Dr. Paul on how to know when you’re doing the best you can

The problem: It’s hard to figure out how much time and effort will result in a good, better or best outcome.

How often have you told your children that you don’t care what grade they get as long as they do the best they can? I certainly remember my parents singing that song. When I was kid, I always wondered, “How will I know if I’m doing my best?”

When I was a youngster, I wasn’t particularly motivated by grades. I was just as pleased with a B as I was with an A. I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I was more interested in enjoying what I was doing than excelling. My brother Joe was one of those kids that always got the highest grade in his class without studying. He was a superstar student without putting in much effort. I am sure he didn’t do the best he could. My oldest brother, David, and I never thought of ourselves as very smart — Joe was the “smart one” in the family. Of course, we hated it when Joe would walk into class, take a test and get an A without a minute of study.

Even as an adult, what does doing the best you can actually entail? When you think about it, the only way to measure effort is how much time you spend on a task. I could spend two hours or two days writing this column. Of course, if I spent two days working on a column, it would probably be better (or at least I hope so!) than if I spent two hours. But how much better? When is it good enough? And how would I know?

In many situations, it’s likely that we’ll get diminishing returns if we spend too much time on a job. The problem — it’s really hard to know how much time will result in a good, better or best outcome.

So how else might we think about effort?

Put 100% of yourself into what you are doing. When I first started practicing aikido, a Japanese martial art, I noticed that my teacher always put in the same effort teaching, whether there were two students or 20 students in the class. He always gave 100% of himself to his students. This was inspiring and became a model for me as a teacher and as a psychologist.

Pay attention to what you’re doing. This means to be present in the moment, focusing on the task at hand, and minimizing distractions and multi-tasking. Twenty-first century life is filled with interruptions that interfere with our ability to focus on completing a task. Constant texts and emails hinder our ability to focus. Make sure that your kids turn off their phones when they’re doing their homework.

Time and energy are limited resources. Sigh. There are only 24 hours in a day, no matter how often I wish there were more. And mental and physical energy have their limits. As I get older, I am increasingly aware that energy is a limited resource. This means that we have to balance time and energy between all of the everyday jobs and activities that we have to do. It’s important to learn how to balance demand with supply (i.e., time and energy). Spending too much time and energy on less important duties can result in exhaustion. This is a skill that many kids and adults struggle to master.

For younger kids, it’s helpful to set up a time limit for homework. It’s also useful to set a time for homework when kids will have their best energy. Encourage them to start with their lowest interest and lowest satisfaction task and then reward themselves with a more enjoyable part of their homework when they have less energy.

Establish realistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations of oneself can result in burnout, chronic disappointment and low self-esteem. They never can live up to their expectations. For those folks, they have to set their bar a little lower. For others, they may need to inch the bar up.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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