Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Lifting Heavy Things and Reading Hard Books: When Good Enough is Good Enough

Christmas break gave me a chance to re-learn a lesson that I have already learned several times before: I can't handle unstructured time.

If I do not have a barrage of immediate deadlines, goals, and to-do lists, I revert into a nearly motionless lump of mindless television consumption and procrastination. It's like watching evolution happen in reverse.

Me, by late December.
It's not just that I work best under pressure; it's that I work at all under pressure. The pressure doesn't always have to be external. I am very good at giving myself deadlines and meeting them. All of my lesson plans and blogging work, for example, are done without any supervision or even anyone to hold me accountable for them.

But I've found that I can only make time for all of those lofty self-imposed deadlines when they are happening in the midst of a greater external structure. If I know that I have to be at work from 8am-2pm, then I can plan to get up at 6am to work out, study for my exams until 4pm, pick up my kid from daycare, and make dinner. If I don't have to be at work? All bets are off. There are no other structures in which to create my plans. I am paralyzed by the possibilities.

This is why I have decided to take on even more external responsibilities during one of my busiest semesters yet. I am taking my comprehensive doctoral exams in a few months, but I've also joined a roller derby team. Roller derby will require me to make practices and bouts. It will require rigorous physical exertion. It is, I'm convinced, exactly what I need.


Here's what I've figured out. I once thought that my tendency to revert into near-catatonic states whenever I had more than 48 hours of unscheduled time was simply a matter of laziness. I suspected that at my core, in my soul, I was a lazy person who simply took on a bunch of responsibilities to put on a guise of productivity.

But I don't think that's the case anymore. Instead, I think my true problem is that at my core, in my soul, deep down under it all, I'm a horrendous perfectionist.

I know. I know. I sound like the person in the job interview who's asked "What's your greatest weakness?" and starts making their weaknesses sound like a strength. But I am here to tell you that this perfectionism is not a strength. It is a flaw, and it has the potential to be a fatal one.

When left with unstructured time and a sense of tasks uncompleted, I am motionless because of their enormity. If I have all the time in the world (or, in this case, all the time in three weeks) to study for my exams, then all I can do is think about the best way to study. I find myself needing to be in the "right" mind frame to read. I convince myself that I need to take the "right" kind of notes. I start creating elaborate plans for spreadsheets and discussion questions that I will write for myself and then answer. I am so overwhelmed by how good I should be able to make the work with all that free time that I don't do the work at all. It's ridiculous.

I did the same thing with my fitness goals. If I have so much time to work out, then all I can think about is how much stronger I should be. I start measuring myself against the weight I can't lift or the miles I can't run instead of what I do accomplish. I get dejected. I blame myself for the "failure" I've concocted. I freeze.

But when I came back from Christmas break, I started hitting the gym and the books again. I panicked for a moment because I couldn't read these books the "right" way or lift these weights often enough. I didn't get to go in and give full one-hour workouts or four-hour study sessions (like those I'd planned for break and never completed). I had to run in and give the weight lifting session 20 minutes. I had to read in the dim light of my daughter's room as I tapped her back while she fell asleep. These conditions were very, very far from the perfect ones I had created for myself just two weeks ago.

And you know what? They work. The notes I took in the forty minutes I had while my husband gave my daughter a bath were fine. Better than fine. They were good. When I went back to the gym, I did less than I had wanted, but I was stronger. The weights got heavier.

Things got done.

Once perfectionism is off the table, I can move again. When my schedule is hectic enough that good enough has to suffice, good enough is actually quite impressive.

Photo: Jo Simon, Paul David Gibson, George C. Slade


  1. This resonates so much with me. At the moment I am struggling to organise my exploded house of nonsense, but it just SUCH. A. BIG. JOB that I have no idea where to do things and I sit and plan out complicated plans for what to do and then don't do things. I've been mired in an overwhelming task for so long that I can't even be sure if it is that I am disorganized or a perfectionist...
    Thank you for posting this as it hopefully will help me to realise how I am. Not sure what I can do about it, but...

  2. This is SO me. Thank you. That's a real eye opener.

  3. Organization is definitely a weakness for my perfectionist tendencies, and it's one I just completely give up on when it looks too complex. I've started hyper-organizing one tiny thing (like where I store the flour and nuts and whatnot in my cupboard) and using it like a little meditation spot when I get overwhelmed by the rest of it.

  4. Yes! I organised he bathroom cupboard and then I opened it later and it made me happy... Now if the door is left open I get cranky and close it... I think I need to establish something as a meditation spot like that! Since working through this entire house will still take years more :/