The “Better than Nothing” Philosophy

Many times the thing stopping us from getting something done or making a change in our lives is simply that we are daunted by what we think we “should” do and instead do nothing.

Doing nothing ensures nothing is accomplished.  Doing something, anything, will get us closer to our goal than just being overwhelmed by what we think we should do and instead doing nothing.  Start by doing something–even if it’s not remotely close to what you think you “should” be doing.

This is my “better than nothing” philosophy.

My most blatant example comes from work.  After years of lamenting we had no monitoring solution in place to notify us if our applications were not working I used a Hackathon day to create “Better than Nothing Monitoring”.  It’s not great.  It’s probably not even good.  But, it’s better than nothing; which is what we had before.  Something is better than nothing.

Also from work, having a robust test suite helps catch bugs in our software before we deploy it to users.  For a long time we didn’t have any tests.  Now we have some, but not nearly enough.  When I’m working on an old piece of code, rather than lament not having the perfect test suite or the time to build it now, I’ll implement the simplest kind of test: “this thing runs without throwing an exception.”  We should have better testing than that, but, when we don’t, it’s better than nothing.

Feel like you should be saving more money?  You sit down, calculate out how much you “should” be saving per paycheck, but never seem to manage to do it and end up saving nothing?  Ignore the “should” and start saving something.  Maybe start with $5 that you put in a savings account every paycheck.  It’s not much.  It’s barely anything.  But it’s better than nothing.  If you’re paid bi-weekly, at the end of the year you’ll have $130.  That’s not much either, but it’s more than you would have saved fretting over what you “should” have done.

Feel like you should be exercising more?  Do you think, “I really should go for a run this week, or ride my bike, or play Wii Fit,” but you never quite seem to make it happen?  Stop worrying about it.  Start so small you barely notice: if you’re using the elevator at work, take the stairs one or two floors first; do a couple push-ups or sit-ups before going to bed.  Maybe you can only do two push-ups today.  That’s better than nothing.

Wish you read more books, but getting through even one chapter just takes too long?  Read a couple of paragraphs at a time instead.  You’ll get through more books reading 3 paragraphs a day than you will wishing you had enough time to read full chapters.  It’s better than nothing.

Many times I finish up a task at work and pull up our work log to decide what to do next.  I’ve long since completed all the low-hanging fruit and I scan through the list of tickets thinking, “Uggghh, that’s going to take forever, I’ll pick something else.”  And, big surprise, those work items are still in the queue months later.  Eventually you just have to start.  Pick the smallest piece of the puzzle that makes any sense and get just that piece done.  The overall task isn’t done, but it’s closer than it was.  It’s better than nothing.

Most of these examples are habit items: saving money, exercising, reading.  In these cases the actual accomplishment today is less important than the habit you’re creating.  You can increase your daily, better-than-nothing effort to get gradually closer to your “should” level of effort.  Doing 2 push-ups and 5 sit-ups every day takes about 45 seconds.  That’s clearly not anything near the 150-minutes per week of moderate physical activity recommended by the American Heart Association, but it’s better than nothing.  As you get stronger, 2 & 5 can fairly seamlessly become 5 & 10, then 10 & 20, then 20 & 40 and now you might be exercising for 7 minutes a day.  Still not what you “should” be doing, but worrying that you “should” be doing 20 minutes a day and doing nothing is worse than doing 7 minutes a day.

What is it you’re trying to accomplish?  Pick any activity, no matter how small, towards that goal which you can start doing today.  Go do it.

It’s better than nothing.

2 thoughts on “The “Better than Nothing” Philosophy”

  1. I don’t remember where I read this, but your post reminded me. This procrastination-type mindset is related to perfectionism. I had never made the connection before, but realized that I totally do this. I don’t get that birthday package mailed in time…or ever…because I envisioned finding the perfect gift at the craft show and wrapping it and adding the perfect card. Or I don’t get the Christmas cards mailed because I didn’t get the perfect picture taken. I don’t even start on projects like re-caulking the tub because I feel like I won’t do it exactly right. It looks like laziness procrastination, but it is more closely rooted to perfectionism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *