Everything Is Worth Doing Poorly

I saw a 6-tweet thread about doing a not-great job at things the other day that I keep thinking about. It was written by an attorney named Heron Greenesmith, and it kept surprising me. This is how it starts:

Your yearly reminder that most things worth doing are worth doing poorly. F**k perfection. Art? Do it poorly. School work? Do half rather than not doing it at all. Calling a friend? Text them if you’re afraid to call rather than not talking to them at all.

I read that first line: “most things worth doing are worth doing poorly” and thought I was about to read a silly or funny thread. The opposite idea is so ingrained in me — anything worth doing, is worth doing well — that at first, I literally couldn’t comprehend the author was being serious. I’m so glad I kept reading:

Parenting? Literally just be there, even if you’re half-asleep and on your phone. Eating? Go to McDonalds rather than waiting for something perfect. Cleaning yourself? Wash your pits right now instead of feeling guilty about not taking a full shower.

Doing things poorly is CRUCIAL to harm reduction. Need to smoke pot to reduce your alcohol use? Awesome. Need to shop at Amazon even though it’s a nightmare-land, cause if you don’t, you’ll be spending way too much money? Cool. Need to throw away that recyclable can? DO IT.

The line that really caught me is: “Doing things poorly is CRUCIAL to harm reduction.” I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’ve heard that idea presented, and I had to stop and think about it for awhile. I mean, it’s a concept I believe, but I just hadn’t seen it stated like that.

An example of this idea in my own writing is when I talk about pulling-out as a birth control option. Should the man be wearing a condom if the couple is not trying to conceive? Yes, for sure. But if he’s not, he should at the very least pull-out. It’s not as effective as a condom, but it’s more effective than not doing anything.

The thread goes on:

Individual choices make SO LITTLE IMPACT on things like climate change. And capitalism LIES by telling us we have easy more choices than we do, and that our choices are tied to our worth. F**K THAT SH*T. Literally do everything badly.

I loved this part, because I fully agree and think it’s so true. Of course I recycle, and am using earth-friendly insulation in the house renovation, and walk more often than drive — and do what I can to be a good steward of the Earth’s resources. But sometimes I feel like I’m just doing it because it’s the “right” thing to do, not because I think I’m really making an impact. I happen to agree with the thread author that it’s not really about individual choices, and that true measurable improvements to things like the climate, require big structural change.

The thread ends strongly:

We need all of us here doing poorly for as long as possible, not striving for perfection and flaming out. Don’t. Flame. Out. Suck at everything. Be a role model of doing things half-assed. You know who else can half-ass shit? People born into wealth. Cis men. White people. Abled people. So why the f**k not half-ass everything. LEAN OUT.

I’m not sure how others read that, but I saw it as a message for those who want to take themselves out of the game; who want to die. It’s better that you’re here, being crappy at things, then not here at all.

Based on the comments in response, a lot of people read it as an anti-perfection thread. And I suppose it is. But I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist at all, and it was definitely speaking to me. I do try to do things well. I take pride in doing things well, and I’m sure that in some ways my identity is wrapped up in doing things well.

But what kind of harm am I choosing not to reduce, when I insist on doing something well?

What are your thoughts on this? How would you feel about approaching the day, ready and willing to do everything badly? Does the whole idea freak you out? Were you taught that anything worth doing is worth doing well? Did anything in the thread resonate with you? All of it? None of it? Are you already a pro at doing things badly? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — Autocorrect fail card.

51 thoughts on “Everything Is Worth Doing Poorly”

  1. This idea (and medication) has been crucial to managing my anxiety. For example, I used to feel intense guilt every time I reached for a paper towel instead of a cloth rag and intense anger when my family members did. Letting go of those kinds of unreasonable expectations has opened up my time to be spent in healthier ways. I feel like a calmer parent, I’m getting more reading done, and my family is having more fun together.
    Another skill I’m trying to use in conjunction with this is noticing the good things that I’m doing rather than just telling myself it’s OK to do something halfway. So if I wipe up a mess with a paper towel I say, “That looks better!” and let myself feel good about that. Or if I only pick up some leaves around the yard instead of going on a run I notice how good the fresh air and sunshine feel and take some deep, grateful breaths.
    Altogether this adds up to me feeling good about the ways I’m spending my time and seeing joy in the overall arc of my life.

