Often, the best time to take action is the present moment. Stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Philosophers and authors have said these things long before me. These have come to be phrases that run through my head daily. Though, until a couple of years ago, I didn’t grasp what they meant.
What I Used to Believe
I used to be naïve enough to believe that I would, at some point in life, find homeostasis and predictability. I believed that the perfect moment to take any given action would arise if I was just patient, and I would be perceptive enough to pinpoint exactly when the perfect moment arrived to take action.
“When X happens, then I will be able to do Y.” When I lose some weight on my own and get the raise at work, then I’ll start going to the gym. When I save thousands of dollars, I’ll go see family in Europe. When I can get over my fear of public speaking, I’ll submit my research to present at that conference. When I have deep, insightful, and life-changing stuff to say, I’ll start that blog.
I realize now that, for me at least, this is not an optimal way to live. Paradoxically, I was narcissistic enough to believe that I had much more control over some circumstances and could prepare for virtually anything that could possibly happen. Yet in other circumstances, I felt I was at the mercy of fate to deliver the perfect moment to me to do all the things I wanted to do in life.
I gradually started to realize that I was getting older and those perfect moments weren’t manifesting themselves as I’d envisioned. At the risk of being morbid, one day I had an epiphany where I saw myself at the end of my life, regretting all of the things I didn’t do because I was waiting for life to become more stable and for the perfect moment to present itself.
I’m so very grateful that I haven’t found complete predictability in my life! Some predictability is good. Total predictability is boring.
As cliché as this sounds, I have come to realize that oftentimes there is no more perfect moment than the present to act. Circumstances are rarely (never?) going to be the idealized version I previously created in my mind, so why expend so much energy generating these idealized situations in the first place?
Moreover, I found that I was missing opportunities because they didn’t conform to the idealized notion of what things should look like in my mind.
I soon began to realize, “Why not focus on the present and the opportunities it presents for action?”
What effect has this change in thinking had on my life?
It’s lovely to have freed up so much time that I previously spent worrying, planning, preparing for something bad that *might* happen in the future or imagining the ideal circumstances that would need to emerge in order to do what I wanted to do. Relatedly, it’s also lovely to no longer wait until the perfect moment presents itself to take action, and it’s gotten me closer to attaining my goals.
Instead of a pervasive future-oriented focus, I’m learning to be o.k. with how things are in the moment. I’ve learned to take advantage of opportunities in the present.
I joined a gym and starting working with a coach. After thinking for years that I couldn’t afford to do it, I realized that I could no longer afford *not* to do it. From a fiscal perspective, I sat down to examine my budget and identify areas where I could reduce expenditures (dining out, buying clothes, and being less wasteful in general) so I could afford to go to the gym and work with a coach. I was able to identify trade-offs I was willing to make in order to be able to do something that I really wanted to do. Also, I didn’t wait until I’d lost a bunch of weight on my own first, and all the energy I put into fearing embarrassment at the gym were for nothing was misspent. This situation, in particular, taught me that expecting the worst can be an energy zapper and an immobilizer. As it turns out, the gym has become one of my favorite places to be where there are encouraging, supportive people whom I’m deeply grateful to know.
I have also presented my research at more conferences despite my near-phobic fear of public speaking. Each time, I stood nervously at the podium, voice quivering, palms sweaty, stumbling over or forgetting a few words here and there. And each time I resemble a deer in headlights during the Q&A portion where people ask the presenter really tough questions; I’ve blanked on how to respond, and thinking on my toes when I’m nervous is something I’m working on. Guess what? It hasn’t killed me yet; to the contrary, I’ve grown stronger from pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.
Paradoxically (again), by giving up on waiting for the perfect moment and just doing what I had been waiting to do, I realized it was a perfect moment to act. Let’s wrap our minds around this for a minute. Whoa.
I’ve also learned that one can simultaneously accept and be o.k. with the present while still seizing opportunities for future changes. Do I currently live near a beach? No. Would I like to someday? Yes. But I’m cool with where I live now and choose to see the positives of it while still being open to possibilities for moving in the future.
