Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I often find myself not wanting to hand in an assignement until the last minute because, even though it is finished, I could proofread it and make changes to it in order to make it better. I have a hard time making choices in a hurry, even for such trivial things as a restaurant or coffee order, because I want to be sure what I choose is the best option. I have for long struggled with the idea of doing short 20 minutes workouts, because for me it was not good enough. Do it at 100% – even 200% – or do not do it at all was kind of my inconscious mantra for a long time, but it has not necessarily served me well.

We all know the saying “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good“. Voltaire said it – “The best is the enemy of the good” -, but also Confucius “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without” and even Shakespeare “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”, among many others. But what did they mean by that ? Sure, striving for perfection allows you to push yourself, to achieve great things, often things that you would not have even dreamed of hadn’t you been so demanding of yourself. However, this constant need to achieve the impossible has a dark side.

Indeed, your every day life does not require the perfect maximization of every single of your choices : you chose an expresso instead of a latte ? You ordered the tacos instead of the quesadillas ? So what ? It is not the end of the world. Once faced with this choice again, you will do differently, there is no need to feed on your insatisfaction for it will be gone in a few minutes. While this might be easy to do for such trivial matters, it is a whole other thing to apply it to our work. The desire to hand in the perfect assignement to get the best grade or reward possible pushes us to work on the same sentence over and over again, which causes us in turn to neglect other tasks we have to do. It is difficult to distance ourselves from our work because it is something that we created and therefore feel responsible for. Who has never thought “What are our bosses / our teammates / our colleagues going to think if I hand in that ? I should work on it some more.” 

The problem with this quest is that it is unachievable. Perfection is a subjective concept : it depends on each individual’s judgement call. For one person, your work is going to be great, for the other, it will lack details or analysis. You can never fully satisfy the other’s expectations because you canno anticipate them. The only person to please you should look for is you. While we do not have to stop considering other’s expectations and opinions, we should at least stop seeing ourselves through the eyes of others. We cannot know what they are thinking, and often make them seem much more demanding that they actually are.

A great principle to apply to ourselves to start overcoming this problem is the Pareto principle.  Recalling Aristotle’s philosophy about the golden mean as the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency, the Pareto principle is based on the fact that the first 80% of a task, are usually relatively easy to complete. The last 20% on the other hand are the hardest, and usually the ones where we end up turning all of our energy to. Perfection is impossible to achieve: increasing efforts result in diminishing returns, so what if we just got rid of this last 20% ? Also known as the 80/20 rule today, this concept states that you should do things not at 100%, but at 80% : You do your best 80% of the time, but relativise and relax 20% of the time remaining.  You eat healthy 80% of the time, but leave 20% for moderate indulgences. I think you get the idea : moderation is key.

Gretchen Rubin, an author who studies happiness, talks here of the categorization of people between satisficers and maximizers. She explains how satisficers are those able to take a decision once their criteria are met. “That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high, but as soon as they find the pasta sauce or the business card that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied“. On the other end, maximizers want to make the best decision possible. They need all of the information possible to do so, which sometimes lead to analysis paralysis : the need for over-analyzing situations lead to the absence of decisions being taken.

As Rubin notes, “studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers; maximizers spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they did, in fact, make the best choice.” So remember the 80/20 rule and consider it a secret mental weapon : moderate the expectations you have of yourself, and you will end up achieving so much more. Take a step back and enjoy what you have already accomplished. This will provide you with a boost of happiness and confidence which will alleviate the anxiety. So just breathe, let go of your perfection ideals and strive for excellence rather.

 

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