We recently obtained some second-hand furniture for our sunroom–a sunroom that had mostly been a toy depository for the last 7 years. And when I sat in that furniture, I looked around at the newly furnished sunroom, I realized the windows and ceiling looked pretty filthy. It would make sense, after all, since I hadn’t cleaned them in years. “I have lots of other important things to focus on,” I said to myself. “Who cares?” I asked rhetorically to myself as I walked away. A day later, I was in the sunroom again, and I thought about how nice it would be to have all that filth wiped away. “It’s not a priority,” “I doubt anyone notices,” and “it would take forever” all convinced me to walk away again.
But one day I decided to “just see” if the filth would come off at all. After all, if it doesn’t come off easily, I can forget all about this, right? I’m not about to paint this whole thing. So armed with a rag and some windex, I wiped the edge of a window and saw a shade of white that was gloriously bright and beautiful and unseen in the rest of the room. And a decision was made! Despite other priorities, I was going to chip away at this. And so over the next few days, when my kids were playing and I’d otherwise be looking at my phone, I wiped away the filth. And as I went, I listened to my thoughts (By the way, I highly recommend this. Doing mundane things and listening to your thoughts while you do them. Highly entertaining).
“This is going to take forever!” said one side of my head.
“Just do this window, and then do the next,” said the other.
“The kids will smudge these up again in no-time”
“That may be true but this is years of filth we’re getting off. It needs to be done”
“Man my arm hurts”
“But look how white that is now! Let’s keep going!”
“You know you’ve turned into your mother.”
“Is that really such a bad thing?”
And this is where I need to explain why turning into my mother could have convinced me to stop: My mother, who I love, loved doing “projects” on her summers off from being a teacher. Some projects I tolerated or even enjoyed, like when she would expand the garden. “This plant isn’t very happy here, we should move it over there… If we stretch this area out about three feet…we need to divide those hostas…we need about 50 bags of mulch…” I usually was gung-ho in the beginning, tired of it by the middle, and exhausted and annoyed by the end. Looking back now, I see all the quality time we spent together, her passing on her knowledge of plant names and how to care for each one. How to spot a weed and how to pull it out by the root. Unfortunately, these benefits that I see now were not obvious to me at the moment. My mother’s enthusiasm for improvement and tireless work ethic looked to me like radical perfectionism. She kept her baseboards clean, her piano dusted, had little just-for-guests soaps that were shaped like seashells. Certifiably insane, I was sure. Do-the-bare-minimum-and-get-the-heck-outta-here was my style. Not only was I a kid with anything better to do, my ADD made her non-stop drive hard to keep up with, and her standards hard to meet. Deep down, the perfectionist was inside of me (and still is) but was out-voted most of the time by my lack of persistence and inability to maintain focus. ADD also made school very difficult, and all school year long, I would fantasize about the ultimate summer that awaited me–free of homework, I would blissfully avoid all responsibility and sleep in as long as I wished! (Ha!) It was because of this expectation of total relaxation that I found my mom’s “projects” to be akin to torture. Cleaning this sunroom from top to bottom would have made the perfect summer project for my mother! Oh how she would have loved to “tackle” this with her summers of opportunity to rest and relax. Often, the “Mom would love doing this” can be a line I don’t cross. “Bare-minimum” has always been the law of the land in MY house. Vacuuming? Just get close to the wall, no need to get all up in that edge! Toilet looking nasty? Wait to clean it until just before someone comes over. Laundry living in baskets until next week? Who cares? Company coming over and a bedroom is a mess? Close the door. Garden looking neglected? There’s always next year! Projects or tasks that my mom would pounce on with glee? Run for the hills!
Now, being married to a guy that likes things clean and orderly, I’ve improved a lot and my house is not the pigsty it once was. But this don’t-hold-yourself-to-too-high-a-standard attitude has never really left me. In a lot of ways, it serves me. It allows me to relax when a friend comes over unannounced and my house isn’t clean. It lets me off the hook to get some much-needed-sleep when work is crazy and it’s midnight and the dishes aren’t done. It keeps me from caring too much when the kids load the dishwasher wrong. But for all the ways this attitude serves me, it limits me more. Because I’ve taught myself to believe that the bare minimum is all I want. Read that sentence again. I successfully talked myself out of doing things for my own benefit.
