My 90% Rule

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this concept of what I’ll call “The 90% Rule,” by which I mean that a lot of people doing things at a 90% level makes a much bigger difference than a few people operating at 100%. By “things” I mean recycling, living sustainably, buying secondhand, eating organic, line-drying your laundry, cooking from scratch, even doing The Compact – all the topics I talk about on this blog.

One of the best discoveries I’ve made about my experiment with Buying Nothing New is that it’s so doable, something most “regular” people can do without a lot of sacrifice. I’m not extraordinary, and so if I can do it, so can you. And to me, that’s great news. Because I believe that all of these things need to become second nature, part of the general culture, something that’s as much a habit as brushing our teeth.

I’m not about to start living off the grid, I’m too attached to people and culture and a lot of the perks of modern life for that, not to mention a paycheck. And let’s face it, that’s not a realistic option for most of us. What I’m interested in is showing people that we don’t need to be mindless consumers, and that we can all do as much as we can to recycle, live sustainably, and all that other good stuff- bit by bit.

People are busy. Things like recycling has to be made easy and convenient for them. That doesn’t mean they’re lazy, it means they have families and jobs and a whole lot of other priorities, and not a lot of time. Joining an effort toward recycling in your workplace or your community makes more of a difference than hauling your stuff to a recycling center across town if you’re the only one doing it. A whole lot of us doing our best means a lot more than a few of us becoming Ed Begley, Jr. Not that I have anything against Ed Begley, Jr. I must have written that before, because I remember that line. Uh-oh, I’m starting to repeat myself.

So that’s my message for today. Do the best you can. Try for 90%. You have no idea how difficult it is for me to say that. It’s almost cringe-inducing. I’m a perfectionist, and over the years I’ve come to realize how paralyzing that trait can be. I was raised by a father whose motto is, “If you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all.” And believe me, only 100% was good enough.

But now I think he was wrong. If you’re trying to eat local, but your husband begs you to buy some blueberries a week before March, are you going to refuse him? (A hypothetical example, of course). If it’s been pouring rain for ten days in a row, and you break down and throw the sheets in the dryer, does that mean you should give up on air-drying your laundry forever? If you can’t afford to replace all your cosmetics with organic brands, isn’t it better to replace them over time or replace as many as you can afford than to give up on the entire enterprise?

So I encourage you to grow your own food, air-dry your laundry, give up meat one day a week, start a compost pile, cook from scratch, buy your clothes used, shop at a Farmer’s Market or join a CSA, give up paper towels, join The Compact, or any or all of the above. Or none. Maybe you’re getting up your nerve, getting ready to make a change, or just like to read about it. Maybe you just come by to get a few recipes or a few savings tips. That’s cool. We all started somewhere, and it’s a process. This blog is a place of encouragement and inspiration, not of judgment.

We all do what we can. And together we can make a difference. No one needs to do it alone.


  1. snatchcarrie says

    This is true about life, in general, not just about saving the planet. Do the best that you can that day and every day. I use this approach when it comes to my relationships, my job, my health, everything. It doesn't mean I'm complacent and have an easy out, because I tried. It means each day I will make it (whatever that is) a little bit better. It *is* a process. And over time the little bits add up and your life is different and better and more like what you envisioned it to be. Don't let the big far away goal scare you. Take small steps towards it every day. And one day you'll look back and see how far you've come. :)

  2. Vanessa says

    Thanks so much for this post. I am a perfectionist too. And its good to remember that EVERYTHING we do is helping and changing ourselves, the planet and the people who are watching us (our children, friends and neighbours).

  3. Alea says

    This is a very encouraging post! I try to live at the intersection of frugal, local, organic, and green. I have learned that this is not always possible and that it is completely acceptable for me to order my priorities to meet the needs of my family and situation.

  4. Non Consumer Girl says

    Great Post Angela.

    I want to print this out and put in on my noticeboard to remind myself of this.
    Non Consumer Girl

  5. Cate says

    Yes! I struggle with this also…I'm a serious perfectionist, and have only recently gotten to the point where I'm ever satisfied to have done "my best" instead of "THE best." I really needed this encouraging post–we're considering putting up a clothesline in our backyard when the weather gets a little nicer, yet I KNOW I won't line dry everything. Sometimes I'm going to need a dry load of diapers pronto. Sometimes it's going to rain. Sometimes I'm going to feel lazy. And when winter comes again, it'll be cold. But that's okay, because using the clothesline even part of the time will make a difference.

  6. Catherine @ The Vegan Good Life says

    Brilliant post.

    I'm around 90% vegan (always vegetarian). When I heard vegan cookbook author Alicia Silverstone admit to slipping with cheese (my biggest weakness) and her husband is 85% vegan and eats fish, it made them more approachable to me than people who claim to be perfect all the time and then expect you to live up to their standards.

