Last week I picked up a book called ‘Present Over Perfect’ from my local library and read it in the space of one weekend. I can’t remember the last time I did this – but something about this particular book resonated with me deeply, and brought to the surface a lot of things I have been thinking about for a while. It wasn’t that my life was exactly the life of the author – Shauna Niequist is a successful writer who, after years of working, travelling and exhaustion, triggered a deliberate turnaround to a more simple way of life. Neither was it the deeply religious element to the book (although raised Catholic I’m not a particularly religious person. I’m not entirely sure what I am but that’s a story for another day). What drew me in to each new chapter of the book was the underlying message that so many of us are in need of – that we’re so busy trying to prove ourselves, please others and appear endlessly productive that we’re in danger of leaving precious little for the people who matter most. We’re in danger of missing out on our own lives while we try to be valuable, to be useful, to do the things that other people expect. We’re in danger of missing the small moments while we’re too busy filling up our days with stuff.
As a life-long perfectionist, people-pleaser and yes-girl, I’ve been trying to work on being more ‘present’ than the person I was when I was younger. Before having children I focused on the future – safe in the knowledge that life would be perfect once we got our house renovated, paid off our student loans or earned enough money to take a holiday a couple of times a year. I said yes to everything people asked of me, quietly resenting that saying yes means you’re the person people (understandably) go to if they’re looking for a yes answer. I didn’t get any better at saying no to things, but my children came along and made me focus on the here and now. Old habits die hard though and still I couldn’t help myself – ok, I’ll play, but let me finish tidying the table, put on the next washing load and get through my mental checklist before I relax, right? The thing with getting through the checklist means that by the time the checklist is completed everyone has moved on to something else. I’m trying harder to live in the moment, even the messy ones, wherever I can these days. This is my life, it’s messy, it’s breadcrumbs on the lino. When you come to visit I’ll try hard not to sweep them up before we can begin.
And then there’s the saying yes thing – as Niequist points out in the book, if you’ve always been a yes person, people don’t often like it when you start off saying no. But the thing is people who say yes all the time get exhausted, and sometimes saying no for a while is actually a road back to saying yes. Not all the time, like you once did, but when and if you’re able. As Mother Teresa said, ‘if you want to change the world go home and love your family.’ For now I know that’s where all my ‘yes’s’ need to be.
And as for the endless cycle of ‘productivity’ – in the book, Niequist admits she bowed to it like a diety. How many times, especially as women, do we tell others how busy, how frantic our lives are, wearing our productivity like a badge? How did it become necessary to show everyone how many balls we can throw up and juggle, how did running around to the point of exhaustion become something to be revered? And that tendency to look at other lives and think them ‘cushy’, that they are so much easier, that they couldn’t possibly be as hard as ours. Saying more about our feelings towards our own lives – for who’s to say a quieter way of living isn’t every bit valuable as yours?
But what does all this mean in practical terms? Well for me, it’s meant slowing down a bit. Not letting other people dictate the pace I choose. Trying to gracefully step away from the idol of ‘busy’. Decluttering, owning fewer things. Not always rearranging the cushions. Not allowing other peoples’ priorities to become mine. Going to fewer after school clubs. Yoga. Reading more at the weekend. Being a mum, a wife, a daughter – no longer being too busy to be a friend. Saying ‘I can’t do that anymore’. Saying, ‘I did that last time, maybe someone else can take a turn’. Capturing moments, but making sure I’m in the moments before they leave me. Focusing on the four people around the table – giving my best energies to the ones I love.
Reading ‘Present Over Perfect’ gave me notice that I’m not the only person who feels this way, and that perfectionism, people-pleasing and my inner yes-girl can all be overcome. I hope I manage it with the grace and wisdom that Shauna demonstrates in this memoir.
Freer, less precise, a more intentional way of living. And in the words of John Steinbeck, ‘now that you don’t have to be perfect you can be good’.