  2. I agree with the first paragraph: “Art? Do it poorly. School work? Do half rather than not doing it at all. Calling a friend? Text them if you’re afraid to call rather than not talking to them at all.”

    Doing something is usually better than doing nothing. I believe we should always try to do our best, but recognize that the best you can do one day or in a particular situation is not always the best you could do another day or in another situation and that’s fine.

    1. I live by “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” When I looked up that saying in Wikipedia, I found this “Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient”
      Lean out !

  3. Love this! I think a similar idea to this is “just start”- it’s better to start (and do something poorly) than to not start- with exercise, cleanly, etc. I can get paralyzed by overwhelm and sometimes wanting to figure out the *best way* to do something, that this is really good advice for me- to do something poorly. With that, I’m off to pack to move 1.5 miles away to the house we just bought!

  4. I have a 10-year-old dyslexic, inattentive ADD, gifted, and perfectionist child. She battles with herself so much and is just destroyed when things don’t come out “right” or “perfect” or the way she envisioned in her head. My mantra for her is “done is better than perfect.” If I allowed her to strive for perfection in everything she thought she wanted, she would be riddled with anxiety and depression and probably completely unable to get anything done. Of course we work with her to do the best she can WITH WHAT SHE HAS IN THE TIME SHE HAS. It’s not an excuse to completely slack off. If you have the time, skill, money, and mental energy to do better, then do better. But if your choice is half-assed or not at all, half-ass it. Don’t give up because you can’t be the best, just do what you can, and don’t feel guilty about it.

  5. ” Lean out!” YES!!! Because good enough is often enough.

    Still, It’s fun to go for all out perfection once in a while in things you really enjoy if you have the time and the money for it. I’m thinking things like parties, outfits, a really well written thank you note, and spread sheet that is perfectly formatted and labeled.

    1. “Still, It’s fun to go for all out perfection once in a while in things you really enjoy if you have the time and the money for it.”

      I think this is so true.

  6. Seems like the same concept of vulnerability just using more negative terms. Show up be vulnerable. I am not sure that’s the same as leaning out. It’s more the art of leaning in just enough to be seen.

  7. I think it’s great to do art for your own enjoyment regardless of your skill level, or complete only half of the homework because it’s too much and getting 100% done is torture for the whole family. I can buy that being minimally present and attentive to your kids is better than being completely absent, but this thread jumbles together so many different things and then ends with what sounds like an anti-suicide manifesto?

    I don’t believe that it’s not worth trying to do well at anything across the board. Maybe focus on some priorities and let go of the rest? But parenting and controlling your substance abuse are important and worth a lot of effort! And it feels nihilistic to say that our individual choices as consumers and inhabitants of this planet don’t matter. It’s easy to feel powerless and like an insignificant speck, but do we really want to embrace the meaninglessness of it all?

    I for one am glad to be surrounded by people who are trying to do well at what they’re doing. Imagine if all the people you encountered were doing the absolute bare minimum at their jobs (your kids’ teachers, your nurse, your boss, the garbage collector), in their caretaking of their homes, bodies, and families, and as stewards of the earth. That to me is not worth celebrating.

    1. I think the point is that something is better than nothing, and not to beat yourself up if you can’t do everything you think you “should” be doing. Do what you can, but cut yourself some slack.

  8. I really loved this thread and you opinions on it. I think that there are so many things we could be doing all the time that if often stops us from starting in the first place. Am I the perfect blogger? No. Am I the perfect mother? No. The perfect runner? No. But years of “half-assing” and showing up each day have gotten me a lot further down the path than if I never started anything eight years ago. Two thumbs up for this!

    Paige
    http://thehappyflammily.com

  9. I have a history of choosing art forms and vocations that pursue (demand) technical mastery: classical ballet, flute, and botanical/scientific illustration. A couple of years ago, I had to step away from all of these, illustration especially, and examine my relationship with perfectionism. Is it the same as creative enjoyment? From whence (external or internal) do the rewards for a new level of mastery arrive? One is generally considered a ‘master’ at something when other people acknowledge achievement.

