How to Achieve Greatness By Being Mediocre Every Day
Like many people, I’ve tried to pass the time over the past year by forming some new habits: running, baking, writing every day, learning new card tricks to dazzle friends at future dinner parties (those will be a thing again, won’t they?). Each of these pursuits started strong… until I gave up shortly thereafter.
I had lofty visions of being good at these things immediately. And I just didn’t like being bad. But that was the problem: I was fixated on high achievement, when I should have been focused on repetition.
In a recent TED talk, the sociologist Christine Carter argues that in order to successfully build new habits, you need to stop trying to be good and instead get comfortable being mediocre. “You’ll need to abandon your grand plans, at least for now,” Carter says. Reaching our goals, she explains, doesn’t depend on willpower, but rather a “willingness to be bad at our desired behavior.”
To overcome your brain’s desire for instant greatness, it helps to create a wildly unambitious daily practice, something Carter calls a “better than nothing” habit. Simply take one of your goals and strip down the outcome into steps so small, so seemingly insignificant, that they seem almost effortless. For instance, if you want to be a runner but don’t remember the last time you walked a mile, don’t set a daily running target of 30 minutes. Instead, start with one minute. Really. If you want to start meditating, stop watching hour-long meditation tutorials. Rather, do some deep breathing for 90 seconds. If you want to eat more vegetables, add a single leaf of romaine lettuce to your meals. (As Carter points out, this tiny addition “contains half a gram of fibre and loads of nutrients.”)
A “better than nothing” habit is repeatable because it requires minimal effort. As Carter notes, this behavior isn’t the ultimate goal, but a jump-start to help you get there. By taking these minuscule steps, you hardwire the habit-building process into your brain and lay the groundwork for more significant changes in the future.
So allow yourself to be mediocre. But just make sure to be mediocre every day.