to do it – there might be someone in my circle who is better equipped to take the task on and might even be really excited to do it.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Absolutely! Even if the person doesn’t complete the work exactly as you would have done it, at least it will get done and you can then focus on your core work responsibilities.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • lauren dubinsky

    So fabulous. Just shared with the creative agency I work with. Thanks!

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      You’re very welcome Lauren!

      I hope this mindset releases the members of the creative agency to produce even more work–and not be stressed in the process!

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elinor Slomba

    As my oldest son says, “Perfect enough!”

  • mcatlett

    Love it. The degree to which I try to make things perfect is a measure of their closeness to my heart ~ and I work to keep the trivial and banal from my heart. 🙂

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      That is a really great perspective. We need to focus on what really matters…

      As an extension of that thought, I’ve noticed when I’m too concerned about making myself, a relationship, or someone/something around me seem perfect that it’s a sign I’m getting overly concerned about being control.

      In the end, we can’t control anything but our response to the situations around us. Relaxing and being easier on ourselves and giving others the freedom to be human also makes life soooo much easier.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Canaan

    It’s slowly sinking into my thick skull that sleep is an investment. It also helps to think of the 7-day week as my working unit of time, rather than the 24-hour day. As for dialing it back, I find I only have to dial it back a little bit – so we’re not talking about slacking.

    The great electric guitar virtuoso Michael Schenker says “do your 2 or 3 most important things first thing in the day.” After that, the rest of my day is not life and death.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Excellent points. It is funny how most adults feel Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs doesn’t apply to them 🙂 But it’s true–if you invest in the basic building blocks of health, you’ve got a solid foundation for everything else.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Brian

    Fantastic article. Thanks for sharing – most of the points rang true – a creative mind often can’t prioritize what to do first or what is most important as everything demands equal attention! It makes sense to put the right amount of energy into key projects; that way you will have the energy needed to pursue the ‘crazy’ ideas as well.

  • Shana

    Fantastic article. I can especially relate to the problems of prioritizing my many projects and putting off starting the bigs ones because I can’t create everything perfectly out of the gate. Thanks!

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Excellent! Focus on getting started on what matters and then iterate.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Bill McEntee

    Thanks for this insightful article, Elizabeth! How did you know me so well? 😀

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      It’s amazing how you’re rarely “the only one.” As a time coach, I tell my clients, you can’t surprise me!

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      • Bill McEntee

        Thanks Elizabeth,
        “Satisficing!!!” I love the term.

        To your wordsmithing!
        ~ Bill

  • JP Starra

    Great advice! If I can’t do things perfectly from the start, I’ll procrastinate or move onto other projects. I’ll try some of these tips!

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Great! Please let us know how it goes!

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Phillip Le

    Great piece Elizabeth. These sort of things may seem like common sense, but only when they’re simplified and placed at an appropriate length in front of us. It’s always tough to self diagnose, to prescribe self solutions, but problem solving requires a refined distance—one you’ve provided quite well! Cheers!

  • Giuseppe Pagnoni

    Nice tips, definitely worth trying! Thank you!


  • Aaron Morton

    I remember a guy in my martial arts class saying he had no ambition towards the training he was doing. He was goal less and just enjoying the ride, if he got a promotion, it was just a bonus.

    I didn’t understand it at first but now I realise he didn’t put promotion on a pedistal and as a result was able to calmly move through what he was doing rather than overly worrying about everything.

    I am moving towards applying this concept to many things in my life as a test to see what the outcome may be.


    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Sounds great! It would be great to hear your results: both in terms of what you achieve and most importantly how much you enjoy the process.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      • Aaron Morton

        Hi Elizabeth,
        Thanks for your comment. I am using this approach for learning Spanish. I have no deadline, I am using some Apps that have turned the process in a game and I am finding the process less stressful than when i have previously attempted to learn Spanish!

      • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

        Muy bien!


    • tseib

      Great article and good story, Aaron. In fact, my entire so-called “career” is based on the philosophy of your martial-arts friend, with the exceptions that A. I have daily goals in regard to doing good work and pleasing my internal corporate customers, and B. In corporate life I rarely see “promotion” as a “bonus” except for the money. Usually, it seems to correlate with more headaches, longer hours, and generally less personal control (despite the illusion of more “power”).