    Learned: that I was depending on the admiration/praise of others (translation: being juried into exhibits, selling pieces, etc) and not evaluating ideas and their fruition by my own yardstick. The time away, plus learning (NOT mastering) some looser, abstract, more personal art has led me back to illustration with evolved purpose. Part of this involves expressing genuine admiration for others who are insanely good at the art form, returning to classes (being an eternal student is both humbling and uplifting), and rewriting my own concept of ‘done’. Enjoyment: WAAAYYY up. Critical voice: still present, but under my management.

  10. Jackie Tateishi

    When I get frozen by fear I tell myself “Well, do a lousy job then but just do it.” It is strange how much that can help. And things usually go pretty well. I am always glad I tried. I like to do things on a grand, well-planned scale, but this thinking helps me push through when there isn’t time or energy for all that.

  11. I was just talking about this same concept. I really love doing things like cross-country skiing, yoga, biking, swimming, SUP-ing, camping, running, kintting, sewing, etc, but I look around and see so many people doing it better (or faster or longer or insert adjective) than me. Sometimes this makes me wonder if I’m just wasting my time or if I just chose one thing to really dedicated myself could I be more “elite”. But, you know what I enjoy doing all of these things and they all bring me joy, so I keep being average (or below) at a lot of things. Better to be happy and to try something than to spend life wondering how it might.

  12. I love this! It seems that the author is encouraging people to give themselves a break and letting them know that any kind of effort is better than no effort.

  13. Oh gosh, yes. For those of us with anxiety and the kind of perfectionism that tells you nothing will ever be good enough so don’t even try, this is a great message. I can make myself follow the “good enough” way of thought on occasion, but I’d like to lean out even more. Especially in our hyper competitive society. I’ve also heard that the decade people are happiest in is their 50’s, because they come to learn that good enough is good enough.

  14. I love this idea. I’ve heard it said in other ways, but this is especially striking. I grew up in a tiger parent household where if you got an A-, you were failing. If you weren’t first chair, why were you even in orchestra? Etc. Etc. I just went back to work after maternity leave and I’m trying to convince myself to ‘lean out’ at my job– done is good enough. 40 hours a week is plenty and I don’t owe my job anything more than that. I’m ‘leaning in’ with parenting and therefore I can’t ‘lean in’ at work like I have before. It’s a phase. Someday I can be really proud of the work I do at my job again, at the cleanliness of my house, at the care I put towards my physical health, but that moment may not be right now. And that’s fine.

  15. Love this whole concept. I’m a person who loves to learn new things. I often suck at those things in the beginning but allowing myself to be half-assed has also allowed me to learn lots of new skills.

    I did think your example of birth control an odd one though. If there’s something we should go all the way with (pardon the pun) it’s birth control. ;)

    Thanks for sharing this topic!

  16. Love it. As my grandma used to say, “Do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong!” Or as my friend and spiritual teacher says, “Imperfect action is always better than perfect inaction.”

  17. A long time ago I heard, “the smallest action is better than the greatest intention.” It’s helped me so much so many times. I think this is such a helpful concept that can relieve so much stress! Things don’t have to be done perfectly or even all that well to be effective. I’ve never heard it phrased the way of this twitter thread but I love it.

  18. I’m a perfectionist, stressed out hot mess. I’ve been half-assing some things lately just to survive. This article is awesome and making me not feel so guilty about that. I feel a paradigm shift coming. Maybe we should give ourselves permission to suck at some things (or most things!) so that we actually do something that is meaningful (even if it isn’t perfect).

    1. Me too, Katie. I’m trying to work out how I can half-ass things without the concurrent stress and guilt making me feel even worse, though. Interestingly, the other day when I told my boss I felt like I was failing at a big project she was shocked…maybe our half-ass efforts can be enough in some things!

  19. Oooh I had such a visceral reaction to this! Which is worth examining, obviously. I’ve struggled with perfectionism for a long time and when you couple that up with a generations-deep pioneer work ethic (not Mormon, just…other intense pioneer people!) it’s made for a few breakdowns in my life.

    But then I went to coach training – which is basically school for how to be a better human and to help other humans do that, too! – and I learned that certain things were hard for me to let go of/lean out of because they were my Values. Not just because I am a perfectionist with issues. And now that I know what those values are, I can lean really hard into them and let other things go.

    So I’ll never say something like “sit next to your child but be on your phone” or “order a bunch of shit on Amazon” because I deeply value intention. I parent and consume very intentionally.

