When not to be perfect at work

There are times in life when things have to be “right”.

No spelling or grammatical mistakes in CVs or covering letters for job applications.

Or in really important documents (eg briefings to the Chief Executive).

But actually, the times where there is zero tolerance to mistakes of detail is actually smaller than you think.

And instead, excessive attention to detail can actually result in negative outcomes, for two reasons: procrastination, and perfectionism.

So why can this behaviour result in negative outcomes, and what can you choose to do instead?

1. Procrastination

The fear of having to get something “right” can mean you never get started.

This is the worst of all possible worlds.

Paralysis creeps in, and you spend your time doing anything else rather than the task at hand.

(Never has creating new files in your inbox been more appealing…)

Or you end up doing just one more bit more research, before you get started.

(I read a great phrase the other day: "procrasti-learning". On other words, spending your time endlessly researching rather than actually getting on with the task…)

Or you spend hours putting off finishing something - because you don’t believe you will ever be able to get it “right”.

All of these are forms of procrastination; and all of them mean nothing gets done.

2. Perfectionism

So many of us experience perfectionism.

It is the need to be perfect, to be seen to be perfect, or to produce perfect results.

On the face of it, producing perfect results sounds great - who wouldn’t want that?

But of course, in striving for perfection, you get stuck - and you get stressed.

Perfectionism is what leads you to read a document for the thirtieth time, to check AGAIN that every dot and comma is in the right place.

This can not only mean submitting things late, because you’re too anxious about whether it’s perfect.

It is also a colossal opportunity cost.

How much better is that document really going to be, if you read it for the thirtieth time (or even the fifth)?

And what else could you be doing with that time that could be more useful?

And the pressure you put yourself under will be dragging you down, eating away at your energy levels, and damaging your health.

For the sake of possibly spotting an errant comma…

So, excessive attention to detail can mean:

  • nothing is ever started, finished, or achieved

  • time is wasted which could be better spent on other things

  • you find yourself excessively stressed.

So what is the solution?

There are three key principles that will help with excessive attention to detail.

1. “Good enough”

I first came across the concept of “good enough” from the paediatrician Donald Winnicott in relation to the “Good Enough Mother”.

His theory was that it is better for a baby’s emotional and cognitive development if the mother is “good enough” rather than “perfect”.

In other words, if she basically loves and cares for her baby well, but doesn’t always get it right 100% of the time.

The same is true for work!

It is much better for YOUR emotional and cognitive state if you focus on being “good enough”, and not “perfect”.

Otherwise you are creating a huge stick to beat yourself up with.

Imagine the worst boss you’ve ever had: someone critical, demanding, and unsympathetic.

That is what you are being to yourself, if you demand that you are “perfect” rather than “good enough”.

Imagine instead how you would like to behave as a boss: someone who is clear and expects good results - but isn’t unreasonable, cruel, or excessively demanding.

You can treat yourself in the same way.