"The perfect is the enemy of the good." - Voltare

Are you a perfectionist? If you are, you probably admit it with pride. You probably feel it shows you are careful and detail oriented. But the reality is that perfectionism can result in procrastination, loss of productivity, and missed deadlines. In some cases, the fear of not being able to do a task perfectly is so paralyzing that we find it difficult to even get the task started. Or maybe we waste so much time "polishing" some of the details of one task that we never get to another equally important task. Perfectionism can be the result of fear that we are not good enough, that we will not be able to do a satisfactory job on an assigned task. So we try to do it perfectly so that it will pass muster. We are unable to determine where good enough ends and wasted time begins. I remember going over and over homework because I knew I would make mistakes I would not recognize so if I did it as perfect as I could, even with the mistakes I didn't see, I would still get an acceptable grade. The reality was that I always got much better than an "acceptable" grade because I usually found most of my mistakes before handing my papers in. But I spent so much time studying that I never had much time for fun.

The “law” of diminishing returns was the brainchild of French economist A. R. J. Turgot in the 18th century and had nothing to do with productivity. Instead it related to whether the earth could continue to provide enough food for the earth's population as it continued to grow larger. But the “law” of diminishing returns holds true related to our discussion of perfectionism and productivity. Studies indicate that productivity is maximized at approximately a 5 day, 40 hour work week. Studies also indicate that people who chronically work 60 hour weeks generally do not get any more done than those working 40 hour weeks. Henry Ford experimented with work schedules in the 1920's and found that his factory workers produced more when working 5 days (40 hours) a week than they did working 6 days (48 hours a week). Unfortunately, perfectionists tend to work alot of overtime simply because for a perfectionist, every task takes longer than it should. And if the work we are doing is largely mental, we need to be aware that fatigue reduces cognitive functioning faster than physical functioning and our extra hours on the project will have many more errors needing to be corrected than the work we did at the beginning of the project. And in this day and age we all have too much to do without adding extra time to each task polishing up unimportant details and correcting errors we made because we were working when we were too tired.
Are you familiar with the television series: MONK? Monk is a detective suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder which makes him strive for perfection in every (and I mean every) thing he does. I still remember the night he was to take a test to get his job back but he never got beyond writing his name. Actually, he never got his name written. He kept erasing it and rewriting it because he was trying to write his name perfectly. He finally erased a hole right through the paper. And by that time, the time for taking the test was up.

Most of us are familiar with the 80/20 rule: 80% of benefit can be achieved in 20% of time spent. When beginning a task, it is important to look at the big picture and be aware of the importance of the details, the appearance, the timeframe, etc. In Monk's case, it was not important that his name was written perfectly. But it was important to finish the test within the allotted time. Now if you are a surgeon in the middle of an operation, I'm sure the patient would appreciate you taking extra time to complete each detail perfectly. But if you are completing a power point presentation that is only one of five tasks you have to do today, how important is it to find the "perfect" piece of clip art for each page? Maybe if you just get it "good enough" and only use 20 per cent of the time it would take to get it "perfect", you will have enough time to get the other four tasks done as well. Even tasks that require a certain amount of perfection such as the surgeon we mentioned earlier, how much perfection is enough? As the surgeon is putting in the stitches at the end of the operation and notices that one stitch is a little larger than the others- should he tear them all out and start again? Or just keep going and get the operation finished?

Of course we all want to do a good job on the tasks we undertake. But if we work day and night without breaks the quality of our work is going to decrease significantly. Plus our stress levels will increase and our immune system will decrease and we are susceptible to burnout and/or illness. If we burn out or become ill we are not going to get any work done, perfect or imperfect. Rather than having a goal of perfection when we start a task, our goal should be to do the best we can in a reasonable amount of time.

For the perfectionist, we can understand this information intellectually but having trouble putting it into use on an emotional level. My life coach told me I should not spend more than 30 minutes on articles such as this one. Unfortunately, it takes me 30 minutes just to decide what I am going to write about. But it is an area I am working on. So if you see a typo or poor grammar in one of my articles, you will know that I am just following my life coaches orders and completing my articles when they are "good enough" instead of trying for perfection.

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