When an A- is Better than an A+

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” — Voltaire

I cribbed this line from an old boss (thanks, Brent), and I’ve used it pretty regularly when talking with perfectionists. It’s important to remember that you get diminishing returns on the efforts you put out after a certain length of time. For instance, you might expend the same amount of energy on getting 90% complete as you would going from 90% to 100%. While some tasks require you to be super detailed, most others do not.

Take this blog post, for instance. I can write one of my “Five-Minute Ideas” in about 30 minutes. That includes researching a fun quote or concept to inspire the post, writing it out on a stream-of-consciousness approach, editing it as I re-read it when it’s done, and then posting. Now, I could easily spend another 10–30 minutes going through and editing it to a third or fourth draft. I could even have someone I know and trust put a second set of eyes on it, and add more time to their schedule and mine. But what kind of returns would I get on the third or fourth draft? I’m not writing the Great American Novel, I’m just doing a quickie blog post, right? And you keep reading these posts, so I’m guessing they’re effective at least in reaching you.

If I did this with five posts a week, I would have to schedule another 1–2 hours each week to do this task, or 2–5% of all my work time. Over the course of the year, this would be 50–100 hours. What could I do if I had that time back? I could spend more time on priorities in my firm, like engaging with clients, digging into numbers, posting social media campaigns, or cultivating stronger relationships with colleagues my space. Or, I could spend more time with my sweetie or my daughter doing things that interest them. What’s more valuable to me: the perfectly revised blog post or pretty darn good blog posts and 50 extra lunches with colleagues?

To be clear, sometimes the extra-extra-extra efforts are necessary to make things perfect. I find when I’m working on things related to numbers, like a budget or product velocity report or competitive set research, things need to have that 3rd or 4th look over. Accuracy with numbers is usually a binary function — it’s either right or it’s wrong.

In these other areas of work (and life) where things are a lot more subjective and can be done to “A-“ work, how much effort are you putting in to get it to perfect? What are you giving up in other areas that could use your attention more than eking out those extra few percentage points on your way to 100% perfect?

Gotta run. I’m going to go and read my book on game theory for parents, now.