Most weekday mornings, my husband and I get up at 6 AM to take a 40-minute walk. We have a regular route that we follow while keeping a brisk pace and sometimes chatting, but mostly striding along in amicable silence. By the time we’re back at our apartment to get ready for the day, I’m at 5,000 steps and reveling in a sense of mild accomplishment.
We’ve been doing these morning walks on a consistent basis for several months now, and the habit was born out of a need to prioritize movement, preferably with as little inconvenience as possible. While I’m a freelancer and can often pursue some form of exercise during the day without creating too much of a time management issue (it’s especially easy to hit my step goal if I’m teaching a class within walking distance), my husband works in an office and his commute can take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour each way depending on traffic. Evening walks are great in theory, but they’re also very easy to brush off when it’s already been a long day, you’ve just finished dinner, and all you want to do is plop down on the couch with a cup of tea. So, having experimented with the occasional 6 AM walk in the past, we eventually decided to forego our usual 6:47 alarm and start our mornings with a stroll to ensure a modicum of activity for the day. Better than nothing, right?
As it turns out, “better than nothing” is kind of my personal mantra. I’ve never been what anyone would define as a workaholic or a neat freak. I’m not a meticulously organized individual who sweats every tiny detail of everything I touch. And I’ve never had a desire to climb anything resembling a corporate ladder. I’m a chronic procrastinator of even activities that I enjoy, and my mind is perpetually awhirl with delight and marvel over the many things I’m interested in or curious about — perhaps to a fault, as I can rarely seem to steady the kaleidoscope that is my brain long enough to identify a workable pattern.
So perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that when I sit down in hopes of writing a new blog post and only manage to eke out a paragraph and a half, I consider my efforts to be better than nothing. The same rationale tends to extend to my aforementioned exercise pursuits, as our gym is a 25-minute walk each way and thus a minimum two-hour endeavor; nevermind the showering process once I’m back home. Even if I technically have the time, I don’t always have the fortitude to make this trek, particularly if I’m laboring over one of those hopeful blog updates. My solution? YouTube videos. This isn’t groundbreaking news by any means, but there are countless at-home workouts for just about any level of intensity or equipment requirements you could hope for, and as someone who considers themselves a moderately active individual, I can assure you that even a 10-minute bodyweight workout is capable of providing the exertion necessary to make me feel like I’ve actually done something.
Sometimes I’ll feel frisky and string together two or three videos, sometimes not. Maybe I’ll drag the TRX out of the closet and work with that for half an hour. I might do as little as alternating sets of bodyweight squats and pushups for five minutes just to remind my muscles that they exist. Whatever I end up doing is certainly better than languishing at my desk all day, with the underlying advantage of frequently mixing up my workout routine.
I know this all sounds like I’m gravitating towards and justifying laziness. It’s easy to argue that if I really wanted to write something, I’d quit dicking around and just write. If I were serious about my fitness goals, I’d do more than take a walk and make a few arm circles. While it’s true that this “haha, good enough!” approach is not the quickest path to success, the thing about long-term goals is that they take time, and once the initial motivation of setting them wears off (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?), it’s not hard to fall into an all-or-nothing trap:
How many times have you shrugged and thought, “oh well, I guess no exercise today” on a day you couldn’t make it to kickboxing class?
How many months have you skipped adding money to your savings account because you only had $40 to spare and thought, “Why bother?”
How about counting the weeks that slip by as you continue to put off starting that personal project you’ve been meaning to get to but can’t bothered with by the time you finish work, so you swear you’ll start tomorrow but isn’t it super weird how tomorrow keeps turning into today?
When implemented responsibly, a “better than nothing” mindset can actually help you increase your productivity and build sustainable habits that lead to real change. As a bonus, this also works great for giving yourself a break over the things we tend to unnecessarily beat ourselves up about — like getting distracted after tidying the kitchen when we meant to clean the whole apartment, or only crossing four things off our 15-line to-do list.
Why does it work?
Because doing slightly more than nothing is…realistic. It’s that simple. My 6 AM walks with my partner are consistently doable because it’s only walking. Rolling out of bed and taking a walk first thing is not always a sensory delight (especially in winter), but, for us, it’s an uncomplicated plan that leads to follow-through. Plus, the difference in alarm time to make these walks happen is less than an hour, which is sustainable since the change was nothing drastic. If you normally get up at 7:30, you’re probably not going to suddenly embrace a 4 AM wakeup call just because some startup tech dude’s reported ~secret to success~ is waking at an hour most of us only see when we have an early flight to catch.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you get up earlier at all. Nor do you have to start your day with anything that looks like exercise. The aim here is only to figure out what’s important; something that you’d like to find a little extra time for or make steps towards without really having to inconvenience yourself. Your version of my 6 AM walk may look more like an 8 AM writing session. Maybe it’s taking the long way to work for extra time to read on the subway, or perhaps it’s a 7 PM date with Lightroom to improve your photo editing skills. Maybe you start listening to a language-learning podcast during your lunch break, or practicing origami for a half-hour after dinner, or finding a pretty jar to drop your spare change into because finding a quarter on the street means you’re 25 cents richer than you were before.
So, how can I start half-assing my way to success?
I probably shouldn’t have to, but I feel like I need to include a disclaimer that this article is by no means intended to encourage anyone to put forth less effort in areas of their life where doing so would be truly detrimental. If you start turning in low-quality work on the premise that it’s better than having done nothing at all, your clients or boss will likely have unpleasant feedback. If you take this approach in maintaining personal relationships, your partner or friends may not see the charm. A true master of the “better than nothing” philosophy will recognize that it is best suited to matters of personal growth.
Now, here’s how you can start doing more (sort of) by doing less (definitely), with specific suggestions based on popular goals:
Fitness: Redefine what “a workout” means to you.
Think about what you currently consider to be “real” exercise for yourself. Does it involve a visit to the gym or Pilates studio? Is it a SoulCycle class? Does it have to be a run of no less than 5K in length?
Okay, fine. Now the next time you’re unable to fulfill that “requirement” due to scheduling or travel or an uncharacteristically deep lack of motivation, just…do something else instead! Find a YouTube video that looks interesting (I’m a big fan of Blogilates for her generous array of equipment-free, apartment/hotel-friendly, sub-20-minute videos), take a walk, dig those 5-lb dumbbells out from under your bed and move them around for a while, do a few stretches — anything that makes you feel like you’ve done something good for your body, even if it’s only for a few minutes. This really will be better than nothing, and I promise your core will not turn to immediate mush if you deviate from your Thursday night Vinyasa Flow class after an especially hectic day.
Creative Projects: Remember that “one step at a time” can mean literally one sentence.
Or a couple lines of code. Or one photo. Or even just registering for a free trial of a website builder to test the waters. If there’s something you’ve been wanting to do on the side, whether for fun or as a side-hustle or in hopes of turning it into an actual business, take a lesson from Nike circa 1988 and just do it.
Now, I know new projects are a big leap and since this is an article about doing the bare minimum, trust that I am not trying to convince you to dive in head-first and dedicate every spare second to building your portfolio or pitching every publication you’ve ever read. Lol, no. I mean to go for it in the sense of doing tiniest amount of work necessary to prove to yourself that it’s possible and continue to build on your forward momentum.
This will be different for everyone and I don’t know your life, but whether it’s writing a paragraph or 2000 words, editing three minutes of video or knitting a scarf for your neighbor’s hamster, take that wee little step. If you want to learn SEO and the whole concept feels daunting as hell, spend just 15 minutes reading about the basics after you finish catching up on your usual websites one day this week. 15 minutes doesn’t feel like much, but it’s still technically progress towards your larger goal. It’s better than nothing.
Domesticity: Your house doesn’t have to look like an Instagram feed.
I read something a few months ago where a girl was talking about how she’d recently started vacuuming her place every day and what a glorious revelation it was to complete this act with such frequency. “What a pain in the ass,” I thought, and moved on with my life.
