Productivity vs. Paralysis: On Accepting the Reality of Imperfection

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.” — Toba Beta, Indonesian author.

problem of perfectionism. We can become so tightly focused on getting things “just right,” it’s difficult to let anything go. Of course, there’s always something you can improve, if you just keep nitpicking at it.

But at what point do you hit a point of diminishing returns? Eventually, the improvements you introduce are no longer worth the time you spend on them—and if you keep at it, you’ll roll past your deadlines and crash your schedule. Let’s face it: perfection rarely occurs in this world, and as Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy pointed out, “If you look for perfection, you will never be content.”

Refusing to let go of something until it’s perfect is akin to jamming a broomstick into the spokes of a moving bicycle wheel: after the inevitable catastrophe, motion ceases altogether. If Tolstoy hadn’t realized this early on, he would never have completed the classic War and Peace, which weighs in at 1,445 pages. But the persistence prize in the Tolstoy family goes to his wife Sofya. Legend has it she hand-copied seven copies of War and Peace by firelight, after an already-busy day of handling a large household without the benefit of electricity and other modern amenities. If she and her husband had demanded perfection of themselves, both would have died long before they published the novel.

The Zen of Letting Go

Your leadership expects a certain level of production, and you’ll impress people when you deliver more than they expect. But to achieve higher levels of success and focus on higher-value activities, you must let some things go at some point—either altogether or earlier. Here are ten simple reasons why you should duck perfectionism:

1. You’ll have more time for other things. Accepting the reality of imperfection frees up time you can spend on other projects, or on the “life” part of your work/life balance.

2. You’ll feel better. Seeking perfection stresses you out. Stress can contribute to or cause insomnia, depression, and a myriad of physical problems, from ulcers to high blood pressure.

3. You’ll be happier. If you stop obsessing, you’ll enjoy your life and job more. The same is true of your team—if you don’t push them too hard, they’ll find it easier to maximize their ROI and productivity.

4. You don’t worry about making a mistake. You can account for the expected only up to a point, so what’s the point of angsting over what might happen? Persian rug weavers once used an interesting trick for accepting imperfection: they deliberately introduced a minor error into their work. That way, they knew the rug wasn’t perfect and wouldn’t offend God by trying to make it so. My husband is always happy with the first scratch on a new car, so he doesn’t have to worry about parking it as much.

5. It helps you realize life itself isn’t perfect. How could it be? You’re fighting a universe full of chaos. Every time you edit a manuscript, you risk introducing new errors. Your best programmer may get sick in the middle of a project. A tornado might destroy your office. Control what you can and accept the rest, or risk exploding from sheer frustration.

6. You can’t control other people’s imperfections. While you can encourage team members to push themselves toward greater performance, you can’t force them to do anything if they don’t want to.

7. You’ll appreciate near-perfection when it occurs. On rare occasions, everything will click and your team will produce something as near to perfect as humanly possible. These events provide high water marks you can shoot for later. Similarly, you more easily recognize excellence when it occurs in other venues.

8. You’ll be able to grow. Perfection is static, as is the obsessive pursuit of it. If you stay in one place, how can you grow your career?

9. It sets boundaries on what you shouldn’t do. Refusing perfection lets you say “no” to things you don’t have time for.

10. It helps you accept change more easily. You can’t effectively field change when dogged by perfectionism. Sometimes we don’t know the best way to approach a new situation, and we just have to move.

It all boils down to this: Perfectionism may occasionally produce a masterpiece, but it’s far more likely to hold you back while the world moves on. Do the best you can in the time you have, let go, and move on to the next thing on your list. Remember Walt Disney’s famous slogan: “Keep Moving Forward!”