    But I can now say, with confidence, “my friends don’t love me less if there is laundry on the floor when they come over so I will leave it there” and “my spouse doesn’t think me less attractive with these added 10lbs, so I can stop killing myself at the gym” and that has been so freeing. Because as Roy Disney said, “It’s easy to make decisions when you know what your values are.”

    Lean out…but in purposeful ways! Not all the ways!

    1. I like the idea of considering this through the lens of values.

      Related, I’d be curious to know what exercises/books/coaches were most helpful to you in identifying your values.

      1. Hi Gabby! I recently came back to this post and found your reply – how fun :)

        The biggest thing that helped me deeply get this was CTI coach training. The Co-Active Training Institute is one of the biggest, oldest and most respected coach certifying organizations in the world. It’s also the most rigorous, sooo that’s your hardest option, for sure :)

        That said, CTI coaches are all trained in the “Fulfillment” part of our education to do values work with clients and to help them identify and name their values, how they interact with their allies (I like to think of this as an internal board of directors we all possess) and what to do when saboteurs arrive. It’s fascinating work and such an honor to walk through it with my clients.

        CTI coaches are all around the world – it’s a global program – so I’m sure you could find someone in France if you want someone local. I do a lot of my coaching via zoom and I have clients all around the world, so I’d also be happy to chat more with you if you are interested! I believe you have my email from this comment? No sales pitch, just a genuine offer to connect.

        I’ve loved your blog and admired your work for many years – it would be a honor to talk to you!

  20. ” I feel like I’m just doing it because it’s the “right” thing to do, not because I think I’m really making an impact.” I think that’s the whole point… If you do things just because you want a perfect result (a clean planet), the means become meaningless. Even if you had no results, wouldn’t you try and do your best, anyway? perfectionnism is not about a perfect result but about being as perfect as you can. The word “perfect” is probably unappealing.
    Making things the best you can, regardless of the result, makes you feel better, because it makes you enjoy the process (not that the process is nice but it feels good to be kind). Being kind is not about eliminating poverty (for example), but is about making the best possible choice. I don’t know if I express myself clearly.

  21. Hi! I might have completely missed the point the author was trying to make (very possible) but all I could think about as I read the thread was I sure hope I don’t drive over a bridge they designed or need to have them perform surgery on me because there are times in life when I REALLY count on people to more than just show up. And although no lives are at risk in my line of work, carpentry, I know if I built a crooked bookcase or installed out-of-level cabinets and trim there would be no reassuring the client with “Doing things poorly is CRUCIAL to harm reduction.” If I have missed the point, please help me understand. :)

    1. I agree Allison and I think another commenter said that, yes, it’s good to give yourself a break but that the twitter thread is maybe a little too sweeping. I am a perfectionist (the type that is paralysed into inaction); I surround myself with notes that say things like ‘anything you write is better than the nothing you have done now’, but as I have begun mastering this perfectionism and learnt how it stems from very deep insecurity, I have started to see the value in doing things well for the very first time. Not for others, but for my own sense of satisfaction. I do also see the value in showing up at all. My mantra is friendship is 90% attendance. But if I show up to dinner with a friend and am on my phone the whole time, I may as well have stayed at home. Telling my friend I have no emotional energy can we skip dinner and watch Booksmart for the gagillionth time, totally cool. Learning when to slack and when to pull yourself up is the real mark of overcoming perfectionism in my opinion.

    2. I know what you mean, Allison. I wonder if it’s helpful to differentiate between things we love to do, and things we have to do. I really enjoy making my home beautiful. And I do it well almost without trying. I don’t enjoy keeping financial records for my businesses. I can do it, and I am fully capable of doing it well. But I dread it and put it off. And I would say half-assing it is better than not doing it at all.

      I’m not sure if that even helps. Hah!

  22. I tell myself constantly that doing one small thing will make whatever situation my mind is catastrophizing over better. This thinking helps me see that one thing I do as valuable and helps me to stick around for another day when otherwise, I would run for the hills.

    1. Totally. I have the same process when I’m stuck. If I can break down a task into small enough pieces that I can accomplish one piece quickly, it can jump start me.

