(Image: Landing staircase by Lluisa Iborra from the Noun Project)
The other day, I decided to call my dad while on a relaxed evening walk. I’m sure every person has the same old topics you end up talking about with your parents or family members. For my dad and me, we tend to talk about travel, politics, Korea, and the occasional life updates.
Recently, we’ve introduced a new topic into our father-daughter repertoire: work. More specifically, we talk a lot about how to "work well" (especially as introverts).
In these conversations, I like to bring up things I’m struggling with or need clarity on. My dad usually talks about the small things he notices between how he thinks about work as a Korean immigrant and the tension it sometimes creates with the way Western work culture can often be.
First, a Bit About Dad
My dad is one of the most disciplined and rigorous individuals I’ve personally witnessed. A large part of it is due to his type A personality, but his lifestyle is also heavily streamlined to the kind of work he does for a living. He is a hungry, academic scholar at heart.
When people ask me what he does, I simply say he is a professor to keep things simple. The reality is that he plays all of these roles: professor, researcher, archaeologist, author, administrator, environmentalist, and adventurer. (As a first-born daughter of Korean immigrants, the bar was set high for me... and I went for the creative industry. Sorry, dad.)
What has always fascinated me is how he still manages to consistently create and publish original research despite everything he does. He often calls his trail of research his own “long-lasting, quiet legacy.”
Two Key Practices: Incremental Contributions
I asked questions about how to make progress on special projects when you have a lot going on and how to avoid “self-imposed missed deadline guilt.” On our call, my dad laid out two essential practices that he gives credit for his prolific output over the decades. His answers were by no means groundbreaking, but hearing them clearly outlined brought me a renewed sense of focus.
Commit to incremental layers of labor.
Our modern-day work culture can demand an exhausting level of productive output from each of us. When I don’t meet these expectations, I need to remind myself that the expectations are often unrealistic and that it’s okay that I wasn’t able to finish a task in one sitting.
“There is no real secret. You show up as many days in a row to the work you want to bring to life, and you dedicate even just 30 minutes to an hour of your morning to add a small layer of labor on top of yesterday’s work."
I believe that knowing when to quit and drop an idea is also an underrated skill. But when a problem or idea keeps coming back to you (and you can’t seem to shake it), returning back to it over the long-term is a muscle worth strengthening.
“Honestly, you have to really want it. You have to accept that by injecting just a small amount of care and attention to this thing each day if you want it to exist in the world, even despite everything else going on in your daily life. Don’t beat yourself about it. Make your coffee, take a walk. Then, quietly come back to it and start the cycle again.”
Focus on percentages instead of hard deadlines.
The second question I had was, “I often set self-imposed deadlines for projects I care about, but I get disheartened when I don’t meet them in time. How do I avoid this?” In his trademark matter-a-fact fashion, he shared back three magic percentages: 30%, 50%, and 70%.
“When I create deadlines for projects, like a research paper or larger initiative, I know in the accept that they are completely made up and that they will likely get moved. This removes the guilt or pressure. Since I already know that it’s going to get moved, no guilt when it does happen.”
This surprised me. I had no idea that Dr. Ji fully embraced a truth so fluid and flexible. (A reminder to myself here that just because you think you know your parents doesn’t mean you really know everything.)
“Focus on percentages instead of hard dates. Instead, ask yourself: What amount of progress have I achieved so far?
If I set my first date, I’ll roughly aim for 30% of the process. I’ll only focus on working towards 50% at that point, and 30% isn’t really that far away from it. I move the make-believe deadline I get there. Once I reach 50%, I allow myself to feel satisfied with that progress. ‘Hey, I got halfway.’ Then, I set the next dates and work towards 70%. It’s easy from there.”
I love this — 70% is a magic number because by that point you start to see the finish line and use that momentum to get to 100%. The other thing that resonated with me is how my dad said, “I allow myself to feel satisfied.” There’s nourishing power in allowing ourselves to bask in what we have done instead of how we think we’re falling short. Holding back feelings of gratitude and low-key satisfaction to only the end makes no sense—every step matters.
Now, More Than Ever: Rest and Progress Over Perfection
I know I’m not the only one who has struggled, especially during this pandemic, with feelings of inadequacy and disarray. There are distinct parts of my weeks where no matter how hard I try, it’s hard to focus on what I’m “supposed” to be doing.
The absence of non-pandemic distractions, overwhelming news headlines, sped up financial and emotional breakdowns, and little to no separation between making a living and simply living — it all adds up too. The target is our health and wellbeing. If this is how you’re continually feeling, take those breaks you need and let yourself feel satisfied with whatever tiny thing you manage to do.
If you manage to find yourself in a moment of rare quiet, seize the half-hour and add the next small layer of care. If you step away for a while, circle back and add a bit more again when you’re ready. You’ll get to your own magical 30%, 50%, and 70% wins eventually. ☻︎