Lower the Bar.

I only saw it once, and I can’t find it now online, alas, but I’ve never forgotten an old Saturday Night Live skit from many years ago. One of the characters, playing a frustrated swinger, says “Ladies, ladies, ladies! You’ve got to lower your standards.”

I’ve often invoked that mantra — “Lower your standards” — when I find that there’s a resolution that I really want to keep, but for some reason, don’t seem to be able to keep. Recently, I’ve changed the wording to “Lower the bar.” “Lower your standards” suggests that I’m embracing mediocrity; “lower the bar” suggests that I’m clearing away hurdles.

For instance, I’m in four books groups — a regular book group and three children’s/YA literature reading groups (a lot, I know!). In each of these groups, we take turns meeting for dinner at each other’s houses. I serve take-out Chinese food and store-bought cookies — because if I raised the bar any higher, I might feel like I couldn’t handle belonging to so many groups. The imperfect dinner that I serve is better than the perfect dinner I never serve.

Similarly, with exercise, I have a very low bar. I’m a natural couch-potato, but by allowing myself to do very manageable work-outs, I’ve been able to turn myself into a regular exerciser. The moderate forty-minute work-out I do several times a week is better than the rigorous work-out I never do. I wanted to keep a journal of my family life, but I knew I wouldn’t keep up with it; I lowered the bar and now faithfully keep a one-sentence journal. A journal entry of one sentence a day is better than three pages never.

Voltaire wrote, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” When I find myself backing away from something that I want to do, I try lowering the bar, and it helps.

How about you? Have you found a way to lower the bar?

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  • The Red Angel

    The constant strive for perfection is a common mistake, but easy to make. I know I always have trouble making too many goals all at once, too many standards for myself and others. Sometimes I just try and slow down, relax, and first “mentally” lower the bar by thinking that mediocrity actually IS OKAY and applying that new ideology to my everyday doings. It is hard but if you constantly remind yourself it will stick!



  • jww1066

    In programming, this philosophy is known as “Worse is Better”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worse_is_better

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE it. Wonderful! a new mantra for me. on so many levels.

      • Edra

        I do prefer to say, “Keep it simple, SWEETIE”; that way, it sounds like loving advice from my Grandma, rather than a critique from a hostile boss. LOL!! Maybe that’s just me…

    • whistlerpotpie

      Wow! I never knew how to express this. My clients often want what I call “the kitchen sink” when we just need a lovely one dish meal.

      You have given me such a gift – thank you so much for a better way to say, “Keep it Simple Stupid”!!!

  • Peninith1

    I think this is a ‘standard’ that very often leads to greater achievements than we could have imagined. It’s akin to one of my favorites: “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” which reminds me that we don’t become skilled without a lot of practice. When I started quilting, I could not make a 4-patch come out square. Ten years later, I can do some pretty challenging piecework and have it come out square. And you know what, my first 4-patch quilt is a beautiful favorite, still. Don’t people marvel at your writing? And would they marvel if they saw some of the stuff you put on paper when you were 14? Probably not. Most of us are not prodigious young Wolfi Mozart. And maybe perfection isn’t even our aim. Walking once around the block can be movement enough all by itself. A marathon isn’t necessary. Just do that thing–in whatever raggedy, half-baked way. The only time you get a gold star for doing nothing is for meditation!

  • Fenner Kb

    Wow–you hit the nail on my theme for today–I wasn’t feeling like working out, so I said all I had to do was three sets of something–I ended up doing a half hour of cardio and six sets. Then I was feeling overwhelmed by the state of my office, so I figured out the three things that were most bugging me. I just now got around to practicing the piano, by telling myself all I had to do was two sets of four octaves of each major scale– an hour later I had gone over everything for my lesson!

  • Don’t lower the bar but do accept some progress as better than no progress. For example, I have a lot of side projects right now. I am working on three blogs plus planning for a wedding, while also trying to carry on my full time job. I want to make all of these successful and that’s my “bar”. I will not lower that bar since it’s the goal I’m striving towards. However, if I find that I’ve made progress on one or two things rather than all four then I’m still happy with that. It’s a lot better than zero progress and I’m not going to beat myself up over not accomplishing everything I set out to do.

