I can become consumed trying to ensure I have done the absolutely best job or made the absolutely best decision. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I know that the details count. I want to be proud of the work I’ve done. As a result, I sometimes find myself going down “rabbit holes” in pursuit of the exact words when I’m writing, the perfect look when I am recording a video, or the absolutely choice finish when I am creating something in my workshop. Sometimes I get so focused on getting it right that I look up and suddenly realize I’ve spent way too much time on an element of the effort that no one else would care about.
Of course, I am not alone in this. I’ve had colleagues tell me it took them three years to write a book because they wanted to get the words just right. As a result, they wrote and re-wrote sections and still weren’t happy when it eventually went to press. There is a place for this kind of exactness, of course. It’s been said that Ernest Hemmingway sometimes struggled for weeks in crafting a single sentence. Fred Astaire rehearsed dance routines until everyone’s feet bled. Top comedians have been known to take months to hone 15 minutes of material. Golfer, Chi Chi Rodriguez used to spend hours a day on the putting green.
In those types of performance environments, I applaud their dedication. But outside of this, it is easy to be consumed by details that matter little in the overall outcome. I’ve watched teams spend hours on the details of a proposal rather than on focusing on the relationship with the prospect. I’ve participated on boards where insignificant issues have been allowed to coopt the mission or primary outcome. I suspect you have as well. When we look back on the time and effort put into some of these dalliances, will we even remember what they were about?
One of the mantras I have adopted over time is “Good enough is good enough.” (This is a cousin to the phrase, “Life’s too short.”) Most work does not need to be that precise. That doesn’t mean I’m sloppy. It is important to meet the expectations of the supervisor, stakeholder or our own sense of quality and integrity.
But “good enough is good enough.” I’d rather get my project, article, product out to the people it can help rather than delaying endlessly until it is my idea of perfect. I have to balance the time and effort expended with a reasonable outcome. There will always be imperfections. This past summer, for instance, I replaced the stairwell of the deck on our house. Did I make a few minor mistakes? Yes. Do I notice them when climbing those stairs? Sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to rebuild those steps this summer to correct errors no one else will notice. Good enough is good enough.
When I begin to realize I am hyper-focusing on the minutiae, I ask myself three questions.
Number one, “What is an acceptable outcome for this effort?” Once again, that does not mean I don’t care if I do my best work. It’s just that there are only 24 hours in each day and only so much energy. Am I making the most of it? Number two, “What are the stakeholders expecting?” This past weekend, I painted some interior window trim. Truth is I did not paint the tops of the trim because no one is going to see them. Visitors to my home are not going to climb up to see if I did so. If I stumble over my words once or twice in a 15-minute video is anyone going to notice or care? Number three, “Is what I’ve accomplished good enough?” In other words, can I live with the present result? Five years ago, I published a book that won three awards. Are there thoughts in that book I’d like to go back and refine? Sure. But the book has already won three awards, so it must be good enough.
Have I made my point perfectly here? Probably not. But I hope I have given those of you who suffer from this time-consuming pursuit of perfection permission to know when good enough is good enough and make the decision to move on.