B- Work

Image of B minus grade in red ink with a red circle around it on graph paper

In a recent coaching call, one of the participants in Launch 2021 shared that he was overscheduled. He had added in an "artist's date," three hours of drawing work, to an already busy schedule. He was enjoying the drawing time, but now it seemed that every minute of his day was scheduled. Life was becoming a grind. He was starting to want to lie in bed instead of get up.

Been there. Done that. This is how you see for yourself that there really are only 24 hours in a day, and you truly need some of them for downtime. 

When you add in three hours for a new important initiative, some less important things need to go. When I pointed this out, he objected that everything needed to get done. Maybe so. That means some of the work would need to be B-minus (B-) work. 

"B- work" is a Brooke Castillo term. She chose it well. "B-" is the lowest grade you can get on your report card and still have your work evaluated as "good." 

The idea of doing B- work was not appealing to him, and it's not appealing to me, but it is the logical remedy when you are overcommitted and you are unwilling to drop some of your commitments. If your shoulders are tensing, your hair is standing on end, or you're just plain horrified at that thought, congratulations! Welcome to the crowd of overachievers who are constantly tempted by perfectionism.

For those of you who have a conniption fit at submitting B- work, here are the logical, moral, and practical arguments for doing so in a given context. 

First, the logical argument

Perfection is relative. It is not an out-of-context absolute. My philosopher-husband, Harry Binswanger, wrote a wonderful article clarifying this term titled "The Possible Dream." He explained that "perfection is flawlessly complete satisfaction of a standard of value."

You see this in school, where the standards change depending on the level of the student. An A+ essay for an 8-year-old is very different from an A+ essay for a high school student or an A+ thesis for a college student. Even theses have different standards. Frank Reintjes, my thesis advisor for my BS, explained the difference to me: A BS thesis needs to show that the student did independent work. An MS thesis needs to contribute, however minutely, to the world's body of knowledge. A PhD thesis needs to contribute something substantial to the world's body of knowledge. 

These are objective standards that are based on identifying the quality of work appropriate to a given context. 

The problem we perfectionists have in our own work is that we think there is only one standard: "as good as I can make it." This is a subjective standard that guarantees that you will always "need" more time, because with more time, you can always do better. 

The injunction to do "B-" work helps you see that there are different standards in any context. For example, for an article like this, here are my standards:

  • A: One true point made in a clear, compelling, concise way
  • B: Several related true points made clearly, but tied together loosely
  • C: Some true and interesting points made, but the piece as a whole raises questions
  • D: Points are confusing
  • F: Points are false

I always want to send out "A" articles, but it is helpful to have defined "B" and "C" work. If I am pressed for time, I can see what alternative I have.  If I want the article to be good, it needs to contain true points, made clearly, without raising a lot of unanswered questions.

Second, the moral argument

Treating quality as an out-of-context absolute is self-destructive. Your time is your life. Time is the currency you have for gaining values — including all of the values you need to survive and thrive. 

If you do not set an objective standard of quality, if you operate on the premise that you must put in whatever time it takes to achieve some quality level on a deadline, you often wind up sacrificing your health, your relationships, and your other priorities. 

In this context, choosing to do B- work in one area is the means of staying dedicated to your higher values. 

Finally, the practical argument

Happiness is not achieved by succeeding on one work project. It is achieved by consistently meeting all of your biological and spiritual needs. What you need most is always shifting, depending on the context. 

This is called "the law of diminishing utility" in economics. If you have eaten recently, you don't need to eat again. But if you haven't eaten in a few days, it becomes rather important. 

The same is true of work. If I've cleared my email in the last 48 hours, everything else becomes much more important than doing email. In particular, if I have gone most of a week doing routine work, I begin to crave a chance to do in-depth thinking on some theoretical topic. That is much more important to me and my long-term success and happiness than maintaining instant communication with a lot of people. 

Given these facts, it is wildly impractical to hold high quality as an out-of-context absolute.

Doing B- work is often the logical, moral, and practical option. But if you are tempted by perfectionism, it is very unpleasant. It can feel impossible to lower your standards. It's not. I discuss how you deal with that emotional conflict over B- work in a separate blog post.

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