How Your Standards Can Slow You Down

“If you look for perfection, you will never be content.” — Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist (Anna Karenina).

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” ― Michael J. Fox

How Your Standards Can Slow You Down by Laura Stack #productivity

It’s true that as your experience and skills evolve, you should occasionally push the envelope of your personal constraints. But to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in the film Magnum Force, you’ve got to know your limitations. And you do have limitations—which also means you can’t always do everything just right.

It’s important to have high standards for your work; in fact, you need them if you expect to achieve consistent productivity. But be aware of the difference between high standards and impossibly high standards. When your standards for yourself and your team become so lofty they tick over into the unreasonable, they’ll do nothing but slow you down—like an anchor tied around your neck. Ironically, maintaining absurdly high standards can as bad as having no standards at all.

Of course, this isn’t an excuse to slow down or slack off. Always strive for excellence. But at the same time, remember: true perfection is the province of the divine. If you try to consider every possible outcome and arrange for every contingency before making your first move, you may have trouble getting started at all. While some of us like to say we work best under pressure, that’s rarely true. You’re like the undergrad scrambling in the ninth hour, staying up all night to write a paper assigned half a semester before. Indeed, more often than not, the results reflect the amount of time spent on the task.

Rather than hold yourself to angelic standards, be a REALIST:

1. Recognize your limits. No one knows you better than you. Break your task or project into pieces you know you can manage and set solid deadlines for achieving each.

2. Energize yourself. You know you’re talented and good at what you do, or you wouldn’t be where you are now. Psych yourself up before you start.

3. Accept your imperfections. You might make a few mistakes as you work on the task. You might even fail. So what? Let’s face it: you’re human. Push past your fear of failure; don’t let it stymie your productivity.

4. Leave perfectionism behind. It only drags you down. Sure, do the very best you can; even compete with yourself or others if that motivates you. But don’t expect perfection every time. When it happens, great. When it doesn’t, learn from your mistakes and move on.

5. Implement your plan. Once you have all your ducks in a row, take a deep breath and dive in. Motion beats meditation every time.

6. Seize the initiative. As von Moltke pointed out, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Even in the workplace, most situations prove chaotic, and things you never expected might suddenly appear on the horizon…or in your face. Some may prove advantageous. When new opportunities for success present themselves, grab them with both hands.

7. Take action to handle unexpected details as they occur. Since you can’t foresee every nook and cranny of the future, don’t try. Make all the preparations you can in advance and handle the little things as they pop up.


Don’t equate a realistic assessment of your situation with pessimism. Realism represents a form of frank intellectual honesty, which beats the pants off both perfectionism and the gung-ho silliness that sometimes sweeps American business. You can and should take every reasonable precaution and gather as much data as possible before taking action; however, don’t let an obsessive need to get everything just right waste your time and energy. Once you’ve meditated long enough, it’s time to put on your REALIST armor and leap into the fray.



  1. This is my first visit to your website. I must admit that as a self-described anal retentive time manager, I chuckled as soon as I saw your perfectionist comment. I consider myself a decent time manager, but you got my attention when I thought back to how often I let my perfectionist tendencies slow me down and create more unnecessary pressure that may keep me from putting my actions into place. I added your website link to my most recent blog on time management. I look forward to reading more from you. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in guest blogging on my website. – Thomas B. Dowd III author of “From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide” and “The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World”


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