Listen instead (7 min):
By Serena Roschman
“A paper is never done,” my professor said, lowering his glasses to peer at me poignantly. “At some point, you just choose to finish.”
I’d finished that particular paper at four o’clock in the morning, when I was at the point of complete exhaustion and caffeine was animating my shaking hands but no longer my brain. That didn’t feel like much of a choice. It sounded wise, though, so I nodded, pretending to understand.
“Just do your best,” has been a galling phrase to me for the better part of my life. What is the word “just” doing there? Doing my best meant: “Do until you can physically and mentally do no more. (And even then it might not be enough.)”
On paper, that strategy worked for a while and carried me through a parade of graduations and promotions and positive performance reviews. But satisfaction was ever elusive. The next one, I thought, will cement my worthiness and happiness.
And then, abruptly, there was no “next one.” I was diagnosed with a serious illness that required me to pull back from my march up the success ladder. Though the stress of my perfectionism wasn’t a causal factor, it contributed to the worsening of my condition for a long while. My body was a forcing function, demanding that I learn another way.
Wandering through a bookstore in those days, I alighted upon a book on a bottom shelf called When Things Fall Apart (by Pema Chӧdrӧn), and that began my induction into a lifelong study of mindfulness, meditation, and self-compassion. This, more than any other productivity hack, has been the balm that has soothed my perfectionism and sharpened my focus—though it is far from a quick fix.
Twelve years later, I landed a dream job at SIY Global. At one of my first all-hands meetings, leadership rolled out the concept of choosing some tasks for which “good enough” is enough.
*Cue the screeching record stop.*
My perfectionism rose up, loud and forceful as ever. Obviously, I thought, this policy does not apply to me. Sure, I reasoned, I’m happy to play along and discuss this with my colleagues. And I’m very happy for them to do this. But not for me, who has just started working at this company that feels like the perfect fit. I don’t want to be “good enough”! I want to prove I’m very valuable and worth having around!
It took every minute of my mindfulness training to gain enough perspective to hear my wisdom through that noise.
But what if? a wiser voice whispered. What if you didn’t have to abandon your mindful practice for this new job? What if this could actually make you a better contributor to the organization?
Stranger things have happened, so I decided to try it out. Here’s what I learned.
- Start small and experiment. My supervisor, director of marketing Carolina Lasso, explained that we can proactively choose for some tasks to be “A” work: that key client project or a mailing that will reach thousands. For “A” projects, I could feel free to go above and beyond. But not everything can be A-level. Other things, like an informal internal update to staff, could be “C” work. I just need to get the job done. I learned to sort my tasks using this system and consciously do less on the “C” tasks, leaving more time and energy for the “A” tasks.
- Communicate with your team. I’m fortunate to have a boss who encourages and embodies this practice, but even if you don’t you can simply ask: “Of the tasks on my list, which are the most important to my OKRs in your mind?” If you’ve tried a “good enough” experiment, you might circle back with stakeholders and ask: “Did that deliverable meet with your expectations?” Learning how your efforts are impacting others can give you great insight into how to manage your energy.
- Set a time limit and use your time well. How often do we procrastinate because we are expecting perfection from ourselves? “Good enough” actually helped me to jump into tasks more quickly and fully, because the output didn’t need to be a work of sheer genius (as if that were possible). Set a hard limit in your calendar and then roll up your sleeves. I like to use the Pomodoro technique to focus my time and attention.
- Reframe. The assumption that more work equals better work is often misguided. Have you ever walked away from your desk in the midst of a confounding problem only to realize a solution while you’re walking the dog? Our brains need a balance of focus and spaciousness to function well. Consider too, how saying “good enough” to one project allows you to show up more fully in another.
- Create a “good enough” ritual. At the end of my work day, I close my eyes and drop into a mini-meditation. I close my computer and place a little stone on top of my laptop to visually denote the end of the workday. I acknowledge the work that has been accomplished and state my hope that it is useful to others. I acknowledge that I have other areas of my life I’d like to now step into fully, like my family or my hobbies. And then I stand up and shake it out a little. Off I go into the evening! I realize this ritual is particular for me, but maybe you can find something that feels right to you. What would help you close the task and move forward? What wisdom can you keep close at hand for those moments when you don’t feel like you’re enough?
I finally understand what my professor meant all those years ago. So much of our work is never done, in the sense of being perfect, tied in a bow, and universally praise-worthy. Even if that were possible, what is the cost of that anyway?
It only took me twenty years, but I learned that I can choose to finish. And I’m better off because of it.