Why Doing Your Best is Not 2


We’ve all been there.  In spite of our best intentions and diligent work, our performance never seems to meet what we see others accomplishing even though we know we should be able.  We try our best, but our best never seems to be enough.

This happened to me recently over the past year.  At the beginning of the year, I had plans to train for and race in another triathlon.  It has been nearly 8 years since I last raced, but with school, kids, marriage, moving, jobs, and a host of other reasons I had to put my training on hold.  This year was going to be different.  This year I was determined to race again.  As spring rolled around, I signed up for at the local gym with an indoor pool, took my road bike in for a tune up, joined the email list for a local triathlon club, and bought new work out clothes.  And while the summer proved a time with increasing endurance and strength, I found with December approaching that I’m no closer to fulfilling my goal.  Somewhere along the path, I let my desire slide away.  What happened?  Why is my goal failing?

While I could sit here and list a host of excuses, the truth of the matter lies with a flaw with how I started.  I started with the goal of “Do your best with training.”

What’s wrong with doing your best?  Isn’t that what your mom always told you to do?  Have to take a test – do your best.  Going to try out for football – try your hardest.  Performing in the school band – perform the best you can.  Trying hard is certainly better than not trying hard, but it suffers from a flaw that ultimately undermines the effort.

Dr. Edwin Locke, the premier researcher in goal-setting, discovered that individuals tasked with “do your best” assignments consistently under-perform tasks with specific, challenging goals.  Today considered one of the most important management theories for improving employee performance, goal-setting is based on the findings by Locke, Latham, and others.  Doing your best is not the best when it comes to actual performance.

“Do your best” is not effective because it leaves our minds foggy on just specifically what is supposed to be accomplished.  When given the option, our mind would prefer less work not more.  Thinking is hard work.  So it’s only natural that we would want to find excuses not to do it.  “Do your best” gives our minds an out, an excuse, to ease up on our effort, in spite of our explicit desires.  While we often do not see those excuses when they happen, with a bit of introspection we can.

This is exactly what happened to me in my wish to complete a triathlon.  Before training, I would frequently find excuses not to work out, not because I was tired, injured, or sick.  But because I had to get home to help care for the kids, I had to clean the garage, or I had to write another blog post.  Sometimes while working out, I would find excuses to end the work out long before I had pushed myself toward real growth.  While I told myself that I would do my best, my best was often less than what I would do if I felt compelled to push myself to my limits and beyond.  Unfortunately, I let my best be less than my best.

By adopting specific, challenging goals, we can clearly organize our mind, marshal our efforts, plan effective strategies, and motivate ourselves around the task.  The goals do not necessarily have to be self-set – externally set goals can be just as powerful.  What’s important is that we accept them and make them our own.  By making the goals specific, we can better identify what needs to be done to get from here to there.  By making the goals challenging, we do not give up on the task before we have fully extended ourselves.  If too easy, we easily surpass it and revert back to the “do your best” strategy.

Set goals.  Set specific goals.  And challenge yourself to constantly improve, grow, and learn.  Don’t let “do your best” be your guiding principle or you’ll struggle to truly do your best, as ironic as it seems.

Push yourself to be better.


About John Drake

John Drake is an assistant professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at http://professordrake.com


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2 thoughts on “Why Doing Your Best is Not

  • Doug Thom

    This is why I like the GTD approach to organizing tasks. You are not supposed to write “get a gift” or “play better poker” or “deck is looking kind of old”. You are supposed to think about those things and give yourself and material step in the right direction such as “write a short list of things Mrs. would like for Christmas” or “watch for situations in the next week of poker where lots of chips leave the stack” or “call DIY Depot to see if sanding the deck is necessary or just staining”. The task feels bite-sized with a definite action and result that you know is a step closer to your overall goal.

    Thanks for reminding us to apply this to more than just the “Honey/To Do List”, John.