The inner-voice-conversation while I wiped window after window was enlightening to say the least. It brought up all those memories about my mother and her “crazy” projects. It brought up all the self-limiting beliefs and behaviors. I wish I could have shared each thought with you. Because ultimately, what I heard over and over, was that I was talking myself out of, and then into, persevering. Over and over. Window after window.
I thought about how this relates to life and business. Do I talk myself out of (yes) and back into (not enough) the “hard things” in my business? The beautiful thing about this sunroom “project” was that I was regularly rewarded with amazing results. Each and every wipe revealed more white. Every step showed dramatic improvement. Even when I wanted to quit, the obvious and immediate results created momentum that made me come back to the project day after day (something I am not great at doing). In business, the little steps along the way often DON’T show a dramatic difference. We can convince ourselves that they don’t even matter, that they’re insignificant, or that we don’t need to do them. It’s the compounding of those little things over time that add up to something visible, and that makes perseverance a lot harder. The sunroom windows in front of me showed me exactly what I had left to do, and how far I’d come, clear as day. But our efforts in our businesses are often in the dark. Is it working? Is this having an effect? Am I wasting my time? What if I’m making things worse? It’s challenging to say the least. It tests our will and our belief in the process, our faith in the result. It’s easy to talk yourself out of, and harder to talk yourself back into.
So what can be done about it? How can small, almost invisible changes, be made visible? How can we respect the process, even in the dark? How can we talk ourselves back into the goal we set in the first place? In MK we use tracking sheets, bubble sheets, goal posters and more to show progress as it happens and see what still lies ahead. In weight loss we check boxes off the calendar showing we did the workout so many days in a row, or count how many salads were eaten instead of burgers. We can create accountability partnerships, weigh-ins or check-ins. It takes time, but we must consistently track the visible behaviors that we TRUST will deliver invisible benefits. Until the results show, we have to trust that the benefits will pay off if we are consistent with the behaviors. Success is a saw-tooth pattern, not a straight line; just like kids smudging the freshly cleaned windows, setbacks happen. A team member quits, a customer returns a product, a big party cancels. It’s so easy to doubt. But those future smudges on the window didn’t stop me from removing years’-worth of filth. It needed to be done if I wanted to see that bright clean white again; if I wanted to see through the glass again.
There’s tracking and recording to make the invisible visible, but another key to this is kicking the self-limiting beliefs out to the curb. The voice that talks us out of pursuing the goal will start by talking you out of tracking the progress. If you don’t master the negativity, tracking will only get you so far. Take some time discerning the things that served you but also held you back. The things from your past that keep you from lifting off. The lies you’ve told yourself, that you’ll be happier if you stay right where you are, static and unchanged. Unchallenged. Comfortable. If you want your goal, you’ve got to nix that sort of thinking. You’ve got to break up with the attitude that holds you back. You’ve got to put in the effort, knowing setbacks will happen, but that the work still needs to be done, with or without the instant, visible results. You’ve got to know that you want it. You want it badly enough to be uncomfortable. And not just uncomfortable, but persistently uncomfortable.
Rachel Hollis, author of Girl Wash Your Face, suggested writing a letter to your own persistence. Reminding yourself of the times you persevered and why you’re grateful for it. This sunroom cleansing was, strangely, an ode to my persistence. A realization that I could persist from the beginning of an arguably unnecessary project to the end, and be glad I did it. A reckoning of the things I thought I despised about my mother’s work ethic, that I actually appreciate having passed on to me. I WANTED those windows to look clean. Young-adult-me would probably not have admitted that to myself, because I didn’t want to be a perfectionist project-enthusiast like my mother. But young-adult-me paid a price for that. Not only did I deprive myself (and my family) of the level of clean I actually prefer, I didn’t have the satisfaction of seeing a job done well, done right, done thoroughly. And because of that, I created doubts within myself that I even could. By talking myself out of what I wanted, I impaired myself.
I’m still going to leave laundry in baskets for a few days, and I’ll probably still clean the baseboards no more than once per year. But for today, I have a beautiful, clean sunroom, and I’m so thankful to myself that I did it. When I look at it, I’ll remind myself that the voice that says, “you can’t do this” or “you don’t have to do this” isn’t my friend. I’ll remember that hard things–whether or not they offer that immediate pay-off at each step–can have an awesome end result. I’ll remind myself that my goals ARE indeed what I want, and why I want them. I’ll remind myself that I want those goals MORE than I want to be comfortable. And I’ll remind myself that I can do hard things, that I can persevere, and that results are happening, even when I can’t see them.