And did you do it with respect?

Photo: Philip Brewer

A few years back, I read a profile of a holistic fitness guru.  There was a sidebar with a little quiz the author had talked the guru into creating, to find out how comprehensively fit you were.  The author had clearly expected a some serious fitness tests--how far you could run, how much could you lift?  The guru, though, had a rather playful idea of what was involved in being really fit.  I've forgotten most of the questions, but one has stuck with me:  (for two points) Did you prepare a meal today, and if so, did you do it with respect?

For me, this question has replaced two classic rules of thumb, which I've always found to be unhelpful.  Both address a question I'm keenly interested in:  How do I decide how much time and effort to allocate to my various tasks each day?

Always do your best

I find "Always do your best" to be worthless advice, because it's impossible to follow:  There's almost nothing I do that I couldn't do better if I spent a few hours practicing, or if I spent a day or two studying it, or if I simply put aside all the other things I need to do and focused on that one thing.  If I did that, though, I wouldn't be able to do anything else.

Over the years, I've mentioned the problem I have with this aphorism to various people.  Some people have said, "Well, obviously it doesn't mean that!"  But they've never been able tell me what it does mean, at least not in any way that lets me answer practical questions like how much time I ought to spend scrubbing the toilet.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well

The problem with "Anything worth doing is worth doing well" is that it's clearly false:  There are plenty of things that are worth doing, even if you can only do them middling well, or even poorly.

All kinds of athletic and artistic endeavors are worth doing poorly—running is not just for world-class athletes and drawing is not just for skilled artists.  Things like chatting with friends, reading, listening to good music, and making love are all worth doing, no matter whether you do them well or poorly.

Now, even someone as literal-minded as I sometimes am can see that this aphorism is not intended to mean "Don't do anything unless you're skilled at it."  To the extent that it means "If you're going to be doing something regularly, go ahead and take the time to get good at it," it's not bad advice, but there are exceptions even to that.  (Does singing hymns every week at church mean that you ought to take voice lessons?  How much study should go into developing your lawn-mowing expertise?)

So, once again, I find that this aphorism doesn't guide me in answering the question that I think it should answer:  How do I decide how to divide my time and effort among the various things I think are worth doing? It would seem to suggest that I should rank my activities by how well I can do them and then draw a line below the last one I can do well. But that's a dumb way to decide what makes the cut and what doesn't. What about things that need to get done? What about things I could do well with a bit more practice? For that matter, what about the things I could do well, but only after years of study and concentrated effort?

I'd be willing to admit that perhaps I'm asking too much from a rule of thumb, except that I've found one that works for me.

And did you do it with respect?

When I read that question in the magazine quiz, it seemed to me here was some real guidance. Anything worth doing is worth doing with respect. Whether you were teaching a child, singing, or cleaning a toilet, the question to ask is not "Did I do the best I could?" Instead, ask "Did I do it with respect?"

If it isn't worth doing with respect, it's probably not worth doing (which frees up some time in your schedule).  And part of respecting the task is to give some thought as to whether or not it would be worth the effort to improve your skill in doing it--and, if the answer is yes, to do so.

When I can look back on the day's activities and feel that most things I did, I did with respect, I have a strong sense that the day was well spent.

And, when there are things I don't think are worth doing, but that I have to do anyway (because otherwise I'd lose my job, or make my spouse unhappy, or get sent to prison), I try to do them with respect anyway.  Occasionally, I find that particular task (or a small piece of it) actually is worth doing.  Further, when I do a task with respect, I'm in a much better position to make the case later that it doesn't need doing.  The main reason, though, is that doing work you don't respect is a soul-destroying activity.

Look back at each thing you do and ask yourself, "And did I do it with respect?" It's the most powerful tool I know for allocating your time and effort where they belong.

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And did you do it with respect?

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Guest's picture
Michelle Dawn

Somehow this post slipped past me. I came back to it and read it today and I am glad I did. I find myself feeling guilty when I don't "give it my all" but really I don't have the time or energy to do my best with every single task. I like the approach of "doing it with respect" much better. Thanks for the change in perspective!

Guest's picture

Most worthwhile idea I've read in a while Phillip.
I love it!

Linsey Knerl's picture

Parenting a small tribe is similar.  There are days when I don't do my best... (like when I'm sick, they're sick, there's a full moon, etc.)  There are also days when parenting is obviously worth doing, but that particular day isn't going down in history as a good performance.  I would like to think, however, that no matter how many parenting blunders I make, I have shown respect to my family.

This is uplifting.  Thanks for giving me another reason to not be so hard on myself!

Guest's picture

I find these two filers help:

1. Law of 2nd Best: essentially this is knowing when to stop! Often 2nd Best is the best, i.e., filter your choice this way: am I killing myself for xyz (e.g., some glory), or will this kill or hurt me (or others)

2. Keeping forefront the Law of Diminishing Returns

Guest's picture
Grey Walker

You're right. This article is definitely worth reading! I'll be linking to it in my blog, too. Thank you.

Guest's picture

Perfect. I usually dislike a lot of those sayings, but the one that you brought up is a good guide for life. Thanks for (re)sharing this idea.

Guest's picture

I agree, well worth the read...and re-read.

Guest's picture

The saying I always like when I'm about to let something go shoddily is "If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?" -- that usually kicks my butt to do it a little better.

Guest's picture

I love this post! I also missed it the first time around. I work with college students, and I think that this question is sometimes the last thing that would enter their minds. I don't mean that as a dig on young people, only that there is so much competitiveness and emphasis on being successful today. I hope that many people will discover this post and start asking themselves this question. I know I will.

Guest's picture

I've always like the "Do it with respect" philosophy. It's not one you hear as much as some of the others, so it's nice to read it in a post. I think it makes a person more mindful and humble in their duties, which brings a sense of pleasure and happiness.

Guest's picture

We can't give 100% to everything we do, but this concept of respecting what we do is great. At the end of the day, if we can't put in a respectable effort to a task should we really be doing it to begin with?