To live a life with no regrets is, I think, our biggest dream. Recently, I read a book that’s teaching me to do just that: Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements”.*
In it, Ruiz outlines four fundamental “agreements” or standards we should all hold ourselves to if we want to lead better, more meaningful lives. I can certainly review the rest of the book if that’s something you want but, for now, I’m focusing on the fourth agreement. It’s the one that’s made the biggest difference for me, helping me raise the bar and live a life with no regrets.
* This post contains Amazon affiliate links to the book which, in layman's terms, means that if you buy through my link, I'll get a small commission for referring the sale (at no extra cost to you). Thanks for helping put food on the table!
I’ll say upfront that the tone of the book is very spiritual (and, in parts, strongly religious) so, as an atheist, I had to overlook a lot of that. And the book is supposedly based on ancient wisdom that has been long forgotten by modern man but is now being spread by shamans. Again, that’s not really an idea I subscribe to, so I had to put that aside and just accept that the author still might have an important, inspirational message to spread.
Now we’ve all heard the stories of people on their death beds and all the regrets they’ve had — not spending enough time with their families, working too much, not chasing their dreams and going after their goals… So how do we ensure that, when the time comes, we can say with confidence that we gave it our all?
The answer comes in the form of Ruiz’s fourth agreement: Always do your best.
I’m sure it’s a phrase you’ve heard a lot in your life: “just do your best” or “try your best”. The problem lies in the fact that there can be an implicit understanding that you must not currently be trying very hard, or you’re capable of more but you’re just not achieving it. Or, worse, you’re not really up to the job at all so just give it a bash and hope you can make some half-arsed attempt at it.
In short, it can feel patronising as fuck.
Maybe it’s just me, but any time I’ve heard the phrase, I’ve immediately imagined that the task at hand must be beyond my current capabilities. Perhaps it’s where my perfectionist tendencies come from — that constant feeling that I’ll just never be able to do justice to the job.
And so it gets to the point where I don’t bother doing it at all, or I start but, no matter how much I try, I’m never satisfied because it seems like there’s always more to do.
Then this book changed everything for me.
Ruiz realises that your “best” is not some seemingly unattainable, objective standard that requires Herculean effort. Instead, it’s something that can fade and fluctuate from day to day, hour to hour, and even minute to minute. Your “best” will depend on many different factors in that moment.
- Some days, you'll be able to scrub your kitchen from top to bottom. Others, you'll barely manage to clear the counters.
- Now and again you'll be able to knock everything off your to-do list. Then there'll be times you just have to scrap it and start again.
- One week you'll be high on life -- motivated and energised to deal with whatever the world throws at you. The next you'll run for cover under your comfortable duvet.
- One minute you're churning out your best work, and the next you're essentially sleeping with your eyes open.
All of those efforts will be your best, even if the output varies.
For me, I always thought that my "best” involved all the first situations. I never stopped to consider what my best would be if I was tired, cranky, ill, at the mercy of a toddler’s tantrums, or just plain not feeling it. I thought my best was some immoveable object.
I never put my “best” into context.
Now I ask myself at regular intervals throughout the day, “Am I doing my best?” Sometimes the answer is no, and it’s the kick up the arse I need to continue. Like the other day when I wanted to give up folding clothes before the job was done.
But often, the answer is yes, like when I was recently writing and, before I’d finished the blog post, I wanted to stop. I asked, “Have I done my best?” and the answer was, "For now, yes".
Normally I’d beat myself up over not ploughing through until the task was complete, but at that moment, asking the question made me realise that I genuinely needed the break. There was no need to push through.
“Best” doesn’t mean grinning and bearing the pain until everything is completed to perfection. It’s not about getting the job done no matter what. Instead, it’s more a question of whether you’ve done enough for now, given your mood, resources, and energy levels.
Just because one week you can conquer the world doesn’t mean the next week you won’t have difficulty just conquering your laundry. Don’t believe your “best” to always be the most you could possibly achieve when your energy, motivation and happiness levels are at their highest.
Ruiz’s fourth agreement is a gentle nudge to keep going during those times I might be sneaking ever closer to the couch, but also a lesson that I don’t have to feel bad if I’m not kicking ass all day every day. If I’m satisfied that I’m doing my best in the circumstances, I can have no regrets with how the day panned out.
We won’t all become millionaires or live on private islands but if, when all is said and done, you can look back and be genuinely satisfied that you put in a solid effort and did the best with what you had, nobody can judge you or take that away from you.
Doing your best means no regrets. And your best is flexible.
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