Always do your best…?

One of the four agreements from the book The Four Agreements is “Always do your best.”

Just do your best — in any circumstance in your life. If you always do your best there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment. By always doing your best, you will break a big spell that you have been under.

Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

The timing was pretty wild for me because I’ve been pondering my own tendency to do sloppy work and rationalize it with some 80/20 nonsense. “Continuing to add polish has diminishing returns”, etc.

That realization came about when I read a post by Shawn Wang called “80/20 is the new half-ass“.

People forget that the devil is in the details. The first 20% everyone knows to say on Twitter. The remaining 80% is the ugly, nasty, hacky, unglamorous shit nobody talks about unless you’ve got time to sweat the details (unless you’ve already moved on to the next 80/20?).

Shawn Wang

Shawn ends his post with this zinger:

Don’t spend your life spraying 20% effort all over the place, hoping for 80% results, only to look back and wonder why you never hit 100% on anything.

Shawn Wang

And of course Tiago Forte has something to say on the matter:

It feels like the universe is telling me to stop 80/20’ing my life away.

But what does it really mean to “always do my best”? Obviously I can’t always do my very best at everything. Then everything would take ten times as long and I’d have to cut most of my life away.

If I clean up toys and do dishes at the end of the day, that’s not “doing my best” at cleaning the house. But doing my best at cleaning the house would kill an entire weekend. Does that mean I shouldn’t pick up toys at the end of the day because that’s not my best? Nah, I think “doing my best” in that case needs to be more granular. It means doing my best at doing the dishes, and doing my best at picking up.

Applied to work: doing my best with people management means I’d have time for nothing else. Doing my best with roadmapping means I’d have time for nothing else. Same for code review, architecture documentation, improving culture, etc. There’s basically no part of my job that couldn’t expand to fill 40 hours a week if I did my best on it.

But again, I think it comes down to granularity. I can’t ever “do my best with people management” because that’s too big and vague. But I can do my best on this particular 1-1 with my direct report. And I can’t ever “do my best with roadmapping” but I can do my best with a plan for this particular epic.

I’m tempted to say “always do your best” really means “always do your best with the time available” but I think that’s cheating. I think doing my best on something often means dropping other things to free up more time for that thing.

So I think the 80/20 rule still applies. Find the 20% of things that will give you 80% of the value, and do your best on the things that survived the chopping block. If you take the top 20% and then only do the most valuable 20% of each of them, then you’ve 80/20’ed twice and that’s when things start falling apart.

…Maybe? If you have thoughts on this, email me.

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