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Giving 80%: Perfection, Procrastination, and the Beauty of Action

Yesterday I was working with my chiropractor/movement specialist on proper form for deadlifts. After a lot of instruction, demonstration, questions and concentration, I had completed about 5 in a 25- minute period.

He finally looked at me and said, “80%. Just make them 80% correct.”

I looked at him dumbly. “But I don’t want to get injured. That’s why I’m here in the first place.”

“You’ve got the right feeling now. You're doing it 'good enough.' There will always be another level to work. Just focus on two things. That’s it. Two things. Now, do 5 more.”

I stood, shuffling my feet, trying to assess what was exactly shoulder-width, centering my breath, bracing my back, activating those Kegel muscles, shifting my gaze to six feet in front of me so my neck was aligned … you can see why it takes me so long, right? … and then I finally did a deadlift, and another a little faster and by the third one, my body had finally found its groove and I completed the last two with much less concentration. They were more fluid. Less spastic and stilted.

“Oh, that’s what 80% is like? It’s totally fine.” And then we moved to what I refer to as the torture table (technically it’s a treatment table, but I like to call things as I see them) for a little deep tissue work. Ouch.

I woke up today, and I am fine. I've discovered new muscles, which are tired, but not injured. This is a good place to be. I can keep moving forward.

Contrast this attitude with an Ultimate Frisbee team I played on briefly. For a group of adult athletes with full-time jobs and other duties, the captains talked a lot about giving 110 percent. Being a good little rule follower, I did my damndest to meet that. I showed up at every practice, I did the track workouts, I went to every tournament, I spent time outside of practice trying to improve my throws. I prioritized Ultimate over spending time with family, even when they came to visit me.

Yet, one of the captains was injured and couldn’t even play. Sometimes the other captain didn’t show up.

I don’t know who I was trying to impress, or why I tried to meet their expectations, but it didn’t work. Midway through the summer, I quit the team. I had burned myself out. Other people had figured out how to balance the team and life, but not me. I was still trying to achieve the impossible 110 percent.

It’s the only team I’ve ever quit.

But it’s that kind of effort and dedication that win people awards and media attention. We romanticize the athlete, executive, software developer, designer, entrepreneur who “gives it all,” “leaves it on the field,” “leans in,” grits his/her teeth and lives by “no pain no gain.”

All of that is fine if that’s what you really want and your body can take it, but for most of us, our bodies can’t. No matter where the stress/burnout come from, our bodies start breaking down and then we go to see someone like my pal Dr. Q.

This got me to thinking (of course).

Here’s the problem with perfectionists. We try to figure out all the steps, rabbit holes, potential problems before we take a single action. We want to know everything ahead of time or we don’t move. we automatically picture what perfection looks like and tell ourselves that anything less is failure.

All of this can be okay if it doesn’t get in our way, but perfectionism almost always gets in my way. It stops me from making decisions, taking action, and, literally, moving. It's counterproductive, and I have to fight the voice that taunts me with things like ... This isn't good enough. This isn't your best effort. Why bother if you're not going to do it right. No one will like it.

Believe me, these voices don't go away. But that doesn't mean I have to believe or obey them.

Let me share another story to better explain.

I recently became treasurer for a volunteer group. I’ve been freaking out because we need to implement some new money handling practices and introduce a bit more organization.

I started to imagine what should be happening, and then started imagining that there are things I don’t know even know about yet, but I’ve heard other financial people talk about… accounts receivable, debits, macros in excel (wtf?), what do you do with paper receipts? What gets recorded, blah blah blah.

But after my “80%” moment, I realize I’m assuming I have to make everything perfect (it’s money!), right now.

But there’s really no rush. For two years, we’ve been getting along, paying bills, without fancy spreadsheets. I realized if I implement only one or two new practices, that will be an improvement. Progress, not perfection. If the next treasurer wants to create pie charts, s/he can. And then I went and deposited money safely at the bank.

Action taken. Progress made. Next?

And that’s the beauty of it. I DO something and then I can collect the data and learn from it. When I’m standing in the gym thinking about doing a deadlift, my Dr Q. has nothing to work with. When I’m freaking out about the perfect pie chart, I’m not depositing money. When I expect myself to give 110 percent, I quit the team.

Perfection and overcommitment are the enemies of progress.

So, as you look toward 2019, what if you considered an 80% rule of thumb in the areas where you tend to get bogged down? What if you let that first effort be 80% instead of an A+? Which attitude keeps you moving forward?

If you want to check out Dr. Q, his philosophy and his torture techniques, visit him here:

If you’re done with giving “110 percent” at your job, but don’t know what to do next, email me to schedule a free phone session.

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