Don’t always go the extra mile

Why some things just don’t deserve your best effort.

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

Always do your best. Your parents probably told you that. Or maybe a cartoon did. They meant well. But they were wrong. Sometimes, you should do less than your best. On purpose.

Don’t throw your time and energy away on jobs or expectations that don’t matter. Save it for big projects and people who appreciate you.

Back in college, I worked my ass off at my first job — a bar that served “food.” Until the owner threatened to fire me for saying hi to some friends. That night convinced me to stop trying so hard.

It didn’t matter how great I was at serving patrons. The only thing that did was looking busy. After a month, I stopped caring so much. Good enough was fine. Not like a promotion was waiting for me.

Assholes will tell you to give everything your all. They don’t care about your life goals. They just want a flirty waitress who refills drinks before they have to expend an ounce of their precious breath.

They want the perfect amount of foam on their latte. And if you can etch their name on it with caramel, that means you’re really going places. Maybe an extra twenty five cents per hour.

Everyone always doing their best sounds great, in theory. But that’s not what people really mean when they say that.

What they want is for everyone else to always do their best. That way, they’re always guaranteed exactly what they want.

Value your own time

Because nobody else will if you don’t. The world isn’t a hundred percent evil. But it’s pretty close. Lots of would-be bosses stand ready to exploit your talent and your can-do spirit.

We hate letting people down. We’re afraid how we’ll look if we let something slide. Even if that thing isn’t so important.

That restaurant owner who threatened to fire me also liked to inspect the silverware. If he found one smudge on a fork or a glass, he’d lecture everyone in earshot about work ethic and attention to detail. So we were constantly buffing and polishing to keep him quiet.

One time he asked me if it was possible for the silverware to be perfectly shiny and smudge free. Silly me, I said I didn’t think so. He called me lackadaisical, and threatened to fire me again.

Ever since, I’ve loved the word lackadaisical. It’s the perfect word to describe how baby boomers think about my generation’s attitude toward sparkling silverware and calling everyone sir.

In truth, it didn’t matter how much we polished the silverware. At some point, I finally realized what was happening.

He was smudging them himself. You can’t fondle silverware without getting your own finger oils on it. Or you can, I guess, if you use a napkin. But he wasn’t doing that. He was inspecting the forks, the knives, or the pint glasses over and over until he made them dirty himself.

You just can’t win that battle. So I gave up.

Embraced the futility of life. Became happier.

We play mind games with ourselves. We let the least important things become the most important.

Worse, we worry that letting one little thing slide will start some kind of avalanche. Go one day without answering everyone’s emails, and you’ll turn into a binge-drinking slob by the end of the month.

The silverware ordeal taught me a great lesson. Not everything that matters to other people has to matter to you. That one person’s email can wait a little while. Not every meeting requires your rapt attention.

Yeah, believe it. You actually have important things to do. Those things might not line up with other people’s opinions about what you ought to be working on. Like committee reports, or evaluations of said reports. Which are really just reports on reports. Yeah, that happens a lot.

Sometimes giving your all makes no difference

We like to think all hard work matters equally. Like some fairy godmother’s watching you and keeping track of everything you do. If you never slack off, you’ll certainly be rewarded with a glass slipper.

That’s just a fat lie. Part of success is knowing where to focus your energy, and when to detect when nobody really cares.

One year, I wrote a 10-page report at the request of my dean. The report explained why we needed another computer lab on campus. Poor little me worked on that report for 20 hours.

I wanted to impress him. It was the dean, after all.

The dean never read my report. In fact, he called a meeting to discuss his own thoughts on the matter.

The bastard never told me thanks for my work. Didn’t even hang my report on the fridge. At least I could’ve listed that on my C.V.

Report displayed proudly in dean’s kitchen. For the win.

Sometimes you can cut corners

You should never feel guilty for putting some projects ahead of others. Or phoning it in when clearly nobody else gives a shit.

That sounds pessimistic. Defeatist. But it’s freeing.

A few years ago, I gave a conference presentation at 8 am. On a Saturday morning. Three people showed up to hear me talk about some topic I can barely remember now.

Two of those people were the other presenters.

Imagine if I’d gone full presentation mode. To three people. That wasn’t happening. It felt wrong. Foolish.

Instead, we got coffee and talked each other through our projects. It was casual. Maybe to some people that sounds lazy. To us, it felt sane. Later that day, I saw a woman read her conference presentation from crayon scrawled on the backs of menus. So cut me some slack.

You don’t have to justify your priorities to everyone. Only yourself. Maybe you’ve got a ton of busy work keeping you from an important task. Kill the busy work. Just get it done. Odds are, that’s all that matters. Don’t feel embarrassed that you did one thing less well because you were trying to kick ass at something else. That’s your call.

Take pride in the right things

Sometimes it pays to be a perfectionist. Nine out of ten times, you’ve sacrificed sleep for nothing. You could’ve spent half the hours for the same result.

Trust me, I understand. My brain tends toward the perfectionist side. At my worst, I used to spend ten minutes on diction in emails to people who barely read past the subject line. What a waste of effort.

Someone once told me I was slow to respond to emails. It pissed me off at first. Because I thought my emails were beautifully crafted, and everyone appreciated my attention to sentence rhythm.

I’m not kidding. I treated emails like poems.

And nobody cared.

These days, I know better. Fuck it if someone thinks I’m terse. Maybe the occasional typo or extra word slips into my replies. That doesn’t matter. I’ve seen vice chancellors make typos in emails.

Of course, some emails enjoy more importance than others. Like announcements. Those matter. You don’t want a typo in an email that goes out to thirty people. Even then, it’s not a huge deal. People tend to forgive imperfection when you do an overall good job. Accidentally attaching nudes, though. Less forgiveness there. So I’ve heard.