      I commend people who enjoy climbing corporate ladders and “raising their (bureaucratic) game”–We need leaders who want to do what they do. But I see way too many who see only the dollar signs a promotion offers and do none of Epictetus’ “careful study of what is actually required for success” until they look back down and see that the earlier rung they were standing on has vanished.

  • Heather Physioc

    This article may have been written just for me.

  • tonescapel

    Thank you. Seriously.
    Those of os subject to a creative output are normally over-achievers craving for acceptation of our work. I personally have “not good enough” self-esteem crisis toó often and this article may kick me out of the cycle and allow me to enjoy my job.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Excellent!! It can also helpful to think of everything as a “draft” instead of your final piece. Another one of my articles on 99U on being good versus getting better could also help:

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders


    i stare at this person’s face and I get angry for a while

  • Bay Area Book Doctor

    Terrific piece. I’ve been a writer and teacher of writing for most of my adult life, and for several years have wanted to write a series of workbooks geared toward helping people write their first novel. Because I am always on contract for my own next novel, however, I didn’t feel I had the time to devote to writing the workbooks. Finally, I decided to write just one workbook for aspiring novelists and offer it for digital sale on my website. It was an experiment to see if anyone would be interested. After a few tweets and a bit of research, I suddenly had orders coming in for my Paperclip Method series for writers, followed by testimonials. I had “shipped early,” as you say, and the result–actual purchases–gave me the motivation I needed to move forward and write the entire series. The result is that, while I continue my “day job” as a novelist, I have also realized my dream of writing my “book for writers,” even though it took a much different form than I originally envisioned. Best of all, I feel proud of the the product that I’m offering and confident that it is really helping aspiring novelists reach their goals.

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Excellent! Way to go on “satisficing” to move forward on your career.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • WLVA

    I appreciate this article’s specific, actionable advice as it relates to the adage “The perfect is the enemy of the good” and Herb Simon’s “satisficing” concept.

  • Owarren

    Whilst positive, I find a lot of these ideas conflicting. For example, in this article: “Ship early, then iterate”. Meanwhile, in the ‘Ideation’ personality type article you linked, we have “Finish your thoughts and ideas before communicating them. Lacking your Ideation
    strength, others might not be able to “join the dots” of an interesting but
    incomplete idea, and thus might dismiss it.”. I don’t see how these ideas can co-exist!!!

    • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      I’m happy to clarify:

      -In relation to Ideation, the point is that you should put your internal thoughts and ideas in order. Then you can speak them in a way that people can understand how they connect. This is all about non-tangible concepts that may take as little as 15-30 minutes to sort through in your mind. Sometimes they take hours to think through–but usually not days.

      -In relation to “ship early, then iterate,” this is about the tangible creation of work such as a website, app, tool, book, etc., which may take weeks, months, or even years to create (if you let them.) With the tangibles, we want to get something out into the world within a reasonable amount of time so that it’s not forever in stuck in our minds or in a draft form hidden away from the world.

      Does that help make things clearer?

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Dana Manolescu

    Glad to see I’m not the only one facing this problem :). I just wrote an article on my blog about something similar: Hope this helps. Thanks!

  • LittleOddsandPieces

    One of the things that over-achievers do not realise, is that less is more. Right brain inspiration only comes when we do absolutely nothing, relax, and give whole concept solution the chance to come as that flash of an idea that becomes a whle solution.

    Also over-working yourself is making a slave of your waking hours to a workaholic boss, you. Then you hit burnout stress, that is gives a negative health outcome to mind body and spirit. Not least losing creativity as your brain slows to a crawl or freezes up.

    Always-Elysium Co UK

  • Todd Anthony

    Great article. Thank you.

  • Stock Kevin

    I like the giving yourself a set time versus working towards ultimate perfection. A lot of us overachievers will do whatever it takes to make our work “perfect” and sometimes that means we will stay later than usual while we watch our other coworkers get by with good but not perfect work. It is really about making a decision to put yourself ahead of work.

  • B. Diddy

    Good article, thanks.

  • aditya menon

    What about Bill Gates and the stories of his constant work work work attitude… I keep idolizing that?

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