Like many offices do, we have free coffee at work. It isn’t fancy but in the galley of each floor you’ll find a couple pots of coffee, powdered creamer, a cardboard box of stirrers, and an assortment of artificial sweeteners.
I could walk to the cafeteria and get Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or I could meander to another building where the Starbucks is. (I know. My office is awesome.) But every day I choose the free coffee because, well, it’s free.
I was preparing my cup of Joe one day when a man walked up to the coffee machine. He was moving with purpose; clearly he had somewhere he needed to be. Now.
As he poured his cup of coffee, a few drops splashed out onto the burner and countertop. The man eyed the drips with impatience but he stopped. He got paper towels. He cleaned up the small spill and quickly wiped down the whole countertop, sweeping away the wayward powdered creamer and stray stirrers of coffee cups past.
The man looked at the now clean coffee bar and gave it a quick nod of satisfaction. He turned on his heel, coffee in hand, and marched off to his meeting, for which he was now two minutes late.
But right before he skedaddled out of sight, he shrugged almost imperceptibly and muttered to himself, “…better than I found it…”
I have wondered why this little vignette has stayed with me for so many months. I think it’s because I tend to be an ‘all or nothing’ kind of girl. It’s not good enough to get better at something, I want to be the best. I’m not satisfied with good enough; I want perfect. I don’t want to improve it, I want to fix it.
I can find examples in nearly every part of my life. I get so wrapped up in getting the perfect result that I get paralyzed before I even begin.
Either we completely renovate the master bedroom or we leave it exactly the way it is.
Either I invest all of my time and effort into a project or I let someone else run it.
I can’t have a difficult conversation until I’ve crystallized my thoughts in bullet point form, reviewed them with other people, and defined a clear objective.
If I don’t prepare meals for every night of the week on Sunday, I won’t cook at all.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain is faulty wiring, making me believe I can’t conquer anything until I have a plan for everything. It’s fear-based, I think. I’m afraid that I only get one chance to do something, so I better do it right.
The worst part? I can project this perfection paralysis onto others; onto my husband, my co-workers, and worst of all, my kids.
Do it quickly.
Do it right.
Do it perfectly.
Despite my perfection obsession, there are several places in my life (and rooms of my house) where this faulty thinking is most apparent. It’s here that we find nearly every item in the 10% of my life that’s a complete mess. It’s this paralysis that allows a Type A mom to have a completely cluttered house. (It’s irony, yes. But not an anomaly.)
The “do it right or don’t do it” thinking leaves no room for small improvements, only sweeping changes. And the thing about sweeping change is that it is disruptive, time consuming, and exhausting.
Over the years, I’ve learned to identify when my brain has shifted to ‘all or nothing’ mode. Life isn’t black or white; there are countless shades of gray. If I can see only two choices in any particular situation, I’m already in trouble. I may need someone to help me identify other options. I may need some distance from the situation to get perspective. I probably need to avoid taking action until the perfection paralysis passes.
In these moments, I remember a sassy and wise older woman who once said, “Ryan, honey, don’t just do something. Sit there.”
A new wrinkle of relief was introduced by adopting this “better than I found it” approach. It helps me remember that I don’t have to start and finish a major project in one day. I don’t have to do anything completely – or perfectly – right out of the gate. I don’t have to fix anything in one conversation; the solution may be a process, not an event.
But maybe I can just do one thing; one small action or decision to improve it.
I can pick out and buy a headboard for our bedroom, not knowing when the room will be completely decorated. (Now my room is better than I found it.)
I can add value in a conversation at work and then let someone else have a turn. (Now my project and my relationships with co-workers is better than I found it.)
I can plan for and prepare one healthy meal for my family each week. (I could also do this daily but let’s face it, everybody wins when my husband cooks.) Now my conscience and family’s nutrition is better than I found it.
I can start a difficult conversation, knowing that the situation may not be fixed at the end of it. (Now my relationships and inner peace are better than I found them.)
I can use this mantra anywhere, at any time. For a type A personality like mine, this is revolutionary. And challenging. And liberating.
Some days? My brain cooperates and I get close to inner balance. There are days when I’m not focused on getting it all perfect or fixing every problem or finishing every project.
Those days may be few but they are becoming more frequent.
And when I have those days, like my coffee-loving co-worker; I look around my life, give a quick nod of satisfaction, and march onward to the new challenge that awaits.
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