  • Surferamber

    I appreciate this post as I am preparing my presentation for tomorrow. Reading “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” has given me the burst of energy needed to complete the finishing touches. Thanks!

  • Debi

    There is a song from the 80’s by ABC called Poison Arrow that contains a line that really resonated with me, especially back when I was single. It goes “lower your sights, but raise your aim.” I really love that thought of not just lowering standards, but only doing so in order to reach a better goal.

    • whistlerpotpie

      I love this unexpected source of inspiration. Definitely shoot THAT poison arrow through my heart! I love this lyric and the idea that it expresses. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  • I’ve really embraced this idea since reading your book, Gretchen, and this post is a good reminder. Before my son was born I was inclined to be a perfectionist; now that I’m a mum I don’t have time to be a perfectionist. I used to hand-make all my birthday and Christmas cards. Recently I caught myself getting very stressed over not having time to do this for a friend’s upcoming birthday. I reminded myself “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and went out and bought a card instead.

  • Alibongo!

    During the school holidays here in UK, one day I looked after my family plus a friend’s two children and my sister-in-law and her son – I lowered the bar by letting St Michael (ie Marks and Spencer shop) do part of the cooking ie fab ready made meals eg pizza, quiche, chicken/mushroom pies, lemon cheesecake! That day went smoothly and enjoyably as a result! I did have pangs of guilt for cheating ie not making the meals from scratch but this was a one off and everyone like the meals! I had more time to chat and to play with the children. Your account of the reading book meal made me feel better about having St Michael’s help! Thanks!

    • whistlerpotpie

      Think of it as praying to Saint Michael for his gift of nourishment and time. That is a blessing indeed!

  • I can see where this philosophy would help me move forward when stuck rather than giving up because it can’t be perfect. After all, Olympic pole-vaulters all started at two feet rather than fifteen, right?

  • A great book called More Work for Mother talks about how the invention of “labor-saving” tools for the home increases expectations of cleanliness in the house.

    In the old days, women beat their carpets once or twice a year. Now many people vacuum every day.

    Not me. A little dog hair and dust never hurt anyone.

    Of course, I’m not so good at this that I don’t go rushing around tidying up when someone is coming over to the house.

  • Sierra18769

    What a good article! So often I don’t think I can take on something because I can’t do it exactly the way I envisi9n it being done. I agree, a once sentence entry into a family journal is much better than never writing a word. For me, a work out that’s three sessions of 10 minutes of walking each day is so much better than doing nothing.

    Lowering the bar could also be phrased as managing expectations, yes-no?

  • Great post, Gretchen. Very encouraging to those of us who have to combat our perfectionist tendencies. Especially related to exercise, something is better than nothing!

  • Armychic73

    This was such a great post! I can definitely relate most of the comments below: Kathy, “Very encouraging to those of us who have to combat our perfectionist tendencies.” Some reason I am always so driven to do everything perfectly. My husband says I have OCD, my academic advisor says I am “anal”, I always argue and justify it as having a great work/study ethic and taking pride in what I produce. But often times I am like Sierra18769, “So often I don’t think I can take on something because I can’t do it exactly the way I envisi9n it being done.” That is why I have so many “projects” in my mental task list that i have never even attempted to start because I get overwhelmed just by the thought of how perfect I would like to do or make something and then I get discouraged and never take it on because I don’t have enough time to focus and concentrate on the one project let alone two or three.
    All of this happens only in my mind in a nano-second! I recently had a mantra that worked very well for about a month. It was, “I can only do what I can do.” Meaning that I can only do so much and I then I would be okay with whatever I didn’t have time to get around to doing. It no longer works because I get frustrated and start to obssess on the “what” that I don’t have time to do and I focus too much on the things that are not getting done and then I get overwhelmed because I feel as though my to-do list is actually getting longer instead of shorter.
    I definitely need to work on lowering the bar because it makes mcuh sense that an imperfect dinner served is better than an imperfect dinner never served. I just need to figure out how to get there! Is there such a thing as PA…Perfectionists Anonymous? 🙂

