Aim Low, Do Less, Go Easy: how to be kind to yourself
How do we scour the scourge of perfectionism from our minds? Well, to do that, we need to be asking how to be kind to yourself. Remember, productivity isn’t the be-all and end-all of life. There are not that many things which can’t be safely ignored if you need a bit more time before you’re ready to tackle them.
I read a blog once from a woman whose child has autism. I believe it may have been Dr Kristin Neff. Like many parents, she had to deal with things like public melt-downs, but unlike many parents, these happened with a much higher frequency and severity and would probably continue to happen for much longer.
Her main motto for life was to check in with herself throughout every challenge she faced. For instance, if her child started having a melt-down at the supermarket, I remember that her mental check-list would look something like this:
- Is my child in immediate physical danger?
- How am I doing? What do I need?
- What can I do to improve the situation?
So, apart from the fundamentals of making sure that her child was safe, she would make her priority herself. (After all, no-one else is going to!) She would check how she was feeling and do her best to give herself the immediate emergency self-care that she could in the situation (for instance, taking a few deep breaths and reminding herself that the situation is not her fault and that she’s doing her best by her child). Then she would take action to do what she could to improve things and resolve the challenge.
This kind of radical self-compassion is frankly amazing and something from which we would all massively benefit. It is not selfish to be your number-one supporter and the voice of kindness in your own head. Life is hard and we need all the support we can give ourselves. Whatever you are managing to do and however you are coping is not nothing. Keeping yourself fed and washed and making sure your cat doesn’t starve are valid achievements. In pretty much any situation you find yourself in, being kind to yourself will only help. I believe it to the extent that whatever the mental-health-related question, self-compassion is the answer.
Self-compassion provides an alternative to shame and perfectionism. By treating ourselves kindly for long enough, we may gradually be able to persuade ourselves to believe that we are enough the way we are, that we are safe in our own heads, that our thoughts and actions are understandable and not unforgivable, and that we don’t need to impress anyone, including ourselves, by trying to achieve large, stressful goals.
However, it is not so easy to just decide to be more self-compassionate. Your habits of self-sabotage and self-hatred, while apparently irrational, are actually lodged there from previous coping techniques that somehow make you feel more in control or more secure. For instance, our perfectionism might exist because if a thing you do (or who you are) is ‘perfect’, then it can’t be criticised or judged, and so we will not be under threat from other people’s evaluations. We need to be kind even to these misguided parts of ourselves, which are still in some way trying to keep us safe. So it’s going to take some work and long-term commitment to learn self-compassion, but in the rest of this post I’ll give some practical examples of how I’ve tried to be kinder to myself over the last few years. (This is one of the longest posts in the whole blog, because there’s a lot to say!)
I make everything in life into a project, and I make every project into an extreme goal, and then I feel even more daunted by the prospect of not being equal to the task and never start.
This is not the way.
I stumbled across a different way one year quite by accident. For the last couple of years, I had set myself a project to aim to read one hundred books. (One could ask why I felt the need to turn reading for pleasure into a project in the first place, and one would have a great point. The answer is that my perfectionism was so out of hand that without making my hobbies into ambitious projects I would never give them priority against all my other ambitious projects.) I failed to read all one hundred; I ‘merely’ read around seventy-five. But then, the next year, I decided to aim (comparatively) low. I set my goal as fifty books for the year.
Within a month, I was well ahead of the pace I needed to achieve my goal. It was easy. And as I realised that I was ahead, I only got more motivated to widen my lead on myself. I was surprised by how great I felt about doing better than the goal I had set for myself. It so rarely happens in my life that my expectations are not impossible—let alone easy—to meet, that I had no idea that it would feel so good. My confidence blossomed, and I hit my reading goal by September.
So here’s the secret: make your goals easy.
Your perfectionism will not like it. The easy goal won’t be grand enough to feed your ego or provide self-worth by being impressive. But if you can get past that impulse to overcomplicate, the rewards are much more tangible than the fake highs that perfectionism offers.
For a start, you are way more likely to finish that goal, and finishing matters. In general, I think that your subconscious is paying far more attention to what actions you are taking than what thoughts you are telling yourself. For instance, you could try and think positive thoughts about yourself (like ‘I’m enough’, ‘I’m worthy of having my needs met’, ‘I am worth more than my productivity’), but your brain is not going to be fooled by this if you are simultaneously neglecting sleep, exercise and healthy meals in order to pull all-nighters to finish whatever project you have made the priority.
