Why SHOULD Can Suck It: How to Make Progress and Move the Needle Every Day

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The ceiling, as usual, is frustratingly silent about my predicament.

Just like any other day, I’ve woken up with my head on the pillow, my eyes on the ceiling, and my mind racing through a list of all the things I SHOULD do today.

The list, like the ceiling, is frustrating.

There are things on this list that have been there for days. In fact, if I really mull it over (which I’d rather not do), the list looks exactly the same today as it did yesterday.

And the day before that.

And the day before that.

“I’ve gotten things done. I know I have,” I argue with myself. And the ceiling. And the list.

Sure I have.

Laundry. Dishes. Grocery shopping. Making dinner. Straightening up the house. Vacuuming.

Just kidding. I never vacuum.

Yet the list remains.

It contains things of less familial importance and more personal importance. I want to write a freelance article. I need to update a sales page before my new program launches. I want to make it to the gym. I’d like to meet up with friends that I haven’t seen in a while.

Definitely the same things that were on the list yesterday.

All the things I SHOULD do, for my writing, for my business, for myself.

All the things that are now obscured by the guilt of not doing them.

All anchored by that fucking judgmental ceiling.

To-do lists, by necessity, have end results listed on them. Finish lines. 

But how much work is actually encompassed in the innocuous, “Write freelance article”? (HINT: A lot.)

So much work that even though I SHOULD finish it, I don’t. In fact, I don’t even get started. That SHOULD stands before me like Gandalf with his staff: you shall not pass. 

Because beginning comes with the obvious burden of finishing it and I’m not sure that I’m ready for that sort of commitment.

Here’s the thing about shoulds: they turn you into a perfectionist. And perfectionism is a curse. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Sure, sure. When you finally tackle something on your list, it’s great. Wonderful. Perfect.

But with perfection as the end goal, you are unlikely to tackle anything.

Even when you should.

Especially if you should.

The last time I used the phrase, “Something is better than nothing,” it was as a way to shrug off my obsession with perfection and the idea that “should” actually meant “should be perfect”. It was a little bit of an, “Oh, well,” with a hair flip that allowed me to do something even if it wasn’t perfect.

I was a little surprised when someone clapped back with my greatest fear:

“Yeah, okay, something is better than nothing. But shouldn’t you just do it the right way.”

Your SHOULD can suck it. And here’s why:

1) Most Tasks Have More Than One Step.

Writing a freelance article or updating a sales page isn’t a quick, one-and-done proposition. Chances are good that your to-do list has the same problem.

“Workout” is a series of separate sets and reps that all have to be done.

“Finish taxes” requires the gathering of myriad ridiculous papers and a sudden, desperate call to H&R Block.

“Preschool drop-off” ends only in tears. Did you even drop your kid off? Who knows? Your soul is dead now.

While I’m not suggesting that almost completing preschool drop-off and actually completing preschool drop-off are comparable, I am saying that there are instances where you can be happy with doing some of the thing rather than doing all of thing.

2) “Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good.” – Me (and Voltaire)

Perfectionism is a problem because it gets in the way of action.

Doing is how we learn to get better at things. Writing an article, even if it’s bare-bones and slapdash, will eventually make you a better writer. Even if it takes years.

Sometimes, you just have to put stuff out there regardless of how good it is, just to have it done. You’ll enjoy checking it off your list and can evaluate and improve upon it over time.

The stuff I create now is significantly better than what I created a year ago. And in a year I’ll probably look back at the stuff I’m creating now and think it’s trash. And that’s a good thing: to have the baseline to compare it to and see, hopefully, growth happen.

When it comes to doing new things, don’t let good be the enemy of effort.

Sometimes you have to put in a lot of mediocre effort before you can graduate to something good. The point is to eventually graduate.

Which leads me to my next point…

3) Not Every Day Will Be This Way.

Not every day will be an existential staring contest with your ceiling. Some days you’ll get through all your SHOULDS with time to spare.

Doing something instead of nothing isn’t a tool to let yourself be a lazy slob that eats bon-bons on the couch while watching episodes of Archer.

You’re still moving forward, even if it’s only an abbreviated version. It’s an action that’s allowing you to keep pace until you can fully commit to it. That’s something, not nothing, and that’ll allow you to keep moving forward over time. 

Once I stop locking eyes with the ceiling and roll out of bed, the negotiations start.

In the time that I have this morning, I can write for 15 minutes instead of 30, but I have to avoid the siren song of the laundry and dishes. Those are easier tasks to complete, but ultimately less important.

I could also do a short yoga flow instead of going for that jog I erroneously thought I wanted to do. I’m definitely giving myself 5 minutes to make and drink tea. 

Six minutes into my writing, the monitor comes to life telling me that my kid is awake. 

Oh well, something is better than nothing.

About the Author

Emily is a stay-at-home #toddlermom by day and a badass, roller derby athlete by night. She might also do some fitness coaching in there. If she were an animal, she'd be an octopus. Her friends call her Prime. And she thinks tea is highly superior to coffee. Let her introduce you to your inner athlete on her website.

Comments for This Entry

  • Conquer Pain to Gain

    “Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good.” So true! Get started, take action and as long as you're taking the steps forward, that's all that matters. "Perfect" is subjective so why focus on it so much? It's just a huge waste of time.

    December 30, 2017 at 2:18 pm

  • Jess Reichmuth

    "Some is better than none" was a motto with which I survived one of the harder years of my life. It's legit. Some IS better than none. Baby steps. Divide that shit up and celebrate the little bits you get done. The little bits come together to make bigger things with enough time and persistence.

    July 25, 2017 at 3:42 pm

  • Anthony Guttadauro

    Emily, Great Post! Getting things done without being a perfectionist can be a real struggle. One neat little trick that I use is to rotate "important" things I "should" do on different days of the week. I find that this helps me to avoid burnout. This is similar to the program discussed in Dr. Barbra Oakley's book How to Excel At Math and Science (No Affiliation, just a good book!). Keep Up The Good Work!

    July 20, 2017 at 8:53 am

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