What If You Did Everything Right Yesterday?

A thought exercise

Many people have a self-critical voice in their ear all the time. “Why’d you do that? You sounded dumb. People are going to realise you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re so awkward. People probably don’t like you.” On and on it goes. The less confident you are, the louder the voice gets. And even when someone you trust and respect pays you a compliment, you can’t believe it. So we deflect compliments, because they feel strange. They don’t fit the stories we tell ourself, where we’re imperfect and need to constantly improve.

But here’s a tough thought exercise. What if everything you did yesterday was right? What if some omniscient power could have a chat with you about how you did and say “actually, you did everything perfectly yesterday.” Yes, even if you binge-watched The Bachelor all day when you were supposed to be cleaning the house. Yes, even if you ate ice cream for dinner and skipped the gym. Even if you were mean to someone, or forgot to shower, or got in a fender bender because you were on your phone. What if despite all that, you did everything right yesterday? What if it was objective and quantifiable? What then?

First we try to kill the messenger, but in this scenario the messenger is all-knowing. They’re right, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Next we’d try to argue with the logic. “How could I possibly have done everything right yesterday if I only get to two of the items on my ten item todo list?” you’d say. What if the answer was “you were only meant to do two of them?” Or you might say “by yesterday I was supposed to have my new portfolio done but I haven’t even started.” What if the answer was that the downtime you enjoyed was the right approach, despite conflicting with your goals? What if your goals — bear with me here — are holding you back?

This goes against everything most people are taught. We’re supposed to work hard, all the time, getting a little bit better every day. We’re supposed to enrich our lives, aim high, never stop dreaming, strive, persist, fight, speak truth to power, and never ever ever give up. Productivity has become the one true religion for most people I know. Laziness is our original sin and we spend our entire lives trying to get closer to god with optimum productivity, life hacks, and a whole lot of self-critical inner monlogues.

I don’t think it’s working. I think it’s harming us.

I scrawled this in Sharpie in 2014 as a reaction to working at a big tech company and noticing how miserable everyone seemed to be, despite having their dream jobs. I think the word perfect is killing us.

A lot of true things in life seem really counter-intuitive at first. And I think our pursuit of self-improvement actually gets in the way of self-improvement. So I run this thought exercise with myself: “what if everything I did today was perfect?” I know it wasn’t, of course. But by forcing myself into answering this question, interesting ideas emerge.

So I didn’t get a big project done? Well, I did as much as I could considering the other tasks I was juggling. (Which inspires me to focus better tomorrow) So I snapped at my kids at dinnertime? That’s happened to every single parent since the beginning of time, especially if they didn’t get enough sleep. (Which inspires me to get to bed on time) Didn’t exercise enough? Maybe not, but I still squeezed in two walks despite everything going on. Good job, me!

Counter-intuitively, this kind of generous thinking actually does inspire me to keep striving and improving. I’m not telling myself “you are perfect and never need to improve or work hard.” Nor am I saying “You’re a failure and need to do twice as well tomorrow.” Neither work for me, so this approach is entirely different. It’s saying, in the words of a Radiohead lyric, “the best you can is good enough.”

And the same goes for you. You’re doing the very best job you can. Remind yourself of that, learn to really believe it, and counter-intuively you’ll improve even faster. But don’t do it just to improve. Do it to have a better life. Because that’s your ultimate goal, right?

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.