Perfect is the enemy of done
My mother taught me that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I took her message to heart and always threw myself into whatever I did. I interpreted ‘doing well’ as ‘doing perfectly’. I aimed for perfection. The upside was that I excelled in many areas. The downside was that if I thought I was likely to fail or to do a bad job I either 1) avoided the task altogether, or 2) would stress and procrastinate terribly.
Oddly enough, it was when I became a mother myself that my focus on perfection really brought me undone. I was going to be Super Mum. I had read EVERY book. I had researched and done online classes and prepared as only a perfectionist can. Despite my best efforts, my complicated pregnancy ended in a complicated birth that took a lot of time to recover from. My beautiful baby was very ill with food allergies that took months to diagnose. She was a ‘Velcro baby’, and believed that sleep was for the weak.
I couldn’t get anything done beyond caring for my daughter and the most basic housework. Or I thought I couldn’t. I didn’t have the time or energy to get in and do a task properly, from start to finish, with all of the focus that I wanted. Rather than risk ‘failing’, I didn’t try. Tasks piled up, and my stress levels rose with them.
Finally a good friend offered a suggestion, ‘what if rather than getting things clean, you just got them cleaner?’
Cleaner rather than clean?
It was a whole new way of thinking, and it worked. Rather than hoping to one day have time to clean all the windows, I spent five minutes cleaning one side of one window, and over a few weeks I could see outside again! A few minutes at a time I got all of my paperwork in order. I could make delicious cakes for friends’ birthdays if I got the ingredients ready one day, baked the next day, and iced it the day after. And if that failed, I had a cute baby to distract guests as I hid empty cake mix boxes…
Perfect truly is the enemy of done
Waiting for the right conditions, or for the opportunity to ‘do a job well’ (which I misconstrued as ‘perfectly’) is a trap that catches many of us. How many tasks are slowly becoming urgent as you avoid them? How long is your backburner to-do list? How much stress could you eliminate from your life if you decided just to get things done, rather than perfect?
I’m still working on my perfectionist tendencies, especially the urge to procrastinate. My strategies for getting things done, rather than perfect, include:
- Taking on small tasks, like sorting a shelf rather than a whole cupboard
- Leaving space for unfinished projects, where I can see them and pick them up for short bursts
- Involving others earlier in projects, getting feedback on notes and rough drafts
- Rewarding myself for effort or using time well rather than just final outcomes
- Remembering the law of diminishing returns when I’m tempted to spend too long on a project.
As my children grow I’m teaching them that ‘if a job’s worth doing, do it’.
(To my wonderful Mother, if you’re reading this:
- Yes, for a smart girl I do some dumb things
- Yes, I did totally distort your excellent advice, I am sorry
- I love you.)
Written by Adelle Friswell, firstname.lastname@example.org