That idealized/perfect moment typically never manifests, at least in the way a lot of folks think of what the perfect moment should look like. The perfect moment may be the most abysmal, bleakest, most dire moment in one’s life. Sometimes, those moments give us the “gift of desperation” and are perfect in their imperfection, setting us up to take the action that we need. For a lot of things – like making healthier decisions or stopping a negative behavior – the perfect moment to take some sort of step is right now.
A Few Take-Aways
Do you find yourself waiting to do things until the right moment appears, confident that at some point this perfect moment will arrive and you’ll have the wisdom and insight to know exactly when it does?
If you find yourself often thinking in terms of, “If X happens, then I will be able to do Y” or “I can’t do Y until I’m certain bad thing Z won’t happen when I do,” then it might be time to consider a shift in thinking.
First, it might be useful to think of behaviors or actions – both big and small – that you would like to take but have been putting off in the hopes that either 1) things in your life will stabilize and be more predictable or 2) the perfect moment will present itself. Why have you been putting these actions off? What can you do to get you closer to these behaviors?
It also helps to think of actions/behaviors you’ve been meaning to take but that can be abandoned. Did you want to write a novel years ago and it has remained on your to-do list even though, upon reflection, you realize the “now” you doesn’t really want to do this? It’s fine to let it go. Did you actually start writing a novel years ago and finishing it has loomed over your head for a long time even though now you really don’t want to do it? It’s ok to let this go, too.
It’s tempting to get caught in the trap of the sunk cost fallacy of “I’ve invested time and energy (fiscal resources?) into this, so I need to see it through even though I’m no longer interested or it’s not turning out like I’d hoped.” It doesn’t make sense to continue pursuing it with your current and future resources then. You can let it go. It takes grace to know when you can let go of things.
Next, of those behaviors/actions you want to do but have been putting off, identify whether there are any you could start on right now, at least partially. For the “big” behaviors, it helps to break them down into manageable actions. If you have been planning to live more healthfully, what can you do right this moment to make that happen? You don’t have to join a gym or hire a coach, nor do you have to shop at the expensive groceries to start making progress right now on this goal. Maybe it’s taking 5 minutes to just sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Maybe it’s doing some body weight squats at home or going for a walk outdoors. Maybe it’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Maybe it means taping a note to your dashboard of your car, your bathroom mirror, or putting a note on your phone’s home screen reminding you to make healthy decisions. Maybe it’s choosing to stop berating yourself for the unhealthy decisions you have made previously and re-focusing that energy on how to live more healthfully now. Maybe it’s taking a nap. Maybe it’s turning off the push notifications for your email on your phone.
If you want to reduce your expenditures, maybe right this moment you opt to forgo the coffee shop. If you want to reduce your debt, maybe right this moment, you put your credit cards in the very back of your billfold with a note taped to them that says, “Think hard before using” or “Only for emergencies! Is this really an emergency?”
So far, these have been smaller steps. But what about for the big, “major life overhaul” types of behavior changes that you want to make but have been putting off? It’s especially useful to identify why you’ve been putting these things off. Have you been waiting to quit your job until you find a new one? What can you do right now to move you closer to finding a new job?
Maybe the thing to do in this moment is a big, big action, such as quitting a job. Pitching your business plan to investors. Driving a few hundred miles to surprise a loved one. Enrolling in that course. Ending a toxic relationship — or repairing a broken one.
Or, maybe it’s just taking a deep breath, quieting your mind, or savoring the sweetness of doing nothing — an action that many of us neglect to take.
Is this the be-all-end-all shift in thinking that will work for everybody? Nope. At the end of the day, you have to adopt the approach that works best for you.
However, if you want to adjust your thinking and behavior patterns such that you stop waiting for the perfect moment to act, then hopefully some of this information is helpful or has prompted you to reflect a bit.
Thanks for reading. Be well!
Lead image courtesy of Richard Bowen.