I used to think I was a perfectionist.
I worried about the smallest things. I could not let other people see my work unless it was my very best. I fretted about typos and minor errors and was mortified when other people saw them. I needed everything I did to be outstanding.
Then I realized that wasn’t really perfectionism: that was anxiety. It became much easier for me to relax about little details and not take everything so seriously when I addressed my anxiety. (I discussed this in episode 213 (called “The Breaking Point that led to my sabbatical), if you want to hear more.)
I began to focus on just doing my best and putting in the time and effort I could reasonably give. I was able to allow for some mistakes and not be embarrassed by them: I’d thank the person for pointing out something that I’d left out or gotten wrong, make the correction in my work, and mentally move on. No big anxiety attack, no sleepless nights worried I’d done something wrong.
Now I live by the mantra, “I can only do what I can do each day. I’m listening to my body, stopping before I hit my limits, and focusing on quality over quantity. “Doing my best” looks different each day and I’m taking my productivity day by day.”
So because my issue was not perfectionism, but more so related to anxiety and people-pleasing, it hadn’t occurred to me that saying “just do your best” is not great advice for everyone. I personally found it reassuring and a good guideline.
But then I interviewed Amy Stohs, a teacher and member of the Truth for Teachers writers collective, and a self-described recovering perfectionist. This was episode 240 of the podcast in which we were discussing productivity tips and I had a major aha moment when Amy said something to the effect of,
Being told to ‘just do my best’ creates a ton of anxiety and pressure, because I know what my best looks like. I know what I”m capable of. But I can’t do my best on everything, and I can’t relax my standards when the standard is doing my best.”
When I thought about her words, I realized that I related pretty strongly, because my best is also generally pretty good when it comes to my work. I know what I CAN do, and that can make it hard to do anything less than my best.
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Relax your standards to a level that no one else will notice
So over the last few years, I’ve really sat deeply with the advice I give educators in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek, which is to “relax your standards to a level where no one else will notice but you.”
In other words, if you could stop doing an aspect of your work to the full extent and quality you’re doing now, and no one around you would notice or care, relax your standards. Set your expectations lower because you’re spending your time and energy on something that isn’t as important as some of your other obligations.
For example, I remember one teacher in 40 Hour who realized she was putting a lot of effort into a digital parent newsletter every week. She decided to tell parents she was going to switch to a bi-weekly letter, meaning every other week, so she could spend the time she was using to create the newsletter on conferring with individual parents as needed. (In other words: she had emails and phone calls to respond to.) None of the parents had a problem with this.
The following year, she decided to start off the school year with her new group of students having only monthly parent updates. Again, none of the parents had a problem with this. They, too, were busy and were happy to hear about projects and learning topics on a monthly basis.
This is an example of relaxing your standards to a level where no one else will notice but you. None of the parents even knew a biweekly newsletter, much less a weekly one, was even something this teacher thought she should be doing. It was an expectation she had for herself but no one cared when she relaxed those standards (which feels a lot better than “lowering your standards”, especially if you’re a perfectionist or people pleaser).
Experimenting with the framework of “B+ work”
Relaxing your standards is a good mental reframing to play around with as a starting place, but over the past few years, I’ve also been experimenting with the framework of “B+ work.”
The idea here is that you cannot get a 100 or perfect score on every task that’s on your plate. Every meal you cook for dinner is not going to be an A+. Every lesson you create is not going to be outstanding. Every birthday present you buy, every housecleaning you do, every holiday celebration you plan, and so on … they’re not all going to be A+ work.
This is in part because you’re human, and it’s not possible to get everything perfect all the time. But it’s also because you have limits on your time and energy. Given unlimited hours, money, and resources, maybe you could get pretty close to A+ work on every aspect of your life. But you have 24 hours a day and your finances and obligations present constraints.
What if you only aimed for A+ work on the most important stuff, and aimed for B+ work in everything else?
B+ is actually a good score, right? And it’s perfectly fine for a last minute meal or minor student accommodation or other small aspect of life and work. It’s well about average and very solidly GOOD, by any standard.
There is so much pressure for peoplE — especially teachers — to be outstanding in every aspect, and it’s not realistic, or even necessary. B+ work suffices the majority of the time.
You don’t need to give 100% to everything because everything doesn’t matter. Give 100% to the stuff that does matter, and 85% to everything else. That’s B+ work.
(And, once you get good at this, you might even realize some tasks only deserve about 50% of your effort and be okay with that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here at first.)
You might be thinking, “This sounds good, Angela, but I just don’t think like that. My brain doesn’t work that way.” Here are five tips to help you internalize this.