Similarly, your brain knows from the accumulated evidence of previous experience whether you are genuinely likely to achieve the goal you set yourself or not. When I’m tempted by a new project idea, the perfectionistic fantasy part of me will be busy convincing me that it’ll be easy—or just persuading me to ignore the likely cost to myself entirely, in favour of false promises about how this achievement will bring the permanent peace of mind and sense of safety that I crave. But the rest of me knows better, knows that I will have to sacrifice my needs and suffer through a lot of anxiety, and probably still not finish whatever overblown goal I’ve cooked up for myself this time, because I will eventually be too overwhelmed to continue. The mental dissonance between these parts of me creates the opposite of easy forward momentum and motivation. I’m trying to get behind doing something that most of me doesn’t truly want to do. By setting a genuinely easy goal that was intrinsically rewarding (reading books), I removed all that internal friction and, for the first time in most of my life, all the parts of me were aligned. Suddenly I had so much more energy and motivation, at least for doing this particular thing. And when you finish a goal, even an easy one, you are building up a stock of evidence that you can finish things, provided they are realistic. This will do more to boost your confidence than perfectionistic, delusional self-talk ever could.
You will also enjoy doing that project way more if it is something easy, because there is so much less pressure on you. Without that looming pressure of likely failure that you fear and try to avoid contemplating, you can focus instead on actually doing whatever it is and taking joy (or at least satisfaction) from that process. I feel as though the enjoyment you take out of working on a goal is overlooked as unimportant, especially if it is something you just ‘have to’ do, or something that will supposedly be so good when it’s done that it will be worth the stress it costs you to get there. Sometimes it is necessary work, but when it comes to deciding what you want to get out of life, I would hope that enjoyment is a central consideration. If you are truly enjoying what you are doing, then that activity already has value in itself, and therefore reaching your (probably arbitrary) end-goal becomes less important, thus lowering the pressure you’re putting on yourself even more.
Setting easy goals also fits with the advice around forming habits. The website/book ‘Tiny Habits’ really shows you how to break down a new action that you want to habituate into its most micro form, based on how humans actually tend to change their behaviour. This links to the different types of goals I discussed in a previous post: instead of making your goals ‘tall and narrow,’ make them ‘tiny but wide’. Do something ridiculously easy every day, and let your ambition out in the length of time you aim to continue for. Although even then, don’t expect too much from yourself. You can go easy here too. Do the easiest part of a task for three days in a row, and celebrate when you achieve that goal. It may seem such a small effort as to be insignificant, but you will likely have gained a lot of value from doing this: you will have started on a new goal (normally the biggest hurdle), and you will have a better idea of what will be involved in actually, really doing the task than you had while just imagining doing it.
Now, as a caveat, there is a place for a short-term burst of frenetic energy towards an extreme goal. I quite like doing things this way; it appeals to those perfectionistic tendencies that want to be able to do impossible amounts of work at once. For instance, the KonMari technique for clearing out a house of clutter relies on doing it in a concentrated burst of work over a few short weeks, so that it all gets done at once and then never needs doing again.
I like stretching myself to achieve something ambitious and grand over a finite length of time. To write this blog, I took time off for two separate weeks in order to do nothing but write, so that I could make a large, tangible step forward. But there is always a cost of recovery afterwards from making yourself do more than you should while neglecting everything else, and the tactic can easily backfire if the goal can’t actually be finished in a few days of effort (which I couldn’t with this blog). So be careful with this, and only try it when you’re sure it’s not just a way for perfectionism to sneakily put more pressure on you.
But why isn’t the best version always better?
Here are some anti-perfectionism slogans I have found useful over the years:
- Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
- Just aim for 70% of what you’re trying to do; it’ll be enough.
- If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.
All of these point to the idea that even without doing our ‘best’ (the most complete version of your goal), doing less than ‘best’ can still have value. So, even if you’ve done something ‘badly,’ it’s probably still useful in some way. This ties in nicely with the idea of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). If we take the example from the MVP post about designing a vehicle of some kind, if ‘doing less’ truly meant ‘take your original idea of making a car but do it badly,’ then we’d end up with an unsafe car, which is worse than no car at all. But if we take ‘do less’ to really mean ‘keep things simple,’ then the example of achieving your purpose by making a scooter instead completely fits. A scooter still delivers most of the value of your original idea of a car, with a lot less wasted effort.
This principle (maybe we can call it ‘less is best’) is really, actually true, and it was a revelation to me when I realised this. If your goal is something you will find genuinely useful or enjoyable (and it isn’t just something that perfectionism is convincing you that you need), then it’s better for a ‘bad’ version of what you wanted to be in existence than for it never to exist at all. It’s better to act, to try, to make a half-baked effort than stay paralysed by the idea of a perfect endpoint you could theoretically create. If you can gently remind yourself of this, and even better, somehow coax your brain into believing it, then you will be well on the way to easing any hold that anxiety and perfectionism has on you.
