When "Good Enough" Really Is Good Enough - Managing Perfectionism in an Imperfect World

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By Daniel A. Smith, CMA®, CPA, Senior Business Intelligence Strategist at J. Walter Thompson, Daniel.smith@jwt.com

As a business intelligence strategist at JWT, Daniel specializes in adding value to all things data. From collection, storage, aggregation, analysis, to presentation – he is always looking for the next business insight or opportunity for their clients. While at work, you will most often find him creating analytical models and dynamic web-based analyses. Outside of work he is involved in IMA® Young Professionals Committee and IMA Leadership Academy as a speaker, author, mentor and mentee.   


How many times has this happened? You’re working on a report. You polished the visuals, showing the insights in elegant detail. You reworked some tables to be more concise, and it’s almost perfect! It’s also a week late.

The truth is, in most cases you don’t need to be perfect to be effective. The modern corporate workplace has layers upon layers of junior directors, directors, vice presidents, account executives, and project managers who will pick apart and revise any project you deliver. Every one of these people will give you feedback, and many of them will do so in a critical manner.  

Unfortunately, often your job as a young professional is to start a project. From there, the rest of the team can comment, and you assimilate their feedback into the project and start the cycle all over again. They will criticize you. They may make you feel worthless. In the end, I promise, this process will lead to success. But first, you have to learn how to be comfortable with “good enough.”

From my experience, here are a few steps to keep perfectionism in check:

First, Get It Done … Then Make It Better

Are you familiar with the Pareto Principle? It states that 80 percent of the effort comes from 20 percent of the project; or alternatively, 80 percent of the project can be completed with only 20 percent of the effort. Odds are your perfectionism is making you spend long hours on the extra 20 percent of the project, when it’s not really necessary.

Regardless of whether it is a flowchart, budget, prospectus, creative, copy or financial statement, something can always be improved. An eleven-point font with nine-point line spacing would be more legible. And who puts borders around images anymore? While these are nice touches, they are not the important details, and in truth, most people won’t notice or care. However, they will care if you do not deliver on time. So, finish whatever it is you’re working on first, do it fast, and then concern yourself with making it better.

Accept Criticism as a Reality

It doesn’t matter what you do, someone isn’t going to like it. Don’t try to fight the inevitable. Be able to accept criticism as an opportunity for improvement. The idea that you will somehow achieve perfection on your own is, at best, delusional, and at worst, an enormous waste of everyone’s time.  

Perfection is an impossible goal in the modern workplace. Your superiors will want to change something about what you did as soon as they see it. It doesn’t matter how good you think your work was, they will want to change it. Embrace this and look at it as an educational opportunity. Learn what they like, and the next time you deliver a project, mention that you’ve incorporated their feedback. You will have improved yourself and they will feel justified. This is how you can turn “good enough” into “better.”

Manage Your Time, and Don’t Burn Out

Perfectionism can lead to procrastination. Perfectionists often take on attitudes that say, “If I can’t do it perfectly, why do it at all?” or “No one appreciates all my hard work!” For one thing, if it seems like no one appreciates your hard work, you may need to re-evaluate your priorities at work (that’s a topic for another article). But burning out is a huge risk for a budding young professional.

To avoid burnout, time management is critical. Set deadlines for yourself and stick to them. More importantly, use techniques and applications like Google Calendar, any.do, and pomodoro to organize tasks and eliminate stress. You will be amazed how much more enjoyable life is when you’re not trying remember all the details of five projects at once.

In the end, perfectionism has its place. If you don’t work hard, then you won’t be successful. But anyone is capable of working hard. The people who truly succeed are the ones who are smart enough to know that they have worked hard enough.

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Exactly and tothe point. Great article.

Rubbish

As a "recovering perfectionist," I can relate to this article. Great points, and always good to keep in mind.
Another piece of good advice a manger gave me: "When you're the only one who's going to notice the improvements, stop- you're done. It's good enough."

I could not agree more with this line: First, Get It Done … Then Make It Better

one of the best articles about work management I have read...could totally relate it to my last work place