Can you really be your ideal self?
What does a perfect day look like for you? For many of us, it may include getting up early, going to a morning yoga or pilates class, having a nourishing breakfast and checking off a few items from our to-do lists before settling in for a day of work. We want to be our optimised self — physically, mentally and emotionally. But for many of us, striving for this idealised image of productivity and professionalism has become too much.

Sometimes, the reality of a "perfect day" is rolling out of bed, sorting out the kids (or partners, pets — sometimes even housemates!), logging onto our computers and just getting through the work that needs to be done. It's enough — but it doesn't feel great.

Over the past few years, we've heard the word 'burnout' more and more frequently. We know its symptoms. And so many of us have felt it personally. For many people — especially women — the phenomenon of burnout is enhanced by our desire to optimise ourselves over not just one area of our lives, but all of them. When the pressure to be perfect extends across work, home and even self-care, where is the room to genuinely relax?

Understand that being perfect isn't everything
In our recent article about work-life balance, we said that compartmentalising our lives just doesn't work anymore. We can't be happy at work when we're not happy at home. But when we're already stressed and burned out, doing the things that look like they'd make us happy — exercise, good food, time with friends, being genuinely productive at work — can feel lightyears away.

In Jia Tolentino's collection of essays, Trick Mirror, she writes about the trap of self-optimisation for women in our current age of work.

"The ideal woman looks beautiful, happy, carefree and perfectly competent. Is she really? To look any particular way and to actually be that way are two separate concepts, and striving to look carefree and happy can interfere with your ability to feel so," she writes.

So what do we do about it? In Jia's essay, she argues that we need to look at the bigger systems that are creating this need — this desire — to be optimal.

The world of work needs to change
"Resistance to a system is presented on the terms of the system." writes Jia. "It's so much easier, when we gain agency, to adapt rather than to oppose."

If we're going to be happy at work, we can't exist in a system that constantly puts pressure on us to meet an increasingly unrealistic ideal. We need to push back against the pressures we're facing and make work (and life) work for everyone.

Perhaps we can't be as radical as Jia. We'd love to see the systems of work change to meet our emotional needs first. To give everyone space to be completely imperfect. That's why we partnered with the Future Work Skills Academy. However, being competent, efficient and well-presented in our professional lives is still something we strive towards. Saying "no" to self-improvement isn't necessarily the answer, but neither is the enormous amount of pressure we put on ourselves to perform at our peak, constantly.

Perhaps we need to understand where the desire to be perfect comes from, and be at peace with the fact that we are working towards an impossible goal. What happens when we are the "perfect" version of ourselves? What actually changes? Are we happier?
    Start building your mental fitness
    We spoke to CEO and co-founder of Next Evolution Performance, Vanessa Bennet, about the pressure people find themselves under to perform at work — her first tip? Start building mental fitness.

    "When is it going to end?" she asked. "I think we're all trying to fight it in different ways and some with better tool kits than others. But if you haven't been training mentally, and you are erring more on the side of that couch potato [mental fitness-wise], it can feel pretty overwhelming and feel like, where do I even start?"

    Rather than investing in green smoothies and early morning pilates, we need to start working towards the things that will meet our intrinsic human needs — community, emotional fulfilment, social intelligence, mental resilience. We can't just function on a surface level. We need to start interrogating what we need to survive and thrive as human beings.