  • Pinkdawn

    Reminds me of Flylady’s “Housework done incorrectly still blesses the home.” I never get finished the laundry because I only do one load a day (we always have clean socks this way.) And I spend about 3 to 5 minutes cleaning my bathroom, but I do it with one wipe every morning (then I never have to spend 20 mins scrubbing.) Things don’t have to be perfect, just livable and ‘Good enough.’ Makes way for the important stuff!

    • gretchenrubin

      love it!

  • Rabbitmoon

    I just finished the book and the difference between a goal and a resolution really made me think. Housework my mother hated. And for her it was a one time thing. Often a nothing. Housekeeping my grandmother did and seemed to enjoy. She was resolved to it. I looked up the etymology of the word resolution. It comes from to loosen. Already I feel more realaxed and loosened having resolved myself to a daily houseKEEPING schedule.

  • I want to thank you for your liberating comments. How wonderful to be able to distinguish perfectionism with good. You’ve given me the courage to tackle something I’ve been avoiding because I want it to be perfect.

  • Heather



    I think the line you’re thinking of is from Jon Lovitz and Tom Hanks at the class reunion (the first videoclip I listed). I don’t remember seeing that one before, but I started looking for it because I remembered the one of the two of them girl-watching on the street (the second videoclip).
    Years ago, I knew a law professor and a doctor who were married to each other. They were sometimes interviewed about their marriage. (It was the early 1990s, and a high-powered dual-career couple with children was still a novelty in some places.) Their secret? “Low expectations.” It certainly worked for them. I’ve lost track of them, but I bet that they are still together.

  • MyHappyPath

    Love this! What a great way to think about things from a different perspective…especially when it helps make a dream more approachable. I have found, for me, that if I break my dreams into small increments that are doable, it is actually inspirational…because who knows, I may be able to obtain those higher aspirations by working on it from a more micro viewpoint.

  • LivewithFlair

    Yes! Absolutely! With blogging, for example, I wanted to blog everyday for a year at Live with Flair, and on days when I just didn’t know how I would manage any type of important reflection, I would just sit back and think of a small, good thing. And I would maybe only write 100 words. I lowered my expectations of myself, the writing, and the pressure to be awesome. It worked!

  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted Voltaire, thanks to having first heard the “perfect” quote from you. (And, I’m quick to let others know where I learn about it, too!) A similar quote, I suppose, would be, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I need to remind myself of that more often — that is, it’s better to do something than nothing. But, I also need to remind myself to finish incomplete tasks — that is, simply beginning them is not (always) sufficient.

  • CSE

    As a reforming perfectionist, I’ve realized that attempting to maintain standards of perfection can be a persistent source of unhappiness because it leads to procrastination, disappointment, frustration, a sense of being overwhelmed or anxious at what needs to be done (because you want to do each thing perfectly), and conflict with those close to you because you hold them to your unreasonable standards.

    So I generally try to chip away at my perfectionist tendencies and “lower the bar” so that I can clear the hurdles and feel satisfied. And most often, the sense of accomplishment and relief of getting things done and behind me trumps any annoyance at not achieving absolute perfection.

    But like a dieter who is advised to have a small splurge every once in awhile so as not to throw in the towel, I allow myself a morning every so often where I can fully indulge my perfectionism. My husband takes my son out to play, and I can clean-out or organize something to “perfection.” Or make a meal “perfectly.” Or write a “perfect” note. Or shower & dress with attention to every detail. Ahhh. And then I can go back and accept (and appreciate) the imperfection of real life a little more readily and happily.

