I have a dream version of myself in my head.
In this ideal world, I wake up (naturally!) at 6:30 a.m., meditate, hydrate, exercise, and work diligently for the next eight or so hours before putting up an email-proof boundary and spending time with friends.
In reality? Late nights make getting up at 7 a.m. a win. Some days, I have boundless energy and get right to work. But other days? (OK, most days . . .) I need some time to shake off the previous day’s stressors, or I find myself answering emails late into the night when a project takes on a life of its own.
I had always divided these kinds of days in my mind: Sometimes I was on fire, and sometimes I was just off my game. One was clearly better than the other—until I heard the term “situational best.”
To do your “situational best” means to take into account all the out-of-your-control factors—the day’s stressors, your boss’s whims, the obscene humidity—and react as best you can.
To do your situational best is to be adaptable, flexible. It means letting yourself off the hook when you can’t, say, squeeze in a meditation before sprinting to an early meeting. It means recognizing that your energy is shot and that, no, that 10-mile run won’t revitalize you the way you hope it might.
Your situational best means doing you, to the best of your abilities, based on what each given moment presents.
It’s also a sneaky way of showing a little self-compassion: By treating yourself a little more like a living, changing person, you open yourself up to benefits such as greater levels of motivation and life satisfaction, better relationships, and more resilience to cope with the very things that are throwing you for a loop.
Sounds great, right? But embracing your situational best doesn’t always come easily. For most of us, it’s a matter of overriding that negative, critique-heavy voice in our heads and reminding ourselves that we’re doing the best we can.
Here’s how to do the same.
Acknowledge what you’re working with
Ever wake up with a full-blown cold—and realize you’ve probably noticed it coming on for the past few days? I do this all the time. It’s as if by ignoring my scratchy throat and increasingly aching eyes, I’m somehow fending off the sickness.
But there’s power in acknowledging what you’re dealing with and taking action early—and that’s the art of embracing your situational best. It’s about noticing the factors at play (such as lack of sleep, extra pressure, even just a cranky mood) and accepting they’ll impact your “best” on that given day.
Maybe you recognize that you didn’t get a ton of sleep last night, so you save some critical thinking tasks for tomorrow. Or you might note your nerves from a tough phone call with a parent and take a few minutes to go for a head-clearing walk.
Accepting what you’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing can prompt some positive actions and help you view yourself with a little more compassion. And, like the case of the cold, it can help you get ahead of stressors morphing into something even more stressful.
Treat yourself like a friend
Maybe you’ve decided to finish your college degree and suddenly have a course load on top of your workload. Would you tell your friend she’s lazy for ditching weekly dodgeball to catch her breath and finish some assignments? You would not. (I hope.)
If you’re having trouble acknowledging that you’re doing your situational best, try thinking of yourself like a cherished friend. You might even write an email to yourself, acknowledging how hard things are and promising your support. Then, follow through.
Figure out what “best” means to you
If you’re constantly disappointed in yourself, it might be time to reevaluate your definition of “best.”
Grab a pen and start answering some questions:
●︎ Who do you think of as doing their best? What do they prioritize?
●︎ What do you prioritize?
●︎ What’s falling through the cracks that you wish weren’t?
●︎ Is there anything you’re spending your time on that could fall through the cracks, if needed?
By thinking through what matters to you, you can take back some control over your situation and set yourself up for a little more success.
Change your vocabulary
We describe ourselves constantly, from the texts we shoot off to parents to Instagram captions to self-evaluations at work. The next time you find yourself describing your emotions, or the day’s output, pause. What kind of language are you using? Might the word “lazy” have snuck in there? What about “slow” or “awkward”?
Sure, it can be helpful to honestly take stock of where you’re at—but try to catch when your analysis has slipped from honesty into self-loathing, and swap in some new words.
Instead of lazy, try “working at my own pace.” Was your meeting really “such a disaster,” or did it simply go in a different direction than anticipated?
Your words matter, and your brain hangs onto what you tell yourself. Speak with compassion, and your emotions will follow.