In the pursuit of perfection, you just might be letting yourself and others down. In researching this week’s topic I have come to realise that the world is divided between those in pursuit of the “done” and those in pursuit of the “perfect”. I don’t think a mere blog can answer the question “is done better than perfect?” In fact, we are all likely to flip-flop on the matter from time to time, depending on the circumstances. But what I am looking at today is the consequences of pursuing perfect, and why that can be too high a price to pay.
In the commercial world, there is a lot to be said for finishing a task when promised rather than striving for perfection and delivering it late. As a perfectionist, you risk not only failing to deliver on time and losing a client, but also losing your credibility with your boss and colleagues, not to mention putting additional stress on yourself. Perhaps your goal needs to be re-graded as “the best that you are able to do in the time available”. That way, you don't disappoint your client, your boss, your colleagues and you retain your self-esteem. A win for everyone, surely?
However, stories of extreme overtime working are nothing new and seem to suggest that there are people who push the boundaries either of "the time available" or the standard of what they believe they should be able to deliver in the time available. Often perfectionists. Either way, they are setting themselves unrealistic expectations which stop them from reaching their potential. This doesn’t just apply to employees – entrepreneurs are often their own worst enemy when it comes to putting pressure on themselves, as these war stories suggest.
Don’t get me wrong - there will be times when you need to strive for perfection, and the additional effort is worthwhile; one-off occasions where the stakes are high (preparing a proposal document for a significant client, preparing an IPO prospectus). In this case, the extra hours and the extra stress go with the territory. If the timeframe is short, adrenalin will see you through, and you can take some time off at the other end and look back with pride on your achievements. But what if you are making this monumental effort every day? This is what creates burnout.
So what’s so great about “done”? “Done” by the way does not mean doing the minimum at any cost. “Done” means “completed” and it’s acceptable because it means you’ve followed through according to the brief. If you have time, add some bells and whistles, but essentially, you’ve given your client/boss what they asked for. The pursuit of the perfect has a habit of obscuring that simple end goal and conflating it with all sorts of value judgements and personal esteem issues. At its worst, perfectionism causes people to procrastinate, give up and produce nothing at all out of an all-consuming fear of failure.
· You are true to your word
· You can complete and finish a task
· You have an experience to compare future projects to – your next one will probably be easier using the lessons you have learned
· You will get valuable feedback from your boss/client
· You are on a journey towards your best work, and this is just a step in the right direction!
What’s wrong with failure anyway? For the perfectionist, life is black and white and failure is not an option. However, there have been many articles recently about the value of failure, and how failure makes you stronger – here’s just one: whilst nobody likes to fail, it is just part of your experience whatever your job and it’s picking yourself up and doing better next time that counts.
What is perfect anyway? You can torment yourself with a project and complete it to your highest standards and the reality is that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Anyone who has had a “perfect” document or paper redlined by a discerning boss knows that. Two heads are usually better than one. And the client is always right.
So what remedies are available when you find yourself swamped with work, short of sufficient time to do each task justice, or a sense that you are procrastinating, for fear of producing substandard work?
Set more realistic expectations
Is perfect really necessary? Perfect means “completely free of faults and defects”. Is that ever going to be achievable? Who is expecting perfection – you or your boss/client? If it’s yourself, ask yourself why everything needs to be perfect. Other people are getting away with less than perfect, so why are you putting yourself through this “hiding to nothing”? If it’s your boss/client, why not push back a little and suggest that what is being asked of you is not possible in the time available, and be clear about what you can deliver in the time available. The sooner you raise these concerns the better, so you can identify exactly what is being required, what is realistic and to get approval to move the goalposts if necessary, whether in terms of the deadline or the deliverable itself. You may find that by having that conversation you clarify exactly what is required, and why.
Ask for help
Check your employment contract – I doubt that it requires you to take 100% responsibility for the company’s success! If you have colleagues, a team, a boss, an intern, a mentor, a manager, or any or all of these things, reach out. Again, the sooner you do this, the better – no-one wants a last minute desperate email request to pull you out of a hole, especially if you have had weeks to deliver, and have clearly wasted your time trying to perfect the first three slides.
Ask for comments
A perfectionist may not want to show their work until they are sure it’s good enough. By sharing your work sooner rather than later you can get encouragement and support that will help you to make decisions about some of the details that you would otherwise end up obsessing about for longer than necessary.
If you’re lucky enough to have junior team members, consider what part they can play in the project from the start – not only will you speed up the task this way, but you are developing your team and giving them valuable exposure to the next phase in their career. There are different types of delegation depending on how much autonomy you wish to give your colleague. Perfectionists may have trouble giving much control away - if necessary, start with the most minimal of delegation and work your way up the list. Think of it as a development opportunity for you and your colleagues to improve the team’s overall performance. If you put some thought into this at the start of a project, you can engage junior team members actively and willingly. Step back and see your role in this case as part trainer and part doer – your success will be measured by the standard of work you get out of your trainee as well as your own. The first few times you delegate may take longer than doing it yourself, but think of that time as an investment and try not to get impatient – if you can pull off effective delegation, it is a very valuable skill that will make you more attractive all-around at work. Ever noticed that the perfectionists aren’t always the ones who get promoted?
A perfectionist needs to learn to prioritise because no-one wants one perfect project wrapped up when three or four other projects remain unstarted. What if you are one of those people who can't turn off the pressure to achieve at the highest level every day? You need to look at your workload and decide what's important and what's super important. Turn down the dial on some jobs and focus on getting them done. If you have a workload of super important projects back to back for months at a time, it’s your boss’s problem for not hiring enough staff, not your problem. Write a business case for an assistant – if you are really providing value to your workplace and an additional employee would make commercial sense, your boss will take such a proposition seriously. A good boss would not want to burn out a good employee. If you get no support with a strategy to improve your workload and the team’s effectiveness, plough your efforts into your cv and LinkedIn profile and find a new job.
All of the above are perfectly reasonable actions if you work within a team and find yourself in a tight spot. The key is to take these actions as early as possible in order to make sure the change of plan can be executed with the minimal disruption. Far better to have these conversations in advance so that everyone can agree the new objective and if necessary, the timeframe.
Not sure after reading all this whether you are a perfectionist or just overworked? Guess no longer - take a quiz.
If you are still not convinced re: done vs perfect, watch Dawn French at 60 – one of the UK’s most accomplished comedians and a “national treasure”. I think she knows a thing or two about success.
Next week I’ll be looking at tips for running a good meeting, whether that’s internal, external or an informal chat about a job. Everyone can use a refresher, and you may learn to love meetings!
Until next week…