I am a perfectionist. This has served me well at times when I need to achieve at a high level, or do a good job at something with limited time and resources, but it has also been a detriment to my emotional well-being, a fact that I am actively altering.
I used to think the goal of life was to give 100% all the time, but I now think the goal is actually to live each of our best lives, which will not only inevitably look different from each other's, but will also each require necessary ebbs and flows in energy and effort output.
Which is a long way around to say that not everything is going to be our best effort. I don’t think this is news to any of us, but what I’m interested in are ways that we can decide that from the outside and just not try as hard, as opposed to looking at something that didn’t turn out great and saying afterwards as consolation, “Well, I did my best.”
What if we just didn’t try as hard in the first place?
So much of perfectionism erroneously and subconsciously presupposes that there is a natural order to things that is within our control. Meanwhile, life consistently goes out of its way to show us how inconsistent and unpredictable it can be, so there's a bit of a built-in disconnect there.
You never know when your 100% will be received as 35%, just like you never know when that small gesture, minimal effort, or random act of kindness will completely transform someone's day or even impact your own life significantly.
Oh how I wish it were true that if we just did the “best” at everything, if we were at our "goal weight," if we checked off every item on our to-do lists every single day, that life would be perfect and all of our dreams would come true as a direct result of all our hard work.
That just isn't so, and that's not hardcore pessimism, but simply reality. On the contrary, I do believe that our wildest dreams can come true; I just want us to relinquish some of our false belief that we can wrestle them into doing so. Hard work very often does pay off, but there are also lazy bastards who rise to the top, either because of sheer luck, unfair practices, or because life sometimes looks out for the incompetent since the rest of us make it plain that we're highly capable and natural selection has been corrupted since the advent of smartphones and Google.
Those people get more sleep than we do, they worry less overall, and it never even occurs to them to be perfect. We all know that genuine, literal perfection is an unattainable goal, but for some of us, we never stop striving for it anyway.
Meanwhile, some people are just here to have a good time, and some people truly don't care about all the Star Student concerns that make perfectionists tick.
I don't aspire to be one of these people who just "doesn't care,” nor do I suggest it. I'm comfortable with the fact that I care about a great deal of things, some of which I even get mocked on the internet for.
I'm actively working on caring about and for myself first, though, and I'm learning that that includes not always giving my all.
That doesn't automatically translate to laziness, by the way. I can still be hugely ambitious, but become more laser-focused about which thoughts, projects, and endeavors truly deserve my best efforts, and screw the rest. Or maybe just choose one thing that's presently on my plate to scrape into the garbage or put in Tupperware to give to someone else, instead of digging in to everything just because it was served to me.
Choose something today to half-ass. If you're like me, it will be difficult and might cause an anxiety all its own, but you know what feels great? Putting your energies where they serve you best overall, which might mean taking them away from an area where they are not.
You are so talented and powerful that certain things don't DESERVE your full energy, yet we're told to always do our best, which is tough for perfectionists to reconcile. Then, if we feel utterly spent over something we knocked out of the park but that was treated like a foul ball, we look for the lesson afterward.
We say we did our best. We look for ways in which our effort was the success itself, and maybe it was.
OR… maybe your body really needed a nap instead and that would have been your 100% in that moment, ignoring that one thing you were “supposed” to do and recharging yourself for something truly deserving that might pop up down the road.
I'm not trying to undermine the potential for huge life lessons and growth to be gleaned from our failures, or the times when we succeed with great effort that goes unnoticed, unrewarded, or undervalued. Our failures can be our successes at the opposite tasks, and those are often our most powerful moments of truth and reckoning.
But those moments are at their most powerful when they're organic, and I think many of us try to wrestle the square pegs of our very legitimate frustrations into those round holes of Everything Happens For A Reason far too often, which only creates more frustration.
Don't worry about becoming a lazy slob or an incompetent fool—the good news is that if you've been cultivating and training your perfectionism for years, as so many of us have, your 50% will probably resemble most people's 100%, and only you will know the difference.
That's the true value of your efforts—what they mean to you. You know the difference between accomplishing something or "doing well" because that’s what you’re supposed to do, vs. feeling good about putting your all into something meaningful to you.
That could be anything from nailing a presentation at work or making a fantastic smoothie for yourself, but there's a clear distinction between what we have to slam-dunk and what we can just throw together in order to get the job done, and it only becomes clear when we seriously consider the latter as an option without guilt or shame.
So choose something do the bare minimum on today. Phone something in. I’m not trying to get you fired from your job or anything—I know there are lots of things that just can't be half-assed, and they'll reveal themselves in the doing or in simply posing the question. Anything that puts your safety at risk, or that of those around you, is automatically off-limits.
For everything else? Open yourself up to the possibility that doing less or nothing at all is just what's needed to show yourself what really matters.
Even negative fallout from your experiment could lead you to figuring out a simpler way to still get the thing done, or result in larger realizations like the need for a career change. Whether it’s professionally or personally (or both) we often strive to succeed in areas where we were never meant to exist in the first place, and "giving up" in that context is actually a show of strength, not weakness.
How many times have you run yourself ragged over something that ultimately didn't matter at all? How many times did you tell yourself that there was some greater purpose or lesson to your fatigue or anxiety because it is absolutely unfair when that happens and our impulse is to try and make sense of a world that doesn't make sense?
How many times have you gone in mental or emotional circles over a project, task, or desire, only to wind up exactly where you started, exhausted and frustrated and weary from the journey?
What if our anxiety IS the lesson? And what if that lesson is trying to shout at you, loud and clear: RELAX!
I'm not suggesting that "RELAX" is an appropriate response to clinical anxiety, but rather that in managing anxiety, it can be helpful to take the low road every now and again on purpose.
Dipping down to that low road when we're used to doing everything "right" can bring on anxiety all its own, but it's worth exploring, in the interest of cutting ourselves some slack and spending less time spinning our emotional wheels. Hopefully we can give ourselves a break when we feel we’ve fallen short, so how about we give ourselves permission to be human BEFORE we attempt or even complete the thing you're about to attempt?
And maybe just half-ass it.