  23. I run our school spelling bees for 2nd-8th grade, and I’ve started giving kids a speech about how while these are fun and some kids try really hard, ultimately it’s about trying something, putting yourself out there, and supporting your classmates in their efforts. My “pep talk” includes how by the end of the week, only one kid is going to win it all and the rest of us will be the losers but that’s okay because we tried.
    It’s better to try and fail than not try at all, right?!

  24. My main take out of this was that its time we stopped feeling bad about the things we can’t/don’t/didn’t do. The internal judging voice which comes in when you are not living up to this vision you have of how you should be in the world. I recently felt this when I didn’t meditate in the morning and I was beating myself up for it and then burst out laughing at the incongruity of getting upset about such a beautiful thing. Sure I want to meditate every morning but if I don’t have time or feel like it – that’s OK. Ditto with other things like wanting to bake a special dessert and then just buying ice creams for a dinner party. I’d rather have fun and be happy (and a bit lazy or slack) than do it all and be super stressed. We are all just too stressed.

  25. I like this idea, but my point of view is more that we should get out and do more. Sometimes we hold back because we are just not good at something, but that is failing already. A person with only one talent might just have one talent…but a person that tries lots of things will naturally find many things they are talented at. I might not be great at art, but if I do it enough and it makes me happy, then that is what matters, right? How about the people that sing really poorly, but they are so excited to sing that you kind of smile because they are enjoying themselves so much? This reduces stress!

    I also agree with the author that there are many people that half-ass things…like rich people and if we sell ourselves short then we are letting those people win! I had never thought much about that before, but it is an important reminder to step it up and go for it!

  26. Oh, I swear, I lived by this motto unconsiously almost all my life! So happy to see this written down and put into words. But I also like doing things well, I just really really pick my battles here. I think it is about knowing what you want to do really well and what you can easily pass by doing it just anyhow.
    When it comes to things that need to be done: Always always just do them and don’t beat yourself up about not doing them amazingly. That is such a waste of time. At the end of the day, I feel I am so much more of a use to other people when I am content and relaxed and how can I be this when I do everything really good?

    1. Yes! As I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it, the stuff we willingly and happily do well, the stuff we enjoy, is not what is being talked about in the thread. I think it’s referring to the stuff we have to do.

  27. For me this resonates with something I’ve been doing coaching on recently: the idea that our value does not depend on what we do, on getting validation froms others or on anything external. I think we know that we have intrinsic value as a human being, but we are so trained to seek validation from others or from our acheivements that we don’t even see it.

    Related is the control that we have and that we can choose to exercise over the story we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that “a good citizen should be doing this environmental-friendly action”, for example, we are getting validation from the exterior. If we think “I choose to do my little part for the environment.” we are tapping into our own values and freedom.

    Or, another illustration. If we throw away a recyclable can, we can think : “At this moment in time, recycling this can is not a workable option for me, even if I value the environment, and that’s ok. My worth does not depend on my recycling this particular can.” Or we can think : “I’m a bad person for not recycling this can.” Who is more likely to recycle the next can they have? Isn’t it likely the person who is thinking she’s a bad person might develop feelings of shame and a push-back like – “well, I can’t save the planet by myself! Who cares?” And the person who values the environment but does not have her worth tied to particular actions may spend her energy thinking about why is it that society makes it easier for us to throw away a recyclable can than to recycle it? What structural change is needed and can I use my voice to ask leaders to take action? That last bit is optional, of course. My point is just that when you spend less energy seeking validation or justifying yourself, you have more energy to do things that truly fit with your values.

  28. I agree completely with the concept that perfect is the enemy of good, that a scribbled birthday card from the dollar store is fantastic and that windows can be left dirty and dishes unwashed when love and rest are more important.
    But to me, that is not what the original article says. The author suggests we embrace “RADICAL MEDIOCRACY”.
    I reject that concept because I really appreciate and admire excellence in people’s work; maybe that is selfish of me. And basically I would not want my home-builder or my accountant and especially my child’s pediatrician to do, quote, a half-*** job.

  29. This is a great thread for getting dinner on the table. I’m going to remember this for the hard days. Especially on the hard days. Like the days when dinner is PBJ, or pasta with butter and parm, grilled cheese and canned soup, or cereal, or pancakes or eggs. It’s better than nothing, and often better than takeout. And usually your kids REJOICE at the fun dinner mom made, as opposed to the gags when you put out a complex, beautiful spread that takes all day.

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