“I don’t know how you do it.” Whether it comes at the start of a videoconference or a call, this is one of the most frequent comments I hear from clients, colleagues, and even friends these days as we’re doing our usual pre-meeting check ins.
The statement always surprises me. I’m a professor who teaches and a consultant who advises various organizations, now virtually. I am a researcher, engaged with colleagues on several projects. I am a partner, married to a committed working spouse, trying to be creative about having fun dates during lockdown. I am the mom of four children: the oldest is seven; the youngest is just over six months old. When I hear “I don’t know how you do it,” my answer is “I don’t!” — at least not perfectly and sometimes not even well.
Like me, many working adults across the globe have been juggling a lot since the Covid-19 crisis started. I’ve heard many people complain about their difficult realities and bad experiences, and certainly many — including frontline workers, those infected by the virus, and now those traumatized by recent racist incidents — are facing extreme challenges. But, for those of us managing more minor struggles, I’ve come to believe that the difference between going to bed feeling content or disappointed at the end of the day has a lot to do with the expectations we set for ourselves. Let’s lower our standards. Better yet: Let’s use this moment to shift them to something more reasonable.
Here is how I’ve done it, by focusing on four simple principles.
Go for happy, not perfect.
A lot of us can identify with — and have benefited from — the desire to be perfect. But we often take it too far. Even before the pandemic, research by personality psychologists Thomas Curan and Andre Hill found that growing numbers of people were struggling to match unreachable ideals. The two psychologists studied more than 40,0000 American, British, and Canadian college students between 1989 and 2016 and found that perfectionism has increased dramatically over the last few decades — 33% since 1989. We seem to be internalizing a contemporary myth that life should be perfect, when, in fact, that is an impossible outcome and can contribute to serious anxiety and depression. Those who become preoccupied with perfection set themselves up for failure and psychological turmoil.
Instead of aiming for perfection, we need to aim for happiness. I remind myself that this is the goal every single day. I’m patient if it takes me longer than expected to get work done. And, at the dinner table every evening, I ask my little ones to talk about what made them happy and what they feel grateful for that day.
Accept mistakes with curiosity.
In the middle of a busy night at the celebrated restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, one of the sous chefs, Taka, jumped in to make desserts after the pastry chef’s abrupt departure. As he assembled some lemon tarts, one accidentally fell to the ground. Taka froze as the restaurant’s chef and owner, Massimo Bottura, saw the mess. But instead of getting upset, Bottura was inspired. Today, one of the most popular deserts on the restaurant’s menu is called “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.” It is carefully constructed to look like a mess: A light and foamy zabaglione is splashed over lemon cubes, bergamot jelly, spiced apple, a few drops of chili and lemon oil, and honeyed capers from an island off the coast of Sicily, and it’s topped by a lemongrass sorbet and a broken biscuit.
These days, I take solace in this story. Rarely do my days go as planned. One of my four children may unexpectedly interrupt a work Zoom call, or some emergency requires me to drop a paper in the middle of a sentence — even when it turns out the yelling across the floors was simply prompted by me preparing a different lunch than I had promised. I am striving to be more like Bottura, looking at mistakes and accidents with a curious mind.
Focus on what makes sense for you.
Another impressive person I met while working on my latest book, Rebel Talent, is Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who managed to land a commercial aircraft safely in the Hudson River on a cold January day in 2009 when both engines failed. Sully looked beyond the most obvious option (landing at the nearest airport) to come up with a more creative and promising solution.
Especially when we’re under pressure, we narrow in on what immediately seems like the best course of action. But a better approach is to contemplate a wide range of options and perspectives. Take all the advice we hear about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep to our health and well-being. Well, I can’t remember the last time I slept for more than a few uninterrupted hours or beyond 6 AM, due to nightmares, trips to the bathroom with one of my oldest three, or my four-year old strangely announcing she can’t find her bed at 3 AM. And that’s ok: I now laugh at the recommendations on sleep, since they clearly don’t apply to me right now. I have colleagues who, they tell me, have never been more productive than now. I have friends who have never been in better shape or better rested. That has not been my experience in lockdown, and that’s okay. I smile at their accomplishments and laugh at the fact that exercise, these days, is often running around the house after my kids. That brings me to my last principle.
Find time for laughter.
Everyone enjoys a good laugh, but who actually makes time for it, especially when the news is so horrifying? We all may agree that listening to a funny joke, talking to people with a good sense of humor, and watching comedies are all pleasant activities, but do we block out space in our calendar for them? Especially during crises we should do just that because amusement has lots of benefits. According to a 2015 study, the act of laughing makes us more open to new people and helps us build relationships. It can also help us regulate our emotions in the face of challenge, according to a study led by Yale psychologist Erica J. Boothby. Laughter can improve our health and make us better learners. And what’s more: laughter is contagious.
Despite all the negativity in the today’s news, it shouldn’t take much to find something to laugh at. When, this morning, I repeatedly asked my three-year-old to please put her underwear on before going outside and then found my four-year-old painting herself instead of a canvas, I let myself laugh rather than getting upset. After a couple of weeks in lockdown, my husband and I noticed that we would sometimes find ourselves on a short fuse, snapping with criticism that didn’t really need to be aired. Our solution? We decided that if one of us wanted to criticize the other (e.g., “You could have put the dishes in the dishwasher rather than leaving them in the sink”), we would do so while dancing in a goofy manner, turning a stressful moment into a light-hearted one.
So many situations are out of our control. But we do have choices about how we approach each day and the expectations we set for ourselves. Now is the time to follow these principles and find a little more peace.