How You Can Do Your Best By Not Giving a Damn

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: We only live once and feel pressured to make the most of every single moment.
The Science: Trying too hard and to do too much actually impairs your ability to do your best.
The Solution: Satisfice to make sure your nervous system works for you, not against you!

I recently graduated from a master´s program that was as wildly intense as it was exciting. For the first four months I was also working full-time, which meant that I usually put in 80-90 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). This is a quick post about harnessing your nervous system to get the results you want, while remaining sane as you pursue your goals.

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 research concept marinated in my head before I finally gave it one hesitant 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 turned out to be mediocre and more quality time with my parasympathetic nervous system (which is the key here).

What we know from research is that having one’s 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 sabre tooth 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.

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 perhaps it may prepare you to succeed, but often at the cost of being utterly stressed, and not enjoying the process itself.

So, 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 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 it will help you enjoy the process much more. Excited to get started on a more harmonious path? See some great tips by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman here.

This article originally appeared at The Creativity Post.

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Emilia Lahti
Emilia Lahti (M.Sc., MAPP) is a researcher whose work revolves around understanding how individuals summon strength in the face of extreme adversity and come out of hardships with a newly discovered sense of purpose and adaptability. Emilia studied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the field. Through her current PhD work on the Finnish construct of sisu (denoting extraordinary mental toughness and determination), Emilia seeks to create practical, empowering solutions that alleviate human suffering and increase well-being on a global scale.
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