top of page

One Bullsh*t Saying to Bin Immediately

How you do one thing is how you do everything.

If there is a saying less helpful for high-achieving hyper-­self-critical people, I haven't encountered it recently. And if you're one of those people, you're probably very familiar with the general approach to priorities it reflects, even if you don't know the saying itself. High-achieving, hyper-self-critical types have zero trouble deciding what's most important to them or putting it on the top of their list. But they have HUGE trouble accepting less than excellent output on things that, when pressed, they can admit are pretty far down that list. They want to do everything as well as the things that matter most.

Which means they wrap a successful IPO only to feel bad about the state of their closets. They hold their meal-planning results to same standards as a high-profile public lecture. They get down on themselves for not refining their fitness routine with as much as care as do the storyline of their graphic novel.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting you have to think your IPO is more important than your cupboards or that it’s wrong to care about your creative work and your fitness equally.

What I’m talking about is when we actually WANT to prioritise one thing, but we can’t relax our standards when it comes to anything else. As in: we decide, on purpose that it’s more important to spend an hour with the kids than to tidy up the kitchen. But then we still yell at ourselves when we see the sink full of dishes an hour later.

In our culture of relentless ‘tips’ and ‘hacks’ for improving productivity, we’re all subject to this mindset to some extent. But it’s especially an issue for high performers. Because when you show excellence in one area—and if you’re on this list, it’s probably actually more than one area—it feels obvious that you could, you SHOULD, be excellent everywhere. If only you could just be a bit more disciplined, it seems, this would all be possible. It’s an extension of the mindset that looks at a report card full of As and fixates on the one A-.

Letting that mindset run the show is a constant drag on your relationship to yourself, because it doesn’t let you respect the choices you make for real, often important reasons. You gain so much energy and even pleasure around pursuing the things you care when you’re not constantly, inadvertently undermining your own ability to distribute your time according to what is actually most important to you.

You can be so much more present in that hour with your daughter when you know you’re not going to yell at yourself about the dishes later. And you can deal with trivial tasks with so much less agonised self-marshalling when you know you won’t spend the first 15 minutes berating yourself for not having done them sooner. Not only do you get back the time you would have spent doing an A+ job on something that only merits a B-, but you also get back the brain space you accidentally wound up devoting to all that nagging about universal excellence.

This may seem like a trivial change, but the benefits build up fast. Whenever people ask me how I manage to do two jobs, I imagine showing them the size of my ‘to be folded’ laundry pile when I’m on a deadline. Frankly, if you saw my kitchen cupboards, you wouldn’t think the person who organised them belonged to the same SPECIES as the person who writes my articles, much less that they were the exact same person. At this point, how I do the handful of things at the top of my priority list bears very little relationship to the way I do things that I have put far, far down that list. And I’m able to accomplish things that were completely impossible back in my own days of trying to do everything excellently all at once.

This shift can take some getting used to. At first, it can be disorienting to decide to let certain things slide. Beyond your brain freaking out at you for a bit, you may find you have to live with some messes you’d ideally prefer not to. Which makes total sense. I’d actually love to have pristine cupboards and laundry that never accumulates. Because really, who wouldn’t? This is why rich people have servants. It’s great to have everything done great! Sometimes when I look at the laundry pile, I still have to remind my brain that I only have so many hours in a day, and I have chosen to put them toward things that matter more to me than how quickly I put clean clothes away.

But the rewards I see for me and my clients when we stop trying to pursue the impossible standard of universal excellence make it worth the extra mess and occasional brain drama of choosing to do a B- job in some areas. When we refuse to co-sign the part of our brains that demands we do everything equally well, we create so much room to treat what really matters to us with the focus it deserves.

Priorities are an act of love for ourselves and what we care about most in the world. When we stop trying to make everything a priority, we access a profound capacity for that love. We create space to allot our precious, finite gift of time in a way that reflects our highest values. We show up for that future, death-bed version of ourselves that is going to be so fucking glad we were courageous enough to let the trivial stuff slide.

The Priorities Fast

Here's how to get started. This is an exercise I use with clients that lasts a week.

  1. For this week, you are allowed to have THREE PRIORITIES ONLY.

  2. When you select these priorities, aim to identify not categories (home, work, etc) but specific actions or results. So rather than ‘family’ it might be something like ‘Get Mary onto a good homework schedule’. Instead of ‘work’, it might be ‘create the best possible presentation for the meeting on Friday’. Etc. Be very specific!

  3. During this week, you are REQUIRED to treat everything else in your life with the minimum possible effort and attention. This means you can do the other stuff, but you should do it in a just-good-enough, loosey-goosey, lick-and-a-promise way. So: one draft of the email, not 20. Store-bought cookies for the school party. Letting the weeds get a bigger foothold for a while.

  4. More importantly, when your brain tries to yell at you for this lick-and-a-promise level of output—which it FOR SURE will--you refuse to co-sign that yelling. Instead, you respond by saying calmly, ‘Thank you, Brain, I know you’re just trying to help, but this is not a priority at the moment.’

  5. As the week unfolds, just observe how much your brain wants to insist you achieve excellence in every area. And also notice the space it creates when you actually give yourself permission not to get on board with the universal excellence project. Notice how much easy it is to get through a day when you can tell the trees from the forest.

  6. At the end of the week consider: how much do you want to go back to the everything-is-a-priority approach? What could stay at a lick-and-a-promise level moving forward without serious negative effects? And how much truly excellent stuff—stuff that only you can put into the world—might you have time to prioritise instead?

Let me know how it goes!


bottom of page