‘Less is best’ and MVPs give a big shift in perspective from trying to make something the best it can be to questioning what the simplest solution could look like. This mindset is at the core of being ‘agile’ and unfortunately it is the hardest part to actually put into practice at a company level. It can be tough at a personal level too; as a perfectionist, my default thought pattern is not to look for the easy options. However, it is a big help that Scrum has been honed with these principles in mind, and prompts me to think in this way.
So, at your team planning meeting, or even when looking over your own tasks by yourself, try to examine each one and ask yourself, “Is this truly the minimum viable version of the purpose I want to achieve? Is there a simpler way I could reach the same type of outcome? What if I did the easiest, most stripped-down version of this idea and then see if that’s enough already?” It is a great antidote to perfectionism, but it is also surprisingly difficult to think this way: firstly, it takes a fair amount of mental effort (which is why it’s easier to share the load by brainstorming as a team during planning), but it can also trigger fears that perfectionism is covering up. After all, the reason I always want to make the ‘best’ version straight away is because I feel anxious that anything less won’t be ‘good enough.’ So be gentle with yourself, and coax yourself into seeing MVPs as a fun, playful thought experiment if you can, rather than a really serious process that has to land on the ‘right’ answer.
“[T]he height of sophistication is simplicity.”
Or so said a character in a 1931 novel by U.S. ambassador Clare Boothe Luce. I love how a similar idea is hidden in this quote from Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and philosopher: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
As we explored above, less is more, or less is best. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to define which parts of your goals you truly need and which parts are just arbitrary. Hence how it is easier to write a long letter (or long blog post…) instead of identifying only the essential parts. (And hence why editing is a true skill.)
There has been a strong movement towards minimalism as a concept since at least the mid twentieth century. I think at heart that living as a minimalist doesn’t necessarily involve living with an extremely low number of items in your home. Instead I think the urge to declutter our lives (from excess objects, but also from excess expectation and demand) is driven by a desire to make life simpler, and so less stressful and more enjoyable. I think it is Marie Kondo (of KonMari/decluttering fame) who has summed up the essence of minimalism the best: that it is about keeping only what ‘sparks joy’ in your life, and letting go of the rest, so that you have more space and less distraction to enjoy the core set of things, people, and activities in your life that are truly meaningful.
Our instinct is often to add more, rather than subtract. We look forward towards something external that we think will help, rather than turning around (or turning inwards) to see what is holding us back (like the ball and chain metaphor). Striving ahead towards a goal feels more noble than stopping still for a while and reflecting on whether the goal is truly necessary. Letting go of things, even things which are just diluting what you most love, feels like a loss, and that’s scary. In the case of hoarding, we have equated owning more (or doing more) as somehow preparing ourselves for the uncertainties and dangers of the future; like somehow our clutter will keep us safe.
This also takes us to the idea of accepting limits. Now I’ll level with you: I hate limits. They suck. (One of my favourite songs is Defying Gravity from Wicked—in particular the lines: “I’m through accepting limits/’Cause someone says they’re so/Some things I cannot change/But ’til I try, I’ll never know!” Then Elphaba, the ‘wicked witch,’ enchants a broomstick and flies away from the haters like a bad-ass.) I want to be able to do more, see more, spend more time on things. I don’t want to think that there are things I will never be able to do; that maybe in essence I will always be me, and always struggle with certain things, even if I find better ways to deal with my problems over time.
We all live a limited life, even those who are the most successful. I’m not saying that people can’t learn, change, grow, and improve their lives. I’m saying that no matter who you are or how much money you have, you will still only have so much time, energy, and emotional resilience to spend each day. I think those among us who have accepted their limits, and accepted that there’s nothing wrong with living an average, imperfect life, are the ones on the way to wisdom. Why do you want to be ‘better’ (by which you probably mean more successful and impressive) than others? Why doesn’t it feel like enough to work on meeting your own needs, helping others where you can, and spending the rest of your time relaxing, playing, and having fun?
The difference between patience and impatience is simply that when you are patient, you have faith that what you are waiting for will all work out in the end, whereas when you’re impatient you fear that it won’t. I think how you feel about limits is similar: if you feel okay with being you, and that you are enough, then it’s okay that you can’t do or be everything, and limits don’t really matter too much. If being you doesn’t feel like enough, then no amount of achievement ever will be either.