4 Times You Shouldn’t Do Your Best

Several people have described me as “nothing if not thorough.” And I have a really hard time consciously not doing my best.

But sometimes doing your best isn’t the right thing to do. Frequently, in fact, sticking with something until it’s your best work isn’t the most effective use of your energy. Here are four times when you don’t want to do your best.

  1. When Doing Your Best Is Chronically Unhealthy

Sometimes you do need to sacrifice sleep, exercise time, or nutrition for another priority, but you don’t want that to be your norm. Admittedly, choosing to prioritize your health is a privileged thing: people who work three jobs and are single parents might just have too much that they literally have to do to survive, so regular exercise might not be a pressing concern for them. But to the extent that is possible, we want to make our health a priority.

And if you’re a somewhat privileged person, which you probably are if you’re reading a self-improvement blog, then you need to make time for your health. If you don’t, then you won’t be able to do your best anyway.

In high school I used to stay up until my homework was thoroughly done, and I lost sleep to do that. I didn’t understand what other students meant when they said they didn’t have time for an assignment. I made time. But rationally, my homework didn’t need to be a higher priority than my health all the time.

In my AP classes, we had more homework than we could feasibly do, so students copied or just didn’t do the work. While I stand by my decision not to cheat, I could have let my homework slide in favor of sleep, dropped some of my AP classes, or at least tried talking to the teachers about how the homework load was impossible. But as a teenager, I just thought that I needed to be better.

Lesson learned: if something seems like too much, then it probably is. Don’t worry about what’s too much for another person.

  1. When the Task Isn’t Within a Core Focus Area

As I’ve gotten older, my focus has narrowed more. The secondary school courses including math, science, English, and history gave way to general education requirements, and then most other classes were within my major and minor areas of study.

My hobbies have had to narrow similarly. I used to think it was tragic that people grew up and gave up instruments and whole hobbies they used to spend a lot of time on, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to keep up with everything.

But that’s impossible.

A more appropriate attitude is to be glad for skills gained and lessons learned. And just because you don’t do something regularly doesn’t mean you have to give it up entirely.

As an adult, I’ve learned to keep my interests contained and somewhat focused by fitting my activities into core focus areas. For me, these areas are:

  • Relationships: with my boyfriend, my family members, and my other friends
  • Spirituality: prayer, church, religious service, and so forth
  • Health: sleep, exercise, meditation, nutrition, and the like
  • Adulting tasks: work, chores, cleaning, etc.
  • Volunteering and activism: civic duty, community service, and all that jazz
  • Creative fulfillment: fulfillment of personal career goals through writing, editing, and so forth
  • Music: my screen-free hobby that gives me a break from word-related goals

Ideally, everything I do fits into one of these focus areas, and these areas guide how I engage in activities. For example, if I want to go hiking, then that’s fine. But I need to do it as a way to enhance my health and build relationships or something. I can’t make obsessive goals about doing every hike in the area just so I can Hike Properly, because hiking isn’t a core focus for me.

The same goes for crocheting, baking, and a thousand other activities. No one can do everything, so we need to make choices that reflect acceptance of that fact.

  1. When a Task Isn’t Your Top Priority

Even within the core areas of focus, doing your best isn’t always ideal. We all have limited time, even for our focus areas.

For example, one of my focus areas is creative fulfillment. But that focus area doesn’t just include my main writing project. The “writing” label includes reading, engaging in the writing community, building a social media presence, and otherwise marketing myself.

I could spend all day on these things, but I can’t, especially if I want to have healthy relationships and eat good food. So I have to make choices about where to spend my time.

For example, blogging and marketing myself are important, but they’re not as important as my actual writing projects. So I implement best practices in these areas on a slower schedule so that my limited creative writing time goes into my WIP.

If you try to do everything you know how to do at once, then matters of secondary concern will probably take over your schedule.

  1. When You’ve Gone Past Your Deadline

Most of us are taught to do our best, but we can’t let perfect become the enemy of good enough. We have to publish the blog post, submit the draft, or move on to the next assignment. If you don’t set an arbitrary deadline for yourself, then you’ll end up spending forever on projects like Threat Level Midnight, only to realize that you should have abandoned the project a long time ago because it will never be what you hoped it would.

Sure, you’ll go back and notice mistakes. But the alternative is to stagnate in general. We learn more by moving forward than by obsessing, because nothing will be perfect.

And we don’t just have to decide when a project is good enough. We have to set time limits so that our smaller efforts don’t get out of hand either. For example, I set a one-hour time limit for this blog post. Whatever I have in an hour will be good enough. Because I need to do other things.

What struggles do you have with time? Would defining focus areas for your life help you?


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Beverly Johnson says:

    I love that you have so many interests that you have to choose which ones to focus on. This post reminds me of something I heard once, I don’t remember where I heard it: if something is barely worth doing, barely do it.


    1. McKenna Johnson says:

      That’s a good philosophy 🙂


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