Stop Focusing On Perfect, Start Focusing On Done
Advice to the perfectionist in all of us.
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”
— Leo Tolstoy
There’s a little voice in your head that speaks up sometimes. It comes out whenever you set a goal. It comes out when you’re starting a business, writing a book, or trying anything new. It’s the voice that says this:
“If what I’m doing isn’t perfect, I shouldn’t do it at all”.
This is the voice of perfection. It seems like a friendly helper. Perfection is something you should strive for, right? However, our “quest for perfection” is often just an excuse to give up early — or not try at all. Perfection is lie we tell to protect ourselves from failure. We believe that if something we’re doing isn’t perfect, we shouldn’t do it at all.
There’s a little voice in your head which pushes you to give up if things aren’t perfect. Here’s some advice to help you fight against that voice. Here’s how to finish what you started.
Accept your imperfect progress
To start winning against the perfectionist in you, you need to accept that your progress doesn’t need to be perfect all of the time. Life is rarely perfect, and you don’t need to be either. What’s more important is that you’re doing the work, achieving your goals, and getting things done.
It’s okay for your progress to be imperfect. Aim for the 80% solution.
Accepting your imperfect progress means accepting that what you’re doing isn’t perfect — and that’s okay. You can start doing this by aiming for the 80% solution. This means working with a solution that’s not quite perfect, but still good enough to be worth doing. It means writing your first article and publishing it with the knowledge that, sadly, it’s not the most groundbreaking piece of prose to come out of this decade. It means launching your product to the world, acknowledging that there are still some rough edges to refine later.
It’s tempting to take a look at your progress and realise it’s not exactly as you want it to be, and then give up. But here’s the truth: it’s better to do something 80% “good enough” than to not do it at all.
Maybe you’re a bit skeptical about working imperfectly on something. Well, the thing about progress is that it keeps progressing. Even if what you’re working on today isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to get better. By continuing to persevere with it, you’re almost guaranteeing that it will. As long as you keep trying, you’ll keep improving.
Remember Gall’s law
If you had a look at humans and our understanding of science a thousand years ago, you’d never believe that one day we’d put a man on the moon. But we did — so how did we get here? The answer is Gall’s law.
In short, Gall’s Law says this: every complex system that works evolved from a simpler system. To build something complex, rich and remarkable, you need to start with something a lot simpler. It didn’t take a day to put a man on the moon — it took the centuries of discoveries, efforts and simpler systems to get there. Your achievements follow this same law. We all want to be rich, be successful, achieve our goals, launch that start-up, run that marathon. But success doesn’t happen overnight. There are many steps along the way, and many systems to build up.
Remember: to achieve something remarkable, you need to achieve many simpler goals along the way.
Perfection wants you to accomplish your remarkable, incredible, massive goal today — and when reality gets in the way, you give up all together. No matter how audacious your goal, if you start with a simple system, you can build your way there. Just remember that you’re building towards small wins over time, and you’ll get things done.
Every complex system evolved from a simpler system.
Let’s imagine that your goal is to run a marathon. To get there, you’ll need to run the distance of a half-marathon. And to achieve that goal, you’ll need to be able to run 10km. Reaching that goal requires you to run 5km. So to start, you just need to get out there and start running. Perfection wants you to run that marathon today, and tells you to give up if you don’t achieve your goal. To fight perfection, remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Practice strategic incompetence
To be good at one thing, you have to be bad at something else. I’ve decided that I’ll never be a great artist — at least, not for the next 5–10 years. I’ve got my goals all planned out until then (and you should too). One of my goals is to compete at the Olympics in fencing. And since that has nothing to do with learning how to sketch rolling valleys and flowing streams, my focus will be on the sword rather than the pen.
Accept that you can’t be good at everything. Know what you want to achieve, and what you don’t.
Perfectionism tells you that, yes, you can do everything, and in fact you should. Strategic incompetence, in contrast, is the act of admitting that you don’t have the time to do everything — and deliberately letting those things pass you by. By practicing strategic incompetence, you allow yourself to focus on what matters, while ignoring everything that doesn’t.
You don’t just give time to something, you take it away from something else.
There’s some advice out there that you should “turn your weaknesses into your strengths”. This is often bad advice. Not because the concept is a bad one — if you can turn your weakest areas into your strengths overnight, then go for it. However, this well-intentioned advice often doesn’t work for one reason: you don’t just give time to something, you take it away from something else. If you spend your time going from “bad” to “average” in one area, you’re taking away time from turning “good” into “remarkable”. Do you want to be average, or do you want to be remarkable? In pursuit of perfection, we often miss the mark.
Don’t let anyone else judge your goals
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”
— Anne Lamott
No-one is going to write your book for you, or run that marathon in your shoes. At the end of the day, no-one else can complete your goals for you. So, why should you let anyone judge them? Who cares if you’re doing something that isn’t perfect?
Your goals are your own. It’s up to you — and only you — to decide what they are, and what it means to complete them.
Some people can act like the little voice in your head — telling you that what you’re doing isn’t working, that it’s not perfect, that maybe you should give up and try something new. However, you know that’s just the voice of perfection talking. The people judging your goals are still telling themselves that everything needs to be perfect, but you know better. Make audacious goals, make simple goals, aim for the imperfect, aim for whatever you like. If you’re doing what you want to do, keep doing it.
The only person who decides the “right” way to complete your goals is you. Here’s an example from my own life: one of my goals this year is to “read 50 books”. To get there, I’ve decided that audiobooks count (they totally do!). Whether I read a physical copy, or listen to the recording, I still get to add it to the total. A friend of mine frequently gives me grief about my loose definition of “reading”, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me. It’s my goal. I get to decide what success means to me, and what I need to do to complete it. Achievement means clearing my own hurdle, not anyone else’s.
The harder you try to be perfect, the less likely you’ll accomplish your goals. Whether you realise it or not, the pursuit of perfection is often just an excuse to quit before you’ve finished. Now, you’ve got some tools to win the fight against the lie of perfection. Now, it’s time to get to work.
Stop focusing on making things perfect.
Start focusing on getting things done.