    I love all the things that you advocate for and that you are open with your temptations and struggles. Perfection is better left for fairy tales. Real life is complicated and imperfect. Women in particular are way too hard on themselves.

  7. Jane says

    Bravo, Angela! Fantastic post.
    Everything we do to help the planet is worthwhile, and if we try to do it most of the time rather than beating ourselves up for not doing it all the time, we're going to stick with it better, right?

  8. Gary, UK says

    Hi all, Gary here from the UK and you have touched one of my nerves regarding another of societies conditioning, similar to mass consumerism, particularly over the last 20 years. As well as giving up mass consumerism, I think its equally important to aim to give 'perfectionism' a few days off too. IMHO it has an emormous amount to answer for. Young girls under stress to look like the magazines, or be as thin as the supermodels. You cant just talk to people anymore and explain something, you have to be dynamic and do it with energy, oh yeah and 'quickly' otherwise you cant be as intelligent as me. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Very similar to buying, buying, buying. i.e. if I dont 'do things' as well as someone, I am not as good as them vs. if I dont buy/have 'lots of stuff' I am not as good as the person who has it.
    Basically my addition to your post is, cut ourselves and others around us some 'slack' and often do many things, of course competently and conscientiously, but hey just 'good enough' is so often 'good enough' in many instances. Why am I passionate about this message ? Well often its about trust and respect. Do we trust others we work with and importantly ourselves to have done a good job. Well certainly in the workplace, we seem to have to have 'objectives', 'measures', 'performance indicators' – to make sure everyone has done an excellent or perfect job.
    So what message do you ssnd these people "Of course the people I work with/hire are good, ,I hired them, but just to be sure ('cos you dont really trust/respect them) I will set them challenging objectives and measure their performance. My personal view – it is endemic in our society and it sucks.
    So I think it goes well with the general theme of this blog of not only 'consuming less', but aim to sometimes be content with 'Doing Less', slow down, cut yourself some slack and dont join the rest of the world in finding tactics to 'cope with stress'. Find ways to reduce pressure, the need to be perfect and actually 'do less' – albeit what you do do, do it well, do it to emjoy, do it good enough. Otherwise dont you just feel life is one big 'competition' of not just who has got the most stuff, but equally who does the most things and better than you/me.
    Hope this makes sense, ,and keep up the great work/posts – good daily food for thought.
    Love and Peace from the UK – Gary

  9. Forest Parks says

    I like this concept…. Doing the best we can is important and not being too harsh on ourselves when we mess up… because we all do.

    I currently live in Egypt and recycling isn't exactly normal here but we still work hard to get things recycled or at least produce far less waste…An example, we don't even have mugs we just reuse jars for glasses and mugs!


  10. Barb says

    I recycle and conserve where I can. I don't have anything against buying used clothing, cars, furniture, whatever. However, I'm wondering who you would buy it from if no one ever bought new?

    I think our society has become obsessed with consuming. No one ever seems content with what they have.Instead of owning things, things begin to own us! We all need an attitude of thanksgiving for the abundance we find around us.

    I don't shop much, new is rare, but obsessing over never buying new? No, I don't go there either.

  11. says

    Great post! I agree, we can’t expect to be 100%, as someone brought up in the comments if no one ever bought anything new the thrift stores would run dry, but I was just explaining to my mother other day that by thrift shopping most of my clothes, my sons clothes and a good amount of household items I can focus on quality and other things (where it’s from, how it was made) when I do have to buy something new (like a pair of shoes, clothes for my husband -who has no luck thrifting in his size -, or things for my kid that we just can’t find second hand). Sadly there are so many people obsessed with new, new, new and more, more, more it can be quite easy to fulfill your consumer needs through secondhand/consignment/thrift stores these days and since you can’t change everyone, you might as well work with what you’ve got.

  12. says

    Very true. Too many people give up, thinking it’s all too much and the end goal is unattainable. Or they get upset at themselves after just one or two transgressions.

    Focus on the good stuff, the stuff you’re doing right, and continue to work on the weak areas as time/money/whatever allows.

    I went to a Joel Salatin workshop recently (the cool farmer guy from Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc, etc) and he told us “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”. Meaning just try stuff, get out there and do stuff, however badly. You can refine the approach and improve the system over time, but if you don’t start somewhere you’ll never do anything worthwhile.

  13. says

    Thanks for the uplifting post! It reminds me of something my husband says: ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’ He’s a very moderate kind of fellow and it’s a great remedy for my tendency towards perfectionism, so I try to keep this nice little proverb in mind when I’m being too hard on myself (or others!).

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