The art of letting go
Letting go of the need to be perfect and of things that are outside your control will enable more productivity at work and more joy in life.
I’ve always been a perfectionist, making sure every “I” is dotted, every “T” crossed. Like many others, I’m just ever-so-slightly OCD. I enjoy creating order within chaos — I want everything to be neat, organized, and lined up. I like having plans, checklists, and timelines, and don’t deal too well with uncertainty. (Consequently, I’m not great to watch movies with, or so I’ve been told.)
A few years ago, I realized this was doing more harm than good. The ROI for being perfect was nominal, and it left me feeling stressed and anxious. I chatted with a friend, and he gave me advice that I took to heart: “Just let things go and watch what happens for a week.” I was curious, so I did.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost nothing had fallen apart. No one mentioned that the widths of columns in a spreadsheet weren’t perfectly sized. The markets still opened without an appendix in a report that detailed the definitions of terms. Stakeholders still liked the output of presentations (even though I thought they could have been better). It wasn’t life or death; good work was still good work — business went on as usual.
That’s when it clicked: The need to be perfect was all in my head. And when I stopped overthinking, overanalyzing, and overpreparing, things changed for me: I slept better, had more time, pursued other passions, and became happier.
Here are four ways to practice the art of letting go:
1. Find the point of diminishing returns
Most people think of diminishing returns in terms of output, an end result, or the final product. For example, in economics, the law of diminishing returns postulates that after reaching some optimal level of capacity, investing an additional unit of resources results in a smaller unit of output.
To follow this principle at work, it’s important to first identify your optimal level of capacity.
- If you’re at the optimal capacity point, for every unit of input, you’re getting an equivalent unit of output. You’re productive, engaged, and efficient — you’re in your zone.
- If you’re under the optimal capacity point, your input is less than one unit, so you’re getting less than one unit of output. It’s sub-par work, which you want to avoid.
- If you’re above the optimal capacity point, according to the law of diminishing returns, the return on your marginal investment decreases per unit. For example, for every 1.5 units of input, you get 1.1 units of output.
So, in the last scenario, the question to ask becomes: “Is the additional 0.4 unit of input worth the additional 0.1 unit of output?“
By thinking about how to define what your investment is “worth,” whether it be time or energy, it’s really a matter of motivation: Why did you make a particular decision, or why were you doing a particular task? There could be many reasons — it’s critical for the business; you want to learn something new; you want to build expertise; it’s for a challenge or pure enjoyment; it’s something you care about; you want to collaborate with people; the list goes on. Identifying why you’re doing something helps clarify which work is bringing steeper diminishing returns.
Key takeaway: Find your optimal level of capacity and the point of diminishing returns. For lower-priority needs, let go of making everything perfect. Being done is better than being perfect.
2. Think about locus of control
There’s a concept in psychology called locus of control, of which there are two types: external and internal. People with an external locus of control attribute outcomes to outside factors, such as fate or chance. People with an internal locus of control believe their own actions determine an outcome. In reality, most people fall somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum.
Whether in life or at work, this principle can be used to differentiate what is truly within your control. For things that full under your purview, take full ownership — do your part and do it well.
As ideal as that may sound, we also live in a world where some things are outside our control. For example, you’re tasked with creating a pitch to leadership on whether the company should expand into a new market. It’s within your scope to do the research, create a solid business case and rationale, and present your pitch in a compelling manner that leadership can easily understand. But the actual outcome doesn’t fall within your purview. So free yourself mentally of that burden; you’ve already done your best.
Key takeaway: Identify what is within, and outside, your control. For things that fall within, work for what you want. For things that fall outside, do what you can, then assign the outcome to the universe and let it go.
3. Prioritize and set boundaries
It’s a bit ironic that setting boundaries can liberate you. But without them, you can succumb to boundaries that are set for you by other people (don’t let that happen!).
The first step is to prioritize — decide on a handful of goals that are most important to you (having 10 priorities negates having any at all). Focus your energy. For everything else, if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.
The second step is to create and set your boundaries. In theory, it’s simple enough: Determine what really matters to you; keep your eyes on those goals; execute toward them. If you don’t set boundaries, you might become distracted or end up working on other people’s priorities instead of your own.
There are different types of boundaries: physical, temporal, and value-based.
- In the virtual-first working world, physical boundaries could be your office setup or Zoom etiquette. Essentially, it’s how spatial layouts, visual stimuli, and tactile objects impact your working habits or interpersonal relations with coworkers.
- Temporal boundaries could be your schedule, working hours, calendar non-negotiables, or meeting protocols. More simply, it’s how time is spent to align with both your professional commitments and personal lifestyle.
- Lastly, value-based boundaries are deeply individualistic — they could be reflections of your behavioral standards or moral guidelines. Fundamentally, it’s how the concept of humanity is applied in your personal life as well as your work life.
In reality, setting boundaries is the easier piece. The third and final step is maintaining them consistently, which is a bit of a struggle. This is where awareness, communication, and accountability come into play.
- Awareness involves being attuned to your personality, habits, preferences, and behavior. Knowing how you tick helps prepare you to establish boundaries and push back whenever necessary.
- Communication is key — the manner in which you convey expectations will dictate how successful you can be in maintaining your boundaries.
- For the accountability piece, as John Donne says, “No man is an island.” This is where other people — whether a coach, mentor, coworker, family member, or friend — can help hold you accountable so you can remain true to your goals.
Key takeaway: Prioritize a handful of key goals and establish boundaries for what’s important to you. Let go of the need to do everything all at once, all of the time.
4. Plan and prepare, but be open
In order to refine the art of letting go, you have to rigorously plan for different scenarios and prepare for contingencies. Don’t be a pessimist and expect the worst; don’t be an optimist and hope for the best. Be a realist and expect that things will not always go according to plan — we live in an imperfect, unpredictable, and constantly changing world. Expect to encounter bumps, hiccups, swerves, and curveballs thrown at you.
When the unexpected occurs, which it inevitably will, be sure that it doesn’t take you entirely by surprise. Try to see it coming, so that you’re mentally prepared to pivot as needed.
Key takeaway: Thoughtfully prepare, and always include buffers and unknown variables in your plans. Having a realist’s mindset will help you remain nimble without requiring you to know the unknown.
Even when you apply these four practices for letting go, there might still be instances where you want things to be perfect — and that’s OK. Personally, these practices have allowed me to better identify when and why I should aim for perfection. By letting go of the things that don’t bring increasing intrinsic returns, as well as the things I can’t control, I’ve found more freedom and happiness. I’ve learned to enjoy the ride, and I hope you will, too.
About the author: Joyce Shin thinks through business design, strategic systems, and optimized processes to unblock teams and empower individuals to do their best work. She currently serves as the business manager for the Dropbox Design organization.
About the artist: Rodrigo Dada was born in 1987 in San José, Costa Rica, of salvadoran parents. He studied Photography in E.F.T.I. School Madrid and currently resides in Mexico City where he studies film in el Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica.