The 4 Perils of Perfectionism

When you start a task, do you decide upfront what level of quality will suffice for the task? Or do you always try to do your best, even if it isn’t required?

Perfectionism can be both a blessing and a curse. It imbues our work with a sense of quality and polish that others often appreciate.

Work done right the first time doesn’t need to be redone and catching problems early reduces unexpected emergencies when those problems reemerge later. Poor quality work can create a time debt that can be called due at any point. 

Yet too often we rely on the benefits of doing high quality work without considering the costs.

What are the perils of perfectionism—or for those recovering perfectionists, doing higher quality work than a task calls for?

Peril 1: Invisible Wasted Time

James Clear sums it up nicely:

The most invisible form of wasted time is doing a good job on an unimportant task.

By definition, any work above and beyond the required level of quality for a task is wasted time.

James Clear focuses his observation on unimportant tasks—but even important tasks can have time wasted on them if you work to get them perfect when “good enough” will suffice.

But beyond wasted time, what are the consequences of striving for perfection?

Peril 2: Work Dying on the Vine

Perhaps the biggest is work that is never released. When you waste time working on an unimportant task but complete the task at least you did something.

Too often, however, when we strive for perfection, we never reach a state of completion. We keep our work in a half-finished state, intending to finish and publish it, but letting “higher priorities” get in the way.

Work that is never harvested dies on the vine. No one ever sees it and it brings others no value. Worse, the time spent working is lost, never to be regained.

One of the worst sins of perfectionism is never finishing your projects because of it. The productivity loss from hours spent working on projects that we shelve or put on the back burner because they’re not “ready yet” can be huge.

Sometimes it’s better to finish a lower priority so its release starts accruing value than to constantly switch to the current highest priority.

How many unfinished projects do you have in your closet right now?

Peril 3: Losing to Your Competition

When you wait too long to release your work, you often lose to competition that has lower standards than you.

While certain customers certainly require the high level of quality that a perfectionist can produce, most customers will have lower standards. Perfectionists are often too critical of their own work, seeing flaws where others see none.

Stare in the mirror and you will see imperfections in your face that will be blind to others. Others simply don’t spend the time looking at us and our work that we do.

The businesses that can find a balance between providing a high quality product or service without slipping into perfectionism can gain more customers than those focused constantly on the smallest of flaws.

Most customers simply won’t see those flaws. And for those that do, you can correct them as they point them out—helping you focus your limited time on those that are most important to those customers.

Peril 4: Going Out of Business

The most consequential form of perfectionism is when spend so much time and energy striving to have everything right and perfect that you have none left to handle the inevitable bumps in the road.

You can only stay in business as long as your resources allow. If you work too much on making everything perfect, you’ll never reach a point of getting enough customers to reach sustainability. And if you can’t stay in business, you can’t serve your customers.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your customers is aiming to ship a lower-quality product in lieu of shipping nothing at all.

Avoiding the Perils of Perfectionism

How can we avoid these perils?

  • Make a commitment to finish existing projects before starting new ones
  • Lower your standards to make this happen—an imperfect complete project is better than a perfect shelved project
  • Ask for feedback from others on what quality level you should be aiming for
  • Evaluate the reach and impact of your work to calibrate what quality level you need to aim for

Most importantly, shift your mindset away from needing everything to be perfect. Perfectionism that no one sees is vanity, not value created.

What steps will you take today to avoid these perils of procrastination?

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