ONE Simple Way to Get More Done in Less Time: Stop Being a Perfectionist

Go down the road of ‘good enough’
Do you suffer from ‘term paper syndrome’? Do you mean to revise your website copy or write a funding proposal, but don’t because you feel you don’t have enough well-researched, referenced content? Do you mean to post to your blog regularly, but don’t because the several half-finished articles you have aren’t (in your humble opinion) quite ‘ready for prime time?’ Do you mean to send out monthly email newsletters or campaigns but don’t because of writers’ block? 
If you’re the type for whom ‘good enough’ suffices, you don’t need to read the rest of this post.  If you’re the type who strives for perfection… who wordsmiths every word… who agonizes over every verb, adjective and adverb… who rereads, edits and rearranges copy until it seems just right… who thinks that if you only got 98% on an exam you failed… then this post is for you!

Modify perfection with practicality
 I’ll confess that I used to be a 100 percenter; I had a need to be like Mary Poppins – “practically perfect in every way.”  Guess what I’ve recently discovered?  Being Mary Poppinsesque is exhausting!  Even Mary understood the sense of modifying perfection with “practically.”  Above all else, Mary was very, very sensible.
Where’s the sense in not doing anything because you fear it won’t be the best? Nothing comes from nothing. Of course, there’s the adage that “anything worth doing is worth doing right.”  But there’s a lot of ground between right and wrong.  And what’s one person’s “wrong” may be another’s “good enough.”
Know that A and A- can still do the happy dance
Everything doesn’t have to be A+ work. Years ago I wrote a grant report for a funder.  My boss read it and edited it heavily.  Alas, I’d already sent it off.  I felt terrible. Her edits mostly consisted of switching out adjectives; yet her changes did make the report better. Still… I thought I’d done a good job, and I’d met the deadline.  She chewed me out, however, and I suffered.  About a month later I attended a professional meeting where the same foundation’s program officer happened to be the speaker.  He was talking about good reports and proposals vs. bad ones.  To make his point, he talked about one wonderful report he’d recently received that hit all the points he looked for and really did an effective job.  Yup, you guessed it.  He was talking about the miserable report I’d submitted, without my boss’s edits.  From that day forward I knew that while A+ was still a goal, A and A- were just fine.
Don’t give anything 100%; it’s all you’ve got
Voltaire is credited with saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” The takeaway is that perfectionism is contrary to satisfactory competence.  Why? Because we can’t put 100% into everything.  It’s all we’ve got. A quest for perfection will lead, inevitably, to diminishing returns.  That’s why the Pareto Rule of 80/20 reminds us it commonly takes 20% of our time to complete 80% of our task, while the last 20% takes 80% of the effort. The Marines have something they call the 70% solution  (i.e., it’s better to decide quickly on an imperfect plan than to role out a perfect plan when it’s too late). My son intuitively understood these principles in high school.  He got straight B’s (very hard for a Mom who got straight A’s), but he was more than content.  Why?  He explained it to me thusly:  “Mom, I spend 40 minutes doing my home work.  Kids who get A’s spend 4 hours.  I don’t see the point. Bs are fine. Is it more about learning, or grades? I can spend the rest of my time learning about things that interest me.” How’d he get so wise?
Being exact is not as important as being expressive. The really funny thing is that Voltaire’s quote is translated from the French, so often it’s repeated as the “best” or “the better” is the enemy of the “good enough.” The exact words aren’t what matters. 
Let it flow from your heart
It’s the thought that counts. And if we don’t get our thoughts out for fear of imperfection, then we can’t be counted upon.  Folks want to hear from us. Consistently. They’d prefer to hear from us regularly with interesting, good enough posts and newsletters than to hear from us once in a blue moon with a long, meticulously researched, wordsmithed article. They don’t want a term paper.  They want something simple, direct and engaging.  Something from your heart.
So next time you have a plan and a timetable, just sit down and write. Don’t stop to edit yourself.  Let it flow — as if you were talking to your best friend.  Chances are it will be good enough. To get your message across. To  connect. To invite a conversation.
Be a comfortable person; not a stuffy term paper writer.  Your constituents will then be comfortable with you and won’t mind if you could have used a stronger adjective somewhere along the way.
Parting thought: 
What if Dickens had written: They were the most excellent of times, they were the most horrible of times. What if he’d never published his book because he thought “best” and “worst” were just not quite perfect enough? Would A Tale of Two Cities never have achieved fame?  Hmmn…
What things are you putting off because you don’t have time to perfect them?  What’s one thing you can do tomorrow to get started?
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  1. Thanks, this was very helpful. A lot of the writing I do is on very technical subjects. I am always struggling with perfectionism and have read several articles on it, but this is the only one that offered concrete examples. I will remember these when I find a writing task taking too long. I especially liked the last one on Dickens!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Claire: You're good — very good! Thanks very much for your blog and the time, effort and creativity that goes into this daily.

  3. Anonymous says:

    OMG – I needed to read this. These posts are why I subscribe to your blog.

  4. Thanks to all for your comments and your kindness. I'm so grateful for you, my readers. You're making my day! Let's make it a lovely A- one and then take a little time to smell some roses. :-)

  5. Anonymous says:

    What a wonderful post and excellent reminder…I will catch myself next time as I so get what you are saying and have been guilty and now see it is a counterproductive trait to watch….thanks!


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