On doing the work, revisited

I am trying to find the language I want to use to talk about doing the work in such a way that you get better and better at it. By that I don’t mean you find shortcuts and keyboard macros. I mean you learn to tell the story in a more emotionally resonant way, or to reveal the complexities of an issue more tellingly, or whatever it is that means you are doing good work and not just repeating everything you’ve already done.

I used to call this “moving toward perfection” but that gets tied up with perfectionism, which it isn’t. Perfectionism is about fear, and it is all about avoidance: avoiding mistakes, avoiding new things, avoiding finishing, avoiding the discomfort of the work. Wanting to do the work well isn’t about avoiding something, it’s about reaching toward something. But people see the word “perfection” and they freeze up.

I’ve also called this “mastery,” but no one ever becomes a master of the work and also it sounds pretentious.

So I’m going to call it doing good work, and by that I do not mean churning out the copy or pulling things out of your ass but trying to do better today than you did yesterday, even if you don’t actually manage to.

Doing good work is a path to focus and fulfillment; perfectionism will drive you (and everyone around you) nuts. It’s an obsessive compulsion, not a road to success.

Here are some practices that will help you to do good work:

  • Forget about the to-do list, at least some of the time. Move the unimportant and extraneous out of your life. Remember that you are in charge: you set the priorities and you say what’s important.
  • Seize the day. The work is always going to be hard. It is not going to be easier or more successful tomorrow. Do it today.
  • Live in the present. How often have you fretted about doing the work when you’re engaged in other necessary chores (doing the laundry, cooking dinner) and then when you’re doing the work you fret about the necessary chores? Do what you are doing in this moment.
  • Appreciate the beautiful . . . and the not so much. Notice when things strike you, like the slant of light coming in through the window. Give yourself a moment to appreciate it. But don’t shy away from the less than beautiful. Appreciate that, too, for what it might teach you or what you might experience.
  • Give yourself permission to be less than perfect. If you fear making mistakes, you will always box in your creativity. Being willing to make mistakes is the creative edge where you will do good work.

Do you use any of these practices in your life already? Do they help? Do you have other strategies that help you do the work?


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