Cleanliness and organization can be different for everyone. With all the Marie Kondo talk lately and the annual madness around spring cleaning, most of us will probably soon feel a pull to deep clean our dwellings, purging unnecessary items as we wheeze through the clouds of dust falling from our lighting fixtures, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do any of this. You don’t have to roll your clothes into geometric piles, you don’t have to devote an entire Saturday to scrubbing your house top to bottom once per month, and you certainly don’t have to get rid of anything unless you actively want it out of your home.
Personally, I keep the kitchen in relative order because I love to cook and do so almost daily. I like having utensils and equipment that are ready to go, and I like knowing what ingredients I do and don’t have on hand without having to open every cupboard and drawer to figure it out. But I really don’t mind a pile of clothes in our bedroom, or if our bathroom sinks go a couple of extra days between cleanings, and sometimes I’ll just give the floor a sweep if I’m too lazy to pull out the vacuum. My cleaning style is loose and unregimented, but our apartment is never in a state of utter disarray because I’m always doing a little something here, a little something there, and I rarely feel like I’m Cleaning The Apartment as a loathsome headline task.
I realize that some folks always like to keep a meticulous house, and I respect that. But if you fall somewhere in the middle between “total slob” and “in negotiations with Netflix to host a lifestyle improvement series,” you’re probably good to just, like, give your shelves a quick wipe when you notice they’re looking a little dusty.
Saving Money: Seriously, anything is better than nothing.
I’d be remiss if I were writing an article for TFD and didn’t talk about money with a dose of honesty, right? I’m 34 years old and I’ve done plenty of dumb shit over the years, much of which involves making poor money management decisions. Probably at the top of that list is not bothering to save anything for most of my 20s. I can clearly remember an instance on a day when I was probably right at 20ish where I looked an ATM receipt, saw $86 as my balance and I thought, “sweet, I have money.”
First of all, no. Secondly, what I should have done was transfer some of that so-called disposable income to savings, even if it were just a few bucks. Aside from oversights like this one, I’ve also played a lot of that fun game where you actually do put money into savings, only to transfer it back to your checking account a few weeks later — even if you weren’t spending frivolously — because you have no semblance of a budget.
Bottom line, there is no better opportunity to half-ass your way to a goal than when it comes to money. I don’t care if you can only save five dollars this month; put that money somewhere and leave it alone. Save another five dollars or 50 dollars or 200 dollars next month and watch as the numbers add up. To this end, if you have a side gig that you use to supplement your income, feel free to set a goal for how much money you’d ideally *like* to earn from it each month, but don’t ever feel discouraged if you “only” earn an extra $650 instead of $1000, or $200 instead of $500; whatever the case may be. Extra is extra!
I would also like to just quickly note that I am much more of a “you might get hit by a garbage truck and die tomorrow” sort of person than a “your future is certain to be long and bright!” person, so you will never see me advising you to save every spare penny and work every possible hour to forgo all manner of joy in life until your bank account hits a certain number. I still have about $28k in student loan debt but it doesn’t stop me from traveling or going out to eat or buying interesting groceries to fuel my cooking habit. I do believe in prioritizing enjoyment of the present over dutifully preparing for a hypothetical future, but I also recognize that — hopefully — there will be a future me who will appreciate past-me’s consideration. Find a balance that works for you and live by it as best you can.
(But seriously, save some fucking money. I don’t care if it’s just that quarter you found on the ground earlier. Say it with me, folks…)
The noble Ron Swanson once advised to “never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing,” but I believe you can — and should! — half-ass many things. As long as you’re honest with yourself about what you want, realistic in your approach to making changes towards meeting your goals, and you implement those changes in a manner that encourages consistency, you’re golden.
And if not, well, at least you tried. That’s better than nothing.
Summer is an Oregonian-turned-South-Carolinian who moved to Germany in 2015. She enjoys adventures, cooking, and the internet. She’s on Instagram, Twitter, and writes about travel, food, and expat life on her blog.
Image via Unsplash