When the late William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, was asked how he managed to write one poem (or more) every day, he offered a phrase that endeared him to many:”I lower my standards.” Stafford wasn’t suggesting that he had low standards for the poems he published, just that he knew how the daily practice of turning his thoughts and observations into poems furthered his craft.
Many of us have high standards and want much of what we do and plan to be the best it can be.
We want the report to look beautiful as well as be useful. We want to find the best AirBNB in Barcelona, the most highly rated pair of shears, and cook the best dinner for our dinner guests.
All are admirable goals, but “best” can be exhausting.
We’re egged on by online sites offering have-to-read rating systems, because who would want to buy an electric toothbrush that had a 4.2 rating when you could have one that was 5 stars? We study the comments. Two hours later, we’re still researching toothbrushes while being tempted to check out the best roller point pen before ordering our next batch. (Guilty!)
The problem with “the best” or even “great” is that it sucks up our time and turns us away from what’s most important. Often, our friends don’t want “the best” dinner–they just want us to be wholeheartedly with them. In the area of house cleaning, I am definitely “good enough” and not “great.” When I focus on making my home impeccable, it usually means I’m avoiding writing.
My singing teacher, Peggy, hung a sign on her studio wall that said it all:
“Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually,”
That was so Peggy, choosing to focus on her students one hundred and ten percent plus, rather than worry about a little clutter or dust around the edges. Her students accepted the bargain and loved her for it.
When we set a bar too high, we may talk ourselves into giving up before we’ve even started.
Lower the bar, with humility
I recently took on a project of teaching Zumba at a local senior center. (I know, this defeats rule # 1 below, “Say No” to new projects.) I couldn’t resist the possibility of teaching Zumba for the first time with this absolutely wonderful group.
Turns out teaching Zumba takes way more preparation than I anticipated, and I didn’t have much time. Half of the day I had allocated for preparing was lost as my computer came up with every possible tactic to keep me from putting together a simple playlist of music. Then, I realized that my poor, getting poorer, memory was not about to allow me to memorize the choreography for seven songs in one evening. What to do?
I lowered my standards.
When I dance, I’m usually improvising, so I decided to call on that skill. With a heaping dose of humility, the next day I explained to the group that I’d need to improvise class for a while.
No one complained.
The group was more than OK, and we had fun together. Turns out they needed my smile more than perfect steps.
How many mountains do you want to climb this week?
Many of the mountain peaks in our schedules are caused by our expectations. I’ve been informed that podcasters “should” produce on a regular weekly schedule. Guess what? No can do, even though I have some great interviews in the queue. No one will die as a result of gaps in my production calendar.
Gardeners “should” weed and keep the most pervasive weeds down. My standards dropped below the low mark while I tried negotiating a truce with a major group of weeds: “If I don’t pull you out this year, could you promise not to come next?” (Lost that one.)
Writers “should” write. Now, this point is different because writing is a priority for me and not a “should do.” I aim to write every day and I do pretty well with that. Good enough.
Tips for best-aholics or those who always go for great
Learn to say “No” or negotiate. Breathe before you pick up that Zumba class (alas). Overfilling your tank won’t help your engine run any better, and it might defeat you. (But you already know that.)
Check your priorities
Reserve “great” or “really good” for what matters most. Then limit your priorities. (You can read about a cool system that helps you focus here.)
If Tom Sawyer could do it, so can you, Pay for help to paint that fence or stage a work party people can’t resist. Buying help may be pricey, but if it relieves you, improves the work, or allows you to keep your attention on what matters most, maybe it’s not as expensive as you think. At your workplace, delegate and collaborate.
Assess what’s required
When I’m avoiding a task, it looms large. When I assess how much time it will actually take, I usually calm down. I estimate that weeding that pernicious sticky weed out of the garden could be done in an hour. That’s do-able. The rest can wait.
Don’t polish the first draft
If you are working on a project that will go through multiple iterations, don’t fuss the early versions.
Choose when not to settle
Lowering your standards in some areas allows you to focus on what’s really important. Enjoy polishing that final draft.
The memoirist Kerry Cohen, with whom I did a writing weekend, encouraged me to keep writing by signing her book with this inscription:
“It doesn’t have to great, just good enough.”
That might be a motto for life.