letting myself off the hook

A few years ago Erwin and I used to go running and share our weekly intentions for each of our roles (personal, career, family, significant other, friend…). If you have read Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, this exercise will sound familiar. It is a great way for us to reflect on the past and to “begin with the end in mind” for the week ahead.

On our runs, Erwin’s intentions sounded something like this:

  • Personal: I’d like to workout a bit more; maybe do some weight lifting and biking.
  • Career: I have a bunch of video tapes I need to up-rise to send to the History channel for viewing.
  • Friend: I think I’ll call Mike and see if he wants to go to a concert next month.

While mine sounded something like this:

  • Personal: I want to workout six times this week: two weight training sessions, and 25 miles of running overall. I also want to eat healthy foods, lots of salads, veggies, fruits, and enjoy exactly one dessert a week.
  • Career: I need to call all of my store buyers and let them know about the new collection. I also need to plan the fall jewelry line. And I need to answer every comment that comes in on the blog in email. And I want to post six times a week on the blog. And I want to comment on seven new blogs a day. And I… (the list goes on)
  • Friend: I want to hang out with friends three times this week. I think I’ll call Sarah, Amy, and Alison and see what they want to do.

Inevitably, there were weeks where Erwin’s intentions didn’t get fulfilled. Perhaps he was busier with work one week and the workouts weren’t as regular as he intended. Or he didn’t complete all the work he set out to do. But each week, he would be back on that Intention Run unperturbed about falling short of his intentions. While I on the other hand liked strict, tangible goals. I’m not “just” going to run this week, I’m going to run “25 miles.” I’m not “just” going to post on the blog, I’m going to “blog six times and answer every comment and comment on seven new blogs.” And granted, there were weeks where I really did accomplish all or most of what I set out to do. But if I fell short of the finish line, I felt remorse.

To tell the truth, I always felt a little sad for him. I thought he wasn’t getting as much out of life as he could if he just made more concrete goals, seeing steady improvement in doing more of everything. How he could not be bothered when he didn’t get to workout as much as he wanted? It baffled my mind.

Meanwhile, I on the other hand always felt a little pressure during the week. I had these lofty intentions (goals in disguise) that propelled me towards a constant state of busyness. And when I didn’t reach the goals, I felt a little flat, let down, disappointed.

It’s recently occurred to me that though I don’t set myself up for the same kinds of failures anymore (I don’t do the strict quantity driven intentions), I still finding myself thinking of all the things that I “should” do. It’s as if my ego found a new way to compel (aka: guilt) me to do more, it has just disguised itself better. But at the end of the day, when I look at Erwin’s approach to life and my own: he is inevitably satisfied and content – regardless of any outcomes in the world of intentions. While I on the other hand I feel short-term satisfaction from reaching goals, only to up the ante and start the process all over again. And when I’ve not met my goals, I feel frustrated or stressed.

So recently I’ve been meditating on the simple truth that all we have to do on this Earth is 1) be born and 2) die (and pay taxes as Ben Franklin would say). That’s it. The rest in the middle is up to us. We aren’t asked to get stressed out for 85 years. I personally would like to do good in the middle. But “how much good” is irrelevant.  So I’m learning to accept that I will not comment on as many blogs as I’d like, answer as many emails, or workout my ideal amount. I will inevitably eat dessert more than once a week. And that reality does not need to upset me; I need to let myself off this self-imposed hook and just be free to do what I can and forget the rest.

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  1. Hi Jess-

    Just a few moments ago my son, after hearing me say I felt bad about not being able to do tend to everything on my to-do-list (you and I think so much alike!) looked up at me and asked “is it like you can’t beat a level?” Who knew that a 6 year old could use computer game experience to understand my frustrations!! I am going to let myself off the hook, too, and go play!!!

    xo yvonne

  2. Kelly

    Very well put, Jess! This is something I often struggle with. In my attempts to improve myself, I end up feeling even worse because I don’t (can’t possibly) live up to the very specific, very lofty goals I set. They sound eerily like yours did… Lately, I’ve been trying to be more content in my life and allowing myself to just do what I can do as best I can in the moment. Letting go of perfectionism is so hard (but worth it)!

  3. Great post. I do the same things, and thus set myself up for failure every time. Not only that, I have this *thing* about beating my own records…

    Say, for example, that I actually did run 25 miles. (BTW, that would never happen, but let’s just say it did.) Instead of taking a moment to congratulate myself on accomplishing it, I would move right on to, “Well now [self], since you were able to accomplish 25 miles, it seems that next week should be 30 miles.”

  4. Diane

    i identify SO much with this post, jess. thanks for writing it. i struggle with these issues constantly; my daily to-do lists AND my unrealistic expectations for what i can get done in the few hours i have to myself after work each day are a constant source of stress and feelings of disappointment/guilt. i must also learn to let myself off the hook more often 🙂

  5. Jess, so smart. I definitely tend to do the same thing, ending up with a cycle of expectation and frustration. I still make goals, but they are less exacting, and leave more room for personal growth and improvisation. And when I’m beating myself up for something (being 5 min late to something, eating more than I planned) I ask myself if I would be so harsh to a friend in the same position. Of course not. So I try to treat myself like a good friend, which means holding myself accountable but not dwelling on mistakes.

