Perfectionism Killed my Productivity

by Tobias van Schneider
first appeared ✍🏼
on my personal blog

The one thing that makes designers great is the same thing that makes them the worst people to work with: perfectionism. It’s part of what drives us to design in the first place. We’re not satisfied with what’s out there now, so we decide to make it ourselves.

We’ve been taught perfectionism makes us better. It means we value quality work. It means we pay attention to the details. It means we hold ourselves to a higher standard. But perfectionism might also kill creativity and productivity.

A perfectionist holds him or herself to unrealistic expectations (because who is actually perfect?) so they are never satisfied with their work. They never ship, because they never feel like their work is finished. But that statement in itself is already questionable, because nowadays nothing is ever finished anyways. And then the law of diminishing returns comes into effect — you overthink so much, the work actually suffers instead of improving.

Perfectionist designers are sad designers. I used to be a sad designer, and I used to be a perfectionist. I think I’m still a perfectionist deep down, but what I learned over the years is how to control it and shut it down when needed.

Learn how to prioritize

This is a lesson my friend Pieter Levels taught us in an interview on the NTMY Show. Pieter, founder of Nomad List and self-proclaimed digital nomad, is a perfectionist, but now rejects this tendency.

“Everything in this culture now is so transient,” Pieter says. “Everything goes so fast that it doesn’t even make sense to put extreme amounts of effort and perfection into one thing.”

Pieter saw how much time and effort he wasted perfecting his projects. It kept him from getting the important work done. And that goes against everything Pieter is about — I mean, the guy created 12 startups in 12 months.

He mentions this time when a friend pointed out an issue that was causing an ugly white box to appear on his site.

“I am like OK, cool. Where like two years ago I would immediately change it, now it takes days to change because it doesn’t really matter so much,” Pieter says. “People are still going to use my website. It’s not the white box, it’s not the point. That’s not the priority of my project.”

Define your priorities and stick to them. Put the lesser priorities in their place and let yourself come back to them later.

Be stupid

We cannot be creative or productive when we are constantly questioning ourselves. In fact, this kind of thinking can stop us before we even begin a project.

A few perfectionist questions you probably recognize:

  • How can I monetize it?
  • How can I scale it?
  • Is it an original?
  • Will people like it?
  • Am I even good at this?

Ignore the questions and just do it. Stick to the basics, ignore the nagging self-doubt and just get to work. Fearing failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you think you will fail, you probably will.

Think like a child. A child doesn’t question their ideas or wonder what people think of them. They just do what they want to do. Sometimes there are consequences, but I’d rather face the consequence of failing than never try. In 20 years I will regret the things I didn’t do way more than the things I did.

By keeping our projects stupid, we keep them simple. We remove the pressure and allow ourselves the freedom to do what we want to do.

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
 — David Foster Wallace

Embrace the flow

Repeat after me: I do not have to finish a project before I move on to the next one.

To approach work linearly is to doom yourself to failure. When we tell ourselves we can’t move on to the next thing until we’re finished with the first, we put unneeded pressure on ourselves. We feel we need to tie up our design, writing, or even a book we are reading, with a nice bow before we move on.

And so we linger on it, overthink it until we despair, set it aside, forget about it. Then we feel more anxiety because we haven’t accomplished anything in weeks. But starting again feels too daunting.

Instead of tackling your projects linearly, jump between work. If you’re in the middle of one project and another idea strikes you, jump to that idea. You can come back to the first one later. Work on multiple things on at one time and you’ll find yourself in a beautiful rush of productivity.

Pieter calls it letting the free flow happen.

“We live in a transient time so that means, again, you need to embrace ideas that come into your head and make them,” Pieter says.

Unfortunately, we can’t always live in the bliss of pure creativity and no responsibility. It needs to be balanced, because of course you’ll need to send invoices or answer to a boss or respond to emails.

“You need to do it but you need to have some kind of mix where you let the free flow happen,” Pieter explains. “Google does that whole ‘20% of your time you can do whatever you want.’ That’s not enough. It should probably be 50% where you just work and let it happen.”

And when you do let it happen, when you don’t overthink it and you give yourself room to see where an idea leads you, when you embrace the free flow, something magical occurs.

“Usually these things, these bursts of creativity, they start a flow of two weeks of creating a whole new feature or whole new product,” Pieter says. “And just letting it go is like… It’s beautiful, man. It’s the same as making music and the same as graphic design and the same as arts and the same as love, I think.”

“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
 — Neil Gaiman

Just get something down — anything.

A perfectionist spends too much time bitching before finally getting to work. They need to have the right tools, the perfect environment, the right timing. They dread actually getting started because they know what’s to come: painful over-analyzation and dissatisfaction.

Instead of procrastinating by convincing yourself you need to do eighteen hours of research before beginning, just begin. Sit down and don’t stand up again until the blank space is filled.

Writer Anne Lamott calls it the Shitty First Draft. In her book, Bird by Bird, she suggests sitting down and allowing your thoughts to flow on paper or your screen. Don’t be worried about how terrible it is or if someone’s going to see. It’s only your first draft, anyway.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” — Anne Lamott

Create fake deadlines

Sounds silly, but the perfectionist in you will love this shit. Often, perfectionists tell themselves they don’t work well under pressure. Typically, that’s just because they don’t want to let someone else down.

With a self-imposed deadline, you’ll still have that structure, but without the pressure of someone else breathing down your neck. The only person to answer to is you.

I often have to create fake deadlines for myself to finish something. Then I hit send — even if it’s not perfect. The reality is, you’ll never feel like it’s perfect. The satisfaction of hitting the send button, however, is a pretty glorious feeling.

Learn when to say, “It’s good enough.”

I like to launch early but of course I still want to make sure the experience is great. The good news is, you can always cut down on scope and features while still maintaining what some call the Minimum Loveable Product.

This is not to be confused with Minimum Viable Product, which is a product that requires the least amount of effort and functionality to work. An MVP is not necessarily a good product. It’s a passable product.

A Minimum Loveable Product is a product that requires the least effort to be loved by your consumers. I know this sounds a bit stupid, but it’s a different way of looking at your product.

This strategy appeases the perfectionist in us, because we are not ignoring issues or settling for less. We are considering the details, the quality and the end user. We are acknowledging our desire to do good work.

Saying “it’s good enough” doesn’t mean we are lowering our standards. We can still create a product that people love. And we can usually even go back and make changes later, especially in today’s digital word. “Good enough” simply means we are taking ownership for our projects instead of letting them own us.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” — John Steinbeck

The perfectionist in you is resisting this advice.

Perfectionism almost feels like a moral conviction you cannot betray. This is especially true in the design community, which will find every opportunity to slap you for not making things pixel perfect.

But as soon as you release yourself from perfectionism, I promise you will find find yourself more creative, more productive and happier.

And trust me, that doesn’t mean perfectionism is completely bad. But if it’s the reason for you to know finish or start anything, the tips above might help you.

Have a great productive week,

PS: I usually send out these articles via my personal email list right here. You can sign up anytime, I won’t spam, promise.

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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify.

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