Oh this is wonderful! So much in this I can relate to, in fact pretty much all of it. There are so many times I promise myself I’ll just sit and play with the boys but I get in from the school run and I find myself saying, let me just get the washing out, or take the bins out and then before I know it I’m cleaning the kitchen, happened to me this morning and then the whole morning had gone by. This is just what I needed to read, I’ve already changed so much of my outlook in the last few years but I still think I have more to do with living simpler and being more present. Thank you for sharing and I’m going to look out for this book! xx
It’s quite hard isn’t it Hayley, being busy all the time gets quite addictive, and I think sometimes we can feed the cycle with other women by talking about our ‘busyness’ like it should be the norm. I’ve always been a perfectionist, much better since having children, but it’s still a conscious effort to stop myself from going into do-ing/fixing/tidying mode. It’s good to know that other people feel the same way and recognise that constant busyness isn’t necessarily something to be applauded. I think you’ll really enjoy the book! xx
Love this. I’ve been wanting to slow down more but I’m always trying to do 10 jobs at once. Before I know it they’ll all be grown and I’ll wish I’d been more present x
Thanks Katy, I know, it’s such a common thing I think. I’m a work in progress on this one but I think recognising it and making a conscious effort really helps. You’re right, time goes by so quickly – hope you get the chance to slow down a little soon x
This is a book that has probably ‘spoken’ to me more than any other – I read it just at the right time for me. If anyone struggles with this tendency for striving, hustling (as Shauna describes it) and as you say – always wanting to get through the ‘list’ before relaxing and enjoying the moment – then it’s a must-read. I’ve got a friend who does that thing of ‘wearing productivity and busyness like a badge of honour’. I’ve recommended this book to her so many times but she won’t stop to read it! Shame. Great post. x
Thanks Suzanne, yes it’s a fantastic book, I think it summed up a lot of what I’d been feeling for a while now. It’s so easy to slip into those conversations about how busy we are and sometimes I think as women it can almost be a way for us to compete. I’m trying to take a conscious step back from that type of conversation and remind myself not to do it either. It’s such a big part of our culture to be seen as endlessly busy, but hopefully more and more of us are recognising there’s another way:) x
I loved this book and to be honest I think I need to read it again. It’s so easy to get sucked back in to being ‘busy’ and feeling overstretched. Taking a step back is so important isn’t it? x
Definitely, Morgana, I read the book so quickly that I think I will have to read some of the chapters again before I put it back. In fact, I think I should really buy a copy of the book to keep, it’s probably one worth dipping into every now and again when I need a reminder! x
Another lovely article. I must admit I love being busy and enjoy a little frantic time but my priorities have changed and I have had no choice but to say no much more and to not always be one of the first to volunteer to help with everything that came along. We only live once so making the most of your time here and now is what its all about! ps must try harder at that!
Aww thanks Donna – yes I have to say you are the one person I know who seems to thrive on being busy, and if it works for you that’s great! 🙂 I think maybe a lot of it is about choices and sometimes I’ve felt a bit swept along into ‘busy mode’ by influences on the outside. For a while I want to focus on being a bit more selfish if that doesn’t sound too awful! I hope this also involves seeing a bit more of lovely friends like you! 🙂 xx
It sounds like a great book – I don’t think I’m the kind of person who says yes to everything but I could definitely do with something that helps me feel more present with my family. I’m glad you enjoyed it and it is helping you. #SharingTheBlogLove
Thanks so much – it is a fantastic book 🙂 x
Oh I love this! I think I need to read this book too, it sounds so important to have this realisation. I used to strive for perfection, now I just strive for sanity! Whatever it takes to get through the day and be the best Mummy I can be! Thank you for joining us at #sharingthebloglove
It’s such a good book, I hope you like it if you get a chance to have a read:) Yes, perfectionism is exhausting – I think striving for sanity is a much better plan! 🙂 xx
I need to read this book. I really need to be more present and not take so much on. I know only too well that they will be grown up soon and won’t need me as much. I don’t want to look back with regrets. Thank you for joining us at #SharingtheBlogLove
Oh I hope you like it! Yes it’s so easy to get sucked into taking too much on. I’ve had to start saying no to things, but it’s a skill I really need to work on. I find it much easier to say yes to people but then down the line I wish I hadn’t. I’m a work in progress, I think it’s going to take a while:) xx
This book looks great and definitely something I try to work towards, so glad it helped you #sharingthrbloglove
Aww thankyou, it’s a fab book! 🙂 x
I can totally relate to what you say here. I to am trying to live more in the present and am also not living to impress anyone, but instead to be content and comfortable just be authentically me. Fabulous post! #SharingtheBlogLove
Oh thanks so much – I’m glad you liked it. Yes – content and comfortable sounds like perfection to me! x
Wow this sounds like a book I need to read! I am such a perfectionist too and I am just getting run into the ground serving the “busy idol”. I’m going to see if it’s available at our library! #sharingthebloglove
I think this would be a great book for you too then Lucy, my library ordered it in for me but it was worth the wait! Perfectionism is exhausting, isn’t it? It’s a trait I’m slowly trying to dissolve x
Gave up trying to be perfect! Just trying to juggle everything at once instead 🙂 #sharingthebloglove
I’m sure you’re doing a great job! 🙂 x
Despite trying to please people it’s not always worked out and sometimes they change the goal posts! The only person it seems you can really please is yourself and those immediately round you. #SharingtheBlogLove
Well said – thanks for reading:)
Love this post, this is something I am really struggling with at the moment and need to work on and is actually the topic for my next Words To Live By post. I’m off to look up this book, sounds like just what I need x
I hope you like the book Alana! x
There is so much pressure on everyone to be the best these days, and parents seem to put themselves under the microscope even more. I worry about the expectations my children are growing up under and the demands of being popular on social media. I am going to share something I wrote on this issue – hope you don’t mind. https://dadwithoutamap.com/2017/05/06/are-you-a-good-enough-parent/
Yes, there is a lot of pressure on people nowadays, your post captures it really well:) Thanks for reading:)