An ode to phoning it in

Knowing when not to try your hardest is one of the most adaptive life skills you can develop.
Woman asleep on the ground with a book over her face
Photo by Tonny Tran on Unsplash

You know all those things you read about trying your hardest to achieve your dreams? That if you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything? 

This is not one of those things.

On the contrary, this is a manifesto on knowing when NOT to try your hardest. To knowing when to shrug and say, “Meh, good enough.” To approaching things with the explicit intent not to give them your all. 

This is an ode to phoning it in.

What do I mean by phoning it in? For me, it’s doing something just well enough to get by. It’s meeting expectations, or even coming short if the consequences don’t matter — and definitely not exceeding them. You can’t always get away with this, but when you can, sometimes it’s very worthwhile. Because what you gain by trying less hard at some stuff is the ability to focus your time and energy on things that are more important.

This concept might sound simple. After all, deep down we all know we can’t be amazing at everything. But sometimes I find that knowing when to hold back doesn’t come easily. Autopilot for me is: stay busy, do your best, and don’t disappoint anyone. It can be hard to find the time to discern what matters most and prioritize accordingly. It’s often easier to just keep moving and give too much energy to every mundane task in front of me. But I find I need to turn off autopilot in order to make real decisions about priorities. This is the only way I’ll have the mental and emotional capacity to learn new things, question my own assumptions, and set boundaries — things I’m trying to work on in my quest to be a better version of myself.

Of course, sometimes the inner critic kicks in hard. I know I’m not the only one wasting energy being hard on myself for not being as productive as a robot. But I try to remind myself that no one notices or cares about what I’m doing as much as I do. Think about it — how would you even tell the difference if your coworker gave something their all, or not? Giving 100% of yourself to everything and beating yourself up when you don’t is a bad use of energy.

For example, I missed a deadline at work last week. (The horror!) This is something I almost never do, and I was pretty upset with myself when I realized it’d happened. But it was a deadline that honestly didn’t really matter that much. And I just bought a condo (I know, thank you) and have been dealing with all the stress wrapped up in inspections, negotiating mortgage and insurance rates, moving, unpacking, buying furniture (including a new bed that is HEAVEN), and, well… everything else. In the end, that deadline had to go. I got the work thing done, it was just a little late. No one suffered.

I like the way my friend and the founder of BossedUp, Emilie Aries, puts it: “What are you going to get a B in, so that you can get in A in what’s important to you?” She believes that women are often conditioned to give their all to everything they do, and urges them to be realistic and prioritize. For example, you might need to get a B in fitness next month while you get an A in preparing for a big job interview. Or in my case: I’m currently getting a B in keeping my house clean so I can get an A in going to a lot of holiday parties.

Because if you’re trying to do everything wonderfully, you’re probably not actually doing anything wonderfully. 

In the corporate world, I’ve noticed that anything that comes after Thanksgiving gets the stamp of “We’ll do it next year.” And by mid-December, most of us are focused on how much money we’re hemorrhaging on holiday gifts, partying a little harder than usual and trying not to look bored in meetings. 

This is the perfect time to practice phoning it in. The report you’re writing isn’t urgent? Push the due date to January. Don’t know how you’ll get your house in order for all the friends coming into town? Meet at a bar. 

Phoning it in is a skill that I’m still working on, but one that I’ve come to view as critical for self-preservation. I’m the first to admit it’s not always easy to do less. I still have days where I feel like I didn’t get enough work done and the guilt of it ruins my entire evening. But the truth is you cannot and should not be excellent at everything you do. I try to remind myself that I only have so much energy and focus. Something has to be phoned in, in order to make room for other things.

What are you phoning in this holiday season? Share your thoughts in the comments! 

Written by:

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)