  6. For instance, I have like 10 (big) things that I told myself last night as I was in bed I was going to accomplish today. It is noon now – have only done like one thing and no headway made on the others. And at the end of the day I’ll feel bad about it AND overbook my schedule for tomorrow. I’ll try to give myself a little break too! I’m on vacation after all!

  7. Jenny

    I totally relate to this post, you put it into words so well. Thank you!

  8. Margie

    Hehe. Love it. Replace Erwin with my husbands name and you’ve got my life. My personal one upping myself area is reading. My goal is four books a month, but if I read ten last month, I’ll tell myself I should read eleven this month. Insanity since I also happen to have a full time job and a fifteen month old baby and a life and a house…

  9. couldn’t agree with you more dear. I like to set tangible goals and gain moment from achieving them.
    I think we should always be goaling to reach higher and become a better version of ourselves. Thanks for the post!
    🙂 Anna

  10. Keely

    I think we all battle the “shoulds”. I am much like you and make my to do list and attempt to do it all. It’s taken many years and a few therapy sessions but I’ve learned I have to pair my list down in order to stay sane. A counselor once told me to get rid of “should”. Replace it with another word: “I’d like to get the dishes done.” “I will go for a run this evening.”

    I’m packing up my house right now and imagining the work that needs done in the new place. It’s very, I mean, extremely, overwhelming. I need a daily reminder to chill and I’m always pleased when I run across a blog that reminds me of this. It will all get done. And that that doesn’t is not necessary. Thank you for sharing and reminding us to mindful and intentional.

  11. I can relate too. Both my kids are at a camp for just one week this summer and it’s this week. I set myself up with unrealistic expectations of what I could accomplish. Now I find myself just finishing the tasks that I had hoped to finish before the week started. Your post is a timely reminder to let myself off the hook!

  12. Michelle

    This is EXACTLY how my boyfriend and I are. We don’t sit down and talk about our goals weekly (yet!), but I have lists and lists of daily/weekly/monthly goals, whereas he just goes to work every day, then enjoys his time off in the evenings.

    I can completely relate to feeling a little guilty all the time. In fact, I’m already stressing about a lack of productivity while I’m out of town for my best friend’s wedding this weekend. How silly!

    Thank you so much for this post. It was exactly the reminder I needed.

  13. jess – i am convinced that this is exactly why we invite other people into our lives. because they teach us things just by their very existence in our proximity. it’s the same reason i think kids need multiple adults in their lives – because we teach them so much about how to BE just by being ourselves in their presence. erwin isn’t out to teach you things (i’m guessing) but just by being erwin he does teach you things.

    makes you wonder what he’s learning from you, right? i’m sure some amazing things.

  14. arathi.

    Hi Jess!

    I particularly like this post of yours, because I have the exact same problem; of having too much expectations of myself (which I try to quantify with a billion to-dos) and then feeling terribly disappointed with myself when I don’t accomplish as much as I set out to do.

    It was a great read, but I wonder, how was the process for you like? Slowly learning to let go of expecting so much from yourself, and giving yourself room to..let go and “let yourself off the hook”?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    Great blog!


  15. Jess


    Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you like the post. Yes, it is definitely a slow process. And most of all it’s about reflecting on what results I’m getting when I set myself up for that kind of expectation. I find that I’m miserable, self-righteous, or guilty. It goes along with the lessons I’ve learned from weight too, I suppose. But in general, I’d ask yourself each time you set “goals” and so froth, what payoff you get. If they are true to your spirit, they probably feel amazing. If they aren’t, you probably just feel stressed because they aren’t serving any higher purpose and it’s just your ego making a fuss. At least that’s what I’ve learned so far, it’s a constant process of reflecting.

    Have a great day,

  16. arathi.

    I just read your weight post (sorry, didn’t realise it was on the site, heh!) and yes, I get what you mean. It’s always about the fight between yourself and your ego, as you succinctly put it. It’s definitely going to take some time and self-talk, but it can be done!

    Great posts, and thank you!(:

  17. Katie Larsson

    I somehow have never seen your site and am so happy to have discovered it, however “late.” I find so much valuable insight and am so excited to read more articles. Thanks for sharing your experiences and personal musings.

  18. Kimberly

    I have only recently discovered your blog and I have been so inspired. I love your DIY artwork and “exfoliation” process. I am graduating from law school next Saturday, and I’ll be moving to a new city at the end of the summer (to a much smaller place!). This is a perfect time for me to renew and release a lot of old stuff that would weigh me down or stress me out in that smaller space. I’m really excited to use this summer to get myself pared down to the essentials for the move. I also have this tendency of making long lists of super-specific goals. Thanks for your great advice!

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