It’s a struggle, isn’t it?
You want to give your best in your work, but you also want to invest in your relationships, hobbies, and personal growth. You want to pursue excellence in all areas of your life.
But it seems impossible to find the right balance.
Maybe you often need to work late to get the job done, which means that you’re forced to cancel dinner appointments with friends. Or you try to do it all and have it all but end up sacrificing sleep, which makes you feel constantly worn out.
It’s a daily dilemma that frustrates you. It eats away at your soul, just a little.
It makes you wonder if you’re living well, if you’re devoting your time and energy to the things that count.
Is this the way life was meant to be? If you pursue excellence, does that necessarily mean you’ll also be exhausted?
When my best wasn’t good enough
I’ve been wrestling with these thoughts over the past few years. As a husband and father who was working a full-time job (which I just left), running a business, trying to exercise regularly and eat healthily, and striving to fulfill my other responsibilities with both enthusiasm and commitment…
I was tired.
Physically tired, but emotionally too. I was giving my best, but I felt like my best wasn’t nearly good enough.
I was barely staying afloat on all fronts. I was surviving, not thriving.
Don’t get me wrong. Life was never supposed to be a walk in the park, because it’s in overcoming frustrations and challenges that life becomes meaningful.
As Howard Hendricks once remarked:
A man who complains that the coffee is too cold or the beer too warm is a man who thinks he is on a cruise ship.
Life isn’t a cruise to the Bahamas. I’ve learned that it’s hard, and sometimes painful, to even attempt to make a difference and create an impact.
Tiredness and stress are facts of life, but when they become a way of life, it’s time to reexamine the way we make decisions.
It’s a bad idea to give your best in everything you do
When you were growing up, your parents might have said things to you like:
- “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
- “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
- “You become what you do.”
- “It’s more important to do your best than to be the best.”
These are all good sayings. I agree that we should establish excellence as both a habit and a prevailing attitude, but I’ve realized that it’s impossible to be excellent at everything.
I’ve tried, and it left me confused and discouraged.
In the past, I was obsessed about excellence. I even wanted to be an excellent text messager. I never used any short forms or abbreviations in my texts, and I would proofread every text twice before sending it.
I know that sounds like compulsive behavior, but I just wanted to be excellent at everything I did! (Nowadays, I use plenty of abbreviations and I don’t proofread my texts unless there’s potential for confusion. 🙂 )
I adopted this approach toward my assignments, projects, emails, physical health, relationships and business. And it worked, until the number of my responsibilities—none of which I could defer or delegate—increased to the point where I had no choice but to consider an alternative.
I no longer believe in the give-your-best-in-every-single-thing-you-do type of excellence, because this can lead to an unsustainable preoccupation with perfection.
I’ve been there, done that.
If you’re in a situation where you have three big assignments due the following day, 100 unread emails in your inbox, a family member who’s ill whom you need to take care of, and you feel like you’re falling sick yourself, you know what I mean.
Two steps to help you spend your time wisely
That’s why I advocate selective excellence.
You can’t just decide to be excellent; you need to decide specifically what you want to be excellent at.
Here’s a simple two-step system I recommend that will enable you to focus your efforts and energy on the tasks worth doing excellently:
1. Write down every task you typically spend more than 15 minutes on each day.
This could include things like replying to emails, attending class or meetings, filing documents, doing household chores, and preparing meals.
Can you eliminate or delegate any of these tasks? If yes, then do it. The remaining items on the list should all be important tasks that you can’t not do.
2. For tasks that you can’t eliminate or delegate, categorize them into A, B or C tasks.
This categorization is based on the likely impact of the task. Ask yourself: In one year’s time, will it matter how much effort I devote to this task today?
If the answer is “yes,” then it’s an A task.
If the answer is “probably,” then it’s a B task.
And if the answer is “probably not,” then it’s a C task.
Of course, there are bound to be gray areas. I recommend that, by default, you place the task in question in the lower category, e.g. if you’re not sure if it’s an A or B task, label it as a B task. The fact that you’re in a dilemma about whether it’s an A or B task shows that it’s probably not that critical.
A tasks require your undivided attention. Work on these tasks first every day, and don’t multitask while you’re at it. Prioritize A tasks by blocking out specific parts of your calendar to complete them. In the long term, A tasks are the ones that will define your education, career, relationships and life, so do them excellently.
B tasks are important but not critical. These tasks can’t be neglected, but they don’t call for an “excellent” effort, because “good enough” will do without compromising on the end result. Work on B tasks only when you’re done with the A tasks for the day.
C tasks are routine tasks that aren’t of lasting consequence. Complete these tasks as quickly as you can while maintaining a reasonable level of accuracy and meticulousness. Schedule C tasks for times when your energy levels are lower.
To give you an idea of what tasks might fall into each of the three categories, here are some of my A, B and C tasks:
- A tasks – Writing a new blog post, preparing for a talk, planning for the coming year, spending time with family
- B tasks – Replying to (most) emails, scheduling meetings
- C tasks – Household chores (I promise I don’t do a shoddy job of these just because they’re C tasks!), filing documents, keeping track of expenses, placing emails in the right folders
The ABC framework will help you to pursue excellence in a focused, and even ruthless, way.
Excellence without exhaustion is achievable
Over to you: Are you spending too much time on non-A tasks? And are there any areas where you need to readjust your priorities?
For most people, absolute excellence—where you try to do your best in everything—leads to exhaustion.
Selective excellence is the only alternative that works. It isn’t a copout or a compromise. It’s a conscious choice to determine what matters most, and to invest wholeheartedly in those things.
So let’s not just be excellent. Let’s be extremely excellent at the things that are extremely important. 🙂
Image: Rock climbing