The habit of perfectionism is deadly because it causes procrastination, by generating resistance to both starting and completing projects. Both of these forms of resistance emerge from the fear of judgment and fear of failure. A fear of starting arises when a creator judges first drafts as harshly as finished products; a fear of finishing arises when a creator wants to avoid judgment by others, and thus wastes time making unnecessary refinements to a finished product.
Everyone does these things to some extent, but when they become a real barrier to getting started, working effectively, and completing our work, then it’s important to intervene. Practicing the following five habits helps us break the habit of perfectionism and to make regular progress on our projects.
Apply the 80 / 20 rule
In the big picture of overall productivity, the habit of perfectionism is highly counterproductive. This can be easily seen through application of the Pareto principle. Also known as the 80 / 20 rule, the Pareto principle is the general observation that 80 percent of the “results” arise from the first 20 percent of the “input”, and the last 20 percent of the “results” arise from the last 80 percent of the “input”.
The relevance of this principle to perfectionism is simple – by releasing perfectionism and permitting ourselves to consider projects complete when they are good enough to earn a “pass”, we can get much more work done overall. In most cases, this really is good enough. Randy Pausch, who became world-famous for his moving Last Lecture, pointed out in his online time management notes that most projects in life, outside of formal education, are graded pass / fail.
When the 80 / 20 rule applies literally, we can complete five times as many “pass” projects in the time consumed by a single “100% quality” project. The numbers can vary: in a 90 / 10 situation, we increase our output by ten times; in a 75 / 25 situation, by four times. Regardless of the exact numbers, the key point stands: unnecessary perfectionism is the enemy of high productivity in satisfying requirements.
Of course, for our own personal reasons, we might be motivated to exceed the basic requirements for a “pass”. For example, if we wanted to submit the final paper from a pass / fail college class to a journal for publication, it would make sense to do more than the minimum required for the class. In this case, we’re simply choosing to level up to a more demanding pass / fail game – either the paper is published or it isn’t. The important thing is that when we choose to perform extra work, we do it for reasons other than a nagging sense of perfectionism and fear of “failure”.
Create the habit of starting, and finishing will become a lot easier
By making the promise that we only “have to” work for 15 minutes on an unwanted task, and allowing ourselves to stop immediately when that time is up, we can get over the barrier of starting. After all, “it’s only a few minutes, how bad can it be?” Of course, once we’ve built up some momentum working on our task, doing another 15 minutes, and then another, is a lot easier.
Professor Dan Gilbert’s research on “affective forecasting” (a fancy of saying “predicting how we’re going to feel in the future”) points out that we are bad at guessing what will make us happy. In a similar way, we’re pretty bad at guessing what will make us unhappy. We can procrastinate for an hour on an “unpleasant” task, and then five minutes in, we are making great progress and wondering why we ever hesitated.
However, it’s important to make sure that our promise to ourselves is genuine – if we really don’t want to continue after the first 15 minutes, we have absolute permission to stop. Breaking promises and forcing ourselves to continue when we really don’t want to do so will make this habit harder to practice in the future.
“Eat the frog”
Brian Tracy describes the thought experiment of imagining that one of our tasks is eating a large frog every morning. With such an unpleasant, Fear Factor-worthy task facing us, procrastination feels like a great option. In fact, eating the frog first thing is a much better choice than waiting. Completing the hardest task of the day first is motivating because we know that anything else on our to-do list that day will seem easy in contrast. This is a direct and simple method to build self-discpline and mental toughness. Simple, but not easy. Fortunately, our real-life toughest task is unlikely to be as nasty as consuming a raw frog (and if it is, swift and significant life changes are strongly recommended).
Write a “shitty first draft”
Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird introduces the concept of the “shitty first draft” [pdf]. In her field – writing – most of the work that people see is edited, polished final product. As a result, many aspiring writers have the mistaken notion that their successful role models just sit down at their computer, type perfect prose paragraphs, complete a book, and then send it off to the publisher for printing and distribution to millions of adoring fans. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the top writers produce more crap than anyone else – the difference is that within that crap can be found the diamonds that actually gets published and released to the public. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Depend on habits, not feelings, in order to produce.
In most cases, regardless of our specific “work product”, we can produce an SFD. Write a rambling, confused legal brief. Code up a short program that breaks easily. Create an incomplete document outline that helps structure our ideas. Some “all or nothing” cases exist, where it might appear that the rule doesn’t apply – flying aircraft or performing surgery, for example. In these cases, however, practitioners still complete SFDs. They just do them in a safe environment, using a cadaver, or a flight simulator.
Why not allow ourselves to make mistakes? Like, lots of mistakes. Perhaps not on the final version that’s going to the client or management, but in the initial attempts. Just get started on the SFD – it’s the only path to a finished product.
ABC – Always Be Creating
OK, I couldn’t resist the Glengarry Glen Ross reference 🙂 [warning: profanity, etc.]. Seriously, though, let’s be clear about what creating means. Reading web pages, however useful as “research”, isn’t creating. Reading documentation isn’t creating. Sitting and thinking deep thoughts isn’t creating. Checking our email isn’t creating.
For a writer, writing is creating. For a medical doctor, seeing patients is creating. For a programmer, writing code is creating. For a sales professional, communicating with prospects and clients is creating. Every job has “overhead” – necessary, ancillary parts that are needed in order to support the creative part. This is inevitable. The important thing is that during our “money hours” we focus on our creative, productive work.
Mark McGuinness cites the example of Bach, who “spent several decades writing an average of 20 pages of finished music a day”. The vast majority of that music is forgotten and rarely played, but among the work that he left behind is found several of the most respected musical compositions of all time. Could he have written those masterpieces without the producing the “chaff” that he wrote for his “day job” at St. Thomas Church? Unlikely. McGuinness writes that: “[t]he truly great composers produce more masterpieces than the others, mainly because they produced more work overall.”
The conclusion is simple: we can increase our productivity and creativity by releasing perfectionism, getting started, by being willing to fail and to make mistakes during the working process, and by going for volume rather than perfection in our output. In so doing, we will produce more “ordinary” work, but due to the sheer volume of what we create, we will produce more “great” work as well.
What are you going to start on today?
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