The Curse of Perfectionism

“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life.”

— Dr. David M. Burns

The Curse of Perfectionism

by Dr. Donald E. Wetmore

There’s a rule known as the Pareto Principle. It teaches us that 20% of our efforts produce 80% of our results. The additional 80% of our efforts will only yield an additional 20% of results. The first thrust of effort then is the most productive use of our time. The latter thrust is very costly.

For example, let’s say you allocate 2 hours (which we’ll represent as 20% of your time) to clean a room, a basement, or a garage. Let’s say that will you will be able to get it to be 80% clean. It won’t be perfect, but it will be acceptable and a job well done. However, to squeeze out an additional 20% of results, to make it “perfectly clean”, will require an additional 80% of your time, or 8 hours. The additional results are sixteen times more costly than the initial results from 20% of the effort, not to mention that while you’re trying to squeeze out those additional results, you are kept from doing a lot of other more productive things.

This rule has a lot of application to you as a time manager. Ever notice if you’re in sales how 20% of your customers give you 80% of your sales and the other 80% of your customers give you the remaining 20% of your business? Where then should you be spending 80% of your time? With the 20% of the customers who are giving you 80% of your business.

Ever notice how 20% of your relatives give your 80% of your headaches?

It may not always work with exact mathematical precision, but, typically, the small chunk of input yields the biggest chuck of output or results.

Most of us benefit from this rule intuitively. When you and I approach a task (clean a room, prepare a term paper, write up a project, etc.) we decide to put in a reasonable amount of time and effort to achieve a reasonable result. The result may not be perfect but it will be acceptable and this will release us to devote our time to tackling other endeavors.

We put in a reasonable amount of time and produce a pretty decent report. It may not be perfect, but putting in a whole lot more time to make it a little better is not cost-effective and therefore not worth the effort.

Those who suffer from the Curse of Perfectionism do not understand this principle. Their goal is always perfection, which, realistically, is unattainable. For example, you cannot clean a room perfectly. As you clean it, it’s getting dirty as dust settles. Any written report can be polished and improved upon with more time and effort. Striving for perfection is then always stressful and frustrating.

Their overall productivity suffers as they spend an inordinate amount of time on a few things, trying to make them perfect, rather than a lesser amount of time on a lot of things that will multiply their results.

The curse is cured when they abandon the need to do their tasks perfectly, when they understand that excellence in performance is attaining a degree of perfection, not absolute perfection. This does not compromise one’s standard of excellence in performance. It enhances excellent performance with increased results.

Copyright (c) 2008 all rights reserved. Don Wetmore can be reached at www.balancetime.com.

Coaching Call to Action

I know in some things you want perfection: medical procedures, eyebrow waxing, e-mail spelling. But, most of the time, as Don notes, it’s not worth the effort. For those of you who want everything perfect would you be willing to do an experiment this week? Take a low risk task and just give it 20%. What are your results? Tell me about it in an e-mail and we may share it in a future newsletter. Simply e-mail andrea@coachandrea.com.