How to Get Things Done Well: Be Quarter-Assed

asinus man

Asinus Man

Half-assed outcomes can be categorized as tangible or intangible. Tangible half-assedness occurs when the product of work is subpar. Half-assed work can include everything from an insufficiently cleaned room to a shoddy construction job to a poorly written term paper (or blog post*). Half-assed work arises when the project is done too hastily, without focus, or simply without enough skill. Haste stems from trying to save time or avoid work. Lack of focus can result from haste, apathy, or distraction – or a combination thereof. When one is consciously taking shortcuts, one is intentionally sacrificing quality for quantity (this intentional half-assedness is why contractors are often reviled).

Intangible half-assedness happens when actions lead to undesirable outcomes. These outcomes arise from half-assed thinking: poor planning, dumb ideas, illogic, miscalculations, ignorance. Rather than being left with a half-assed tangible product, here we have an aftermath of unintended consequences, collateral damage, destruction, injury, even death. As above, this often stems from haste, a lack of focus, or ignorance, which limit our ability to do effective cost-benefit or risk-reward analyses before embarking on potentially dubious endeavors. Half-assed actions can be as small as miscalculating a jump and twisting an ankle, or as big as telling the world that low-fat/high-carb diets are healthy, leading to an obesity epidemic.

As a society, we are rightfully disdainful of half-assedness. But on the other end of the spectrum is no-assedness, in which we’re so worried about perfection that nothing ever gets done. If one feels a project has to be perfect, the prospect of doing that project can become too daunting. If one needs all risks to be accounted for and quashed, one will never act on anything. In our society, I believe we suffer at times from too much headlong, gung-ho, half-assedness; and at other times from too much paralysis-by-analysis, hand-wringing, fastidious no-assedness. Here, I posit the hypothesis that one-quarter is the appropriate amount of ass needed to accomplish things without sacrificing too much quality or taking on too much risk.

The essential nature of quarter-assed thinking is finding a balance between deliberation and doing, quality and quantity, reward and risk. Quarter-assedness involves deducing when a stitch in time saves nine, or when you should just let ‘er rip. In making decisions, we almost never have perfect information, therefore we must make educated guesses with what information we have. If we feel like we’re going forward without enough info, we can always step back, gather some more, then return better-armed for what lies ahead.** But if we’re always stepping back and never moving forward, we run the risk of becoming dilettantes.

We need to find the Golden Mean of Ass to do things and do them well. Too much ass can lead to things going awry. I have a tendency to err on this side, especially when it comes to intangible half-assedness. I’ve been known to leap before I take a good enough look. In general, I’ve experienced less awryness with this approach than according-to-plannedness, but there have been a few times when it could’ve landed me in deep water (literally, as when I almost won a Darwin Award swimming across a freezing mountain lake). Fortunately, my youthful exuberance has been replaced with a little more circumspection (but not too much).

Too little ass needlessly hinders progress. I have a colleague who spends so much time deliberating, drawing Venn diagrams, and trying to account for all possible contingencies, that it’s truly a wonder when he eventually produces the grilled cheese sandwich that caused all the fuss. When it comes to how much ass to utilize, the balance is somewhere mid-cheek.

Of course, the real ass we’re talking about is not the one on our posterior, but the beast known as a jackass. I’m not sure why donkeys have such a bum rap; surely we can find some good in them. And that’s what we want to tap into, a bit of our feral, visceral instinct can serve us well. Our aim is to temper our visceral (gut) feelings with intellect. Too much viscera can have disastrous consequences, exemplified by the Bushian tendency to rely solely on the gut.*** Not to be ignored, balls, when too heavily applied, can also underly half-assed behavior. A nether-region-driven personality could be considered animalistic. As humans, we have created an artificial interface that we haven’t evolved to cope with instinctively. Part of our humanness is learning how to weigh the consequences of our animal programming in an unnatural world.****

The honey badger has become a celebrity of late, renowned for her fearless, risk-taking derring-do. The honey badger has been placed on a mythical pedestal of reckless badassity. The truth is, honey badger does give a shit – she is genetically hardwired to give a shit. In general, non-human animals are incapable of half-assing it, nor can they afford to no-ass it – by nature, they take the path of quarter-assedness.

The honey badger weighs her options based on likely outcomes for increased survival and, thus, reproductive success. She attacks the puff adder because it’s a good opportunity for a meal, knowing that her thick skin will protect her from most bites. She opens a beehive for some nourishing larvae and honey, because the reward far outweighs the risk. Anthropomorphically, the honey badger is a badass, but she’s no more of a risk-taker than any other non-human animal – all species must balance risk-taking and risk aversion to remain extant.

As humans, this balance of risk and reward, of getting the job done with a reasonable level of quality, is the part of the honey badger, the jackass, or any other non-human animal that we want to draw from within ourselves. Let your moon wax or wane, as appropriate, to find your quarter-assed balance.


*This post has been completely rewritten. I like the idea of the essay (a “try”), in which one puts one’s somewhat inchoate thoughts out there (vomits on the page) in an attempt to sort it out. But there’s a balance between incoherent and relevant. The original version of this post was too half-assed. I chewed on it for a few weeks, it left a bad taste in my mouth, so I spit it out.

**When it comes to broad policymaking decisions that can have huge impacts on people and the environment, I support the precautionary principle, which puts the burden on those taking an action to show that it will not be harmful. Because the potential risk is so great, the quarter-assed approach here requires gathering enough good information (in the form of scientific consensus) before moving forward.

***I hyperbolize a bit when I say “solely,” as this is the common caricature of GWB. The fact that there was some intellectualizing when he was the decider means that some of those disastrous decisions arose out of assholery rather than simple half-assedness.

****Is it too facile to say that, in Freudian terms, the id (gut, balls) drives half-assedness, too much super-ego leads to no-assedness, and the ego helps moderate among these and the outside world to find the perfect balance of quarter-assedness?

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