1. Remember that your B+ is probably most people’s A+.
The truth is that if you are a perfectionist — if you can never be happy with anything you do unless it meets your personal standard of what’s acceptable — then your idea of B+ work is probably everyone else’s idea of A+ work, anyway.
In a world of mediocrity and low-effort output, you may be surprised at how impressive other people find your B+ work and how it still manages to stand out.
2. Remember that only you know what A+ work looks like in your head.
If you’re creating an Open House or parent workshop for your students’ families and caregivers, they won’t know that you had planned to do five hands-on stations and an elaborate interactive bulletin board and have the event catered with snacks you paid for out of your pocket.
So for you, nixing the bulletin board and snacks and only doing three stations out of five feels like B+ work–or maybe worse, like D+ work. But to the families who had no idea you’d even thought to do those other things, it looks like A+ work.
You’re rested, energized, happy to see them, enthusiastic about talking about their children, and well-prepared with three substantial stations that give them a great pathway to learning more about you and your class. That’s an A+ job in their eyes.
Other people have no way of knowing what else you had planned or tried or wished you could do, so they don’t judge you according to that.
3. Remember that the goal is not to do everything you CAN do in a day, but everything you SHOULD.
We often look at our own accomplishments and assume that we have to keep leveling up. For example, you might think, “I ran three miles easily today. I must not be pushing myself enough, and I should do four miles tomorrow.”
Or you might say to yourself. “I had no trouble putting together this complicated learning activity for kids. I should do something elaborate every day.”
In other words, we assume that I didn’t lose sleep over it, stayed up all night working on it, checked in with 10 other people, got their feedback, and so on, then we must not have done a good enough job. We could do more, so therefore we should do more.
I would counter this by mentioning that the goal of life is not to stay as busy as possible or do as many things as you can. The goal of a day is not to collapse with exhaustion at the end of it.
Be measured and intentional about how you spend your time and energy. Just because you COULD do more doesn’t mean you SHOULD.
4. Remember that things don’t have to be difficult or time-consuming to be good.
This is a related issue because sometimes we feel like if something comes easy for us, we must not be working hard enough. If it just about killed us to get something done, then it must be good and all that time must have been worthwhile.
This reveals a belief system that falsely equates hard work with quality work.
We can even create a trap for ourselves where if something isn’t hard work, then it “doesn’t count.”
For example, let’s say someone compliments you on the lovely invitations to your child’s birthday party. Because you only spent 15 minutes putting them together, you brush off the compliment, saying, “Oh, it was nothing, it only took a couple of minutes. I wanted to do this thing where my kids hand-painted the front but we ran out of time.”
Never mind that the invites got sent out, and in a timely manner. Never mind that the invitations conveyed the necessary information and were attractive enough that someone else complimented you on how great the invitations looked.
If you have the mindset of “This wasn’t hard enough, so it doesn’t count” then you won’t be able to take satisfaction in your accomplishment the way you should. In fact, the compliment may seem insincere — how could your efforts be good enough if you didn’t spend hours laboring over the task?
5. Remember that perfect is the enemy of done.
If we make a task into something that’s hard work — something that feels like it’s going to be outstanding — that often makes the task feel overwhelming. It becomes something we build up in our heads: B+ work is not going to be good enough; a little effort will not suffice. This must be amazing! It must be mind-blowing! It must be as close to perfect as I can get it!
When we think this way about a task, working on it becomes very daunting. We raise the stakes and start to feel overwhelmed. Then we procrastinate, or fail at it and don’t meet our own expectations.
These are all versions of overcomplicating a task and setting the standard too high, and it’s because we’re equating hard work with worthwhile work. If we expect something to be perfect, it will never get done.
Start noticing when you falsely equate hard work with quality work.
Notice when you accomplish something without much effort, and then second-guess yourself. For example, if you sit down to plan your lessons and it takes 30 minutes instead of the usual hour, do you assume that the plans must not be any good since it felt so easy to put them together, and then spend 2 hours online looking for more and better ideas?
Also notice when you move the goalpost on yourself. For example, if you try to make sure you’re leaving school by 4:30 and find yourself at a good stopping place for your tasks at 4:00, do you assume you haven’t worked hard enough and need to stay longer?
If so, remind yourself: just because something requires painstaking effort and a lot of time does not mean that it’s worth all that time. A lot of stuff that’s on your plate is frankly not that important. The goal is not to do everything you can do, but everything you should.
It’s time to experiment with the mental reframing that everything in life does not deserve A-level work. It’s absolutely fine to relax your standards to a level no one else will notice but you, and settle for B+ work instead of always aiming for perfection.
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