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By Katie Sica
Editor, MindEdge Learning
Several months into a complicated project, I wearily informed my manager, “I’m getting really close, but it never feels like I’m 100 percent done.”
I was surprised and skeptical when she responded, “You know, sometimes 80 percent is good enough.”
As a former straight-A student still early in my career, I found that idea hard to accept. Wouldn’t a B-minus job reflect poorly on me and my company? Wasn’t that lazy? Apathetic? Asking for issues down the line? But, eventually, I recognized the wisdom in restraining my perfectionism; as Voltaire put it, in a loosely translated and likely plagiarized aphorism, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Imagine you’re at a job interview, a nervous smile etched on your face as you sculpt your image as a model employee. “What is your biggest weakness?” you’re asked. You exhale and answer knowingly, “I’m a perfectionist!” You think you’ve nailed the question; by providing a “negative” that you believe is really positive, you’ve avoided painting yourself in a bad light. It’s possible the interviewer will assume you struggle with work-life balance. More importantly, however, they’ll realize you’re an extremely hard worker who is dedicated to producing high-quality work.
But what if your perfectionism is actually a significant shortcoming? In the workplace, harmful perfectionism can often disguise itself as a desirable work ethic. Here are some examples of extreme perfectionism, which can negatively affect your career:
- Being highly and unnecessarily critical, especially of yourself and your work
- Feeling defensive about negative feedback or perceiving any feedback as criticism
- Identifying as a “workaholic” and struggling to achieve work-life balance, thereby risking burnout
- Having an intense fear of failure and agonizing over past “failures,” leading to procrastination and missed deadlines
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80–20 rule, asserts that 80% of consequences derive from 20% of causes. In other words, you often spend 20% of your time completing 80% of a task, while spending the remaining 80% of your time agonizing over the last 20%. This is neither efficient nor productive, especially in an age when information, technologies, and customer expectations are constantly changing.
If perfection is your goal, then the goalposts will just keep shifting backward. There has to come a point—perhaps when you feel 80% done?—where “good” is “good enough.” Coming to that decision can prevent your perfectionism from getting in the way of your own success.
According to a 2019 study in Psychological Bulletin, perfectionism has been increasing over the past few decades. The study found that recent generations of young people believe that expectations are higher for them than for past generations. While there are likely many social, cultural, and economic factors causing perfectionism to escalate, there are also many strategies you can use to combat this trend:
- Set realistic goals and reward yourself for meeting them—even if just by acknowledging your efforts and congratulating yourself
- Prioritize tasks, distinguishing between what is truly important and what is not
- Learn to delegate tasks, and avoid micromanaging those working on them
- Recognize that “perfect” is a subjective and impossible goal
In many ways, the antidote to extreme perfectionism is humility. Consider what level of perfection you and your team can realistically achieve. You cannot fully anticipate your current and future stakeholders’ needs and desires, which may be unclear or uncertain; you and your team are not omniscient. This means that “perfect” should be your direction, not your destination.
Focus first on producing a minimum viable product. Over time, you can answer questions, resolve issues, and build new features. Consider stopping when your project feels just warm enough—avoid flying too close to the sun!
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