Monday, November 24, 2008

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

  • Does it take you forever to post your vacation pictures?
  • Do you drag your feet on cleaning your desk, sorting your music, or emptying out your closet because you know it'll take up the entire day?
  • Are you reluctant to start an easy project (Christmas cards, consolidating your contacts online, finding an accountant, etc.) because you know you'll want to do a good job, no matter how insignificant the results are?

Let's face it, these things have been on your To-Do list forever and you're beginning to second guess just how good you are at taking care of business.

As an overachiever, there are probably 2 forces at work here - one friend and one foe.

The friendly force is your ability to prioritize. Critical projects take precedence and when these mundane tasks become urgent, they make it to the top of the list (the exception, of course, is when you're procrastinating and suddenly have time to rearrange your living room furniture).

The other force, your insistence on perfection, means well but works against you. You'll put off tasks until you can find a substantial block of time to do them thoroughly. You spend way too long organizing your desk, editing a simple email, and using 3 coats of paint when 2 would do just fine.

This mindset is part of what makes you an overachiever (you just can't do a crappy job), but your quest for perfection means that
  1. You avoid starting a task because it'll take an inordinate amount of time, and
  2. You're inefficient when you finally do these tasks.
I know, I know. You can't help it; you're compelled to do a thorough job. But your attention to detail is often unnecessary - your returns are not worth the investment of time and effort. Even when your hard work is noticed, it's seldom rewarded.

Since you already know you do it, when faced with a situation like this I encourage you to think of Voltaire's quote:

"Perfect is the enemy of good."

Don't spin your wheels doing a perfect job, when a good job will do. Your desire for perfection is the enemy (of good). There are diminishing returns for your diligence.
To attain a perfect thing, whatever that is, becomes infinitely more difficult as you near it. So, at some point, you have to cut your losses, and simply say -- "Good enough". This is not a justification for shoddy workmanship or laziness, for that certainly would not be, per se, "Good enough". The point is more to know when to realize that any additional effort toward improvement would result in a negligible improvement, especially in comparison to the effort required. link

Also recognize that not everything has to be a huge project and perfection isn't always necessary. Even just an "ordinary" effort can go a long way. Remember the 80/20 rule - the first 20% of the effort often gets you 80% of the way there (and usually 80% is good enough for mundane tasks).

Do what's important, maintain your high standards, but don't let them get in your way.


JLB said...

This explains why it took JLW and I a year to organize our closet (which happened last night) or why I wait until things are in SUCH disarray that I can't tolerate it anymore and force myself to block a piece of time. Sigh. Thank you for this post, JLW will now understand my "organization style"...

Katie said...

There have been times over the past few years with my apartment that I've settled for good enough and I hate how it feels. No one else can see that there is an uneven side to the tile for example...but I know...and now reading this it makes sense as to why the whole project has taken me so long...and why I don't like to put laundry away - because I'll rearrange my drawers...thanks lee