    • Alison

      I love your every so often perfectionist splurge suggestion. I used to be a perfectionist but I nearly went mad trying to live up to my own expectations after having my baby. Without realising it I do make time very occasionally to do something exactly the way I want it done and it gives me a lot of pleasure and as you say makes me smile and accept the realities of every day life with happiness and anticipation. Thanks for sharing.

  • Khomet

    I think a could of other have touched on the idea that lowering expectations might be a better way of looking at it. The disctinction between standards (principles) and expectations (preferences) is too often blurred. It seems wise to keep ones standards high but expectations low.

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    I’ve discovered that I can live up to my own standards, but not other people’s! Therefore I kind of ‘lowered the bar’ for myself when I realised that I should give up on trying to match or impress other people, and only do what seemed necessary to me. This has improved my housework, eating habits and parenting – now I’m not worrying about what other people think, just trying to do what I believe is important.

  • I never thought that “lowering the bar” or “worse is better” would actually be better. So often we are told to never settle.

    Is it really that if we lower the bar then we won’t be disappointed?

    True, though, I recognize this as being an important doctrine to adopt in my life. As example, I expect people to live up to their words. If someone says, “Call me anytime,” but doesn’t return a text or a phone call, I become disappointed. Of course, if I didn’t expect them to call back within a certain time frame, it wouldn’t bother me, now would it?

    So, is it true that the reaction to our circumstances is all in how we present it to ourselves?

  • Susan

    GREAT post and reminder Gretchen! I am waaay too good at beating myself up for not doing enough. Then it goes into a downward mental spiral and you end up being depressed and accomplishing nothing. A much better way to look at it is to prioritize and do what you can for that day, however the catch is you need to feel good about making some progress instead of feeling bad about not making enough progress. It’s a mind game!

  • I told someone once that I “selectively aim low” – which means I do only a handful of things I really, really care about really, really well. The rest is passable. 🙂

    • Edra

      Yes! Brilliant! That, I can do. Thank you for that perspective! 🙂

  • bev

    Been following the Happiness Project online for a while. I love the idea of the one sentence journal too. I’ve just bought the book and i love it. I dont really know you but you are every woman, including me and you have had the courage to be honest with yourself. Will i do my own happinness project? probably now i know i can lower the bar, bev

  • Chris Butterworth

    Thanks for sharing – this is a great way of looking at something in a new light. I too spend too much energy striving for perfection and stressing out over not having time to do a project, when I would be much better off getting something – anything – done. 100% of 25% is better than 0% of 100%. And all those 25%’s add up over time!

    I love your one-sentence journal entry idea too; I’ll probably steal that one!

  • Kim

    I like the visual – lowering obstacles, not expectations. As a mother of two small childre I’ve certainly learned this lesson the hard way.

  • When it comes to exercise, I lower the bar to just 15-20 minutes, once a day. I dropped a dress size last month so it must be working! (Final bits of baby weight.) 15 minutes is the exact amount of time it takes me to walk around my neighborhood, and that’s also how long it takes me to do a full body workout with free weights.

  • TJ

    Another take on this, which I am often repeating to my rather perfectionist but good-humored boss, is “better done than perfect.” If we wait until a piece of writing is “perfect,” then we’ll forever be working on the same item. It is in our interest to go for throughput. Accuracy is imperative, but perfection is not.

  • Glenmore

    Is it on kindle?

  • Ellie

    As I read this post I realized how happy it makes me when I come up with ways to “lower the bar”. I tend to have an idea in mind of how things should be done, and generally do them that way. But when I find life a bit overwhelming, or just need to take some stress off, I love thinking of little things that free up big chunks of time in my day. For example I usually use my in suite laundry and wash several times a week, but when I get behind, I allow myself to use the building’s laundry room and can do four loads at once (instantly making a daunting task manageable).

    Such a little change, and such big emotional reward for me. I realize that often my stress is a result of a lack of creativity used to find better solutions. It can even be a treat to step out of my routine.

    I also notice that somethings are my routine because they cost the least, and we save money by having those cost saving habits. But, giving ourselves the permission to spend out when there are exceptional circumstances, helps take the pressure off when we need it the most.