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Why You Shouldn't Strive for Perfection

Updated: Jun 23, 2019

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

Sometimes, I lurk around /r/fitness, primarily because the Rant Wednesday posts are full of hilarity that makes my hump day a bit better. But I’ll never forget the time I read a post by someone who was planning to go out to a party later that evening and drink heavily. He wanted to know whether it would be better to go to the gym before the party and have his recovery slowed by the indulgence and the late night afterwards, or if it would be better to go to the gym the day after the party and have his workout be subpar due to the tiredness/hangover/whatever else comes from binge drinking.

This question struck me as ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS. One single night and the timing of one single workout would have literally no noticeable impact on his fitness journey. Hell, he could decide not to go to the gym that evening or the next day, and as long as he stuck with it the rest of the time, it still wouldn’t make a difference. The poster was so concerned with perfection that he was missing the journey, and in fitness, the journey is often all there is.

Perfection Prevents Progress

Getting caught up in trying to be absolutely perfect often prevents people from making any progress at all, as if anything less than perfection isn’t worth the effort at all. Why do we end up in this mindset? Part of it likely stems from fear of failure. I’ll admit, starting this blog and trying to create a side hustle that I can turn into a career is terrifying. I’ll also admit that I don’t have any idea how to run a great blog, how to get tons of traffic to my website, or how to find clients for coaching. But I’ll get there.

I could read every article out there about running a successful blog, but if I don’t get out and do it, I’ll always have exactly 0 readers. The important thing here it working at my blog, and working consistently, even if sometimes my posts, or my timing, or my website design, or my promotion, aren’t perfect. A few sub-par workouts won’t negate months of training, and a few stumbles as you get started toward your goal won’t cause total catastrophic failure, no matter how much your brain says it might.

This video by Hank Green really sums up the concept well. It’s only 4 minutes long, and I think about it nearly every day. It has helped me immensely, so I highly recommend watching it. Basically, he says that you should be doing things 80% of the way. After that 80%, the last 20% is just messing around to try to achieve a target of perfection that likely doesn’t even exist. And by doing things 80% of the way, you can move on to the next thing and do it 80% of the way as well.

By doing this, and jumping on to the next project quickly, you practice a lot and learn a lot and eventually come out with enough knowledge that your new 80% is better than your old 100% would have been anyway. Don’t waste your time with the last 20%. Whatever you’re trying to do, give it your best shot, get it 80% of the way, or “good enough”, and get it out there. Then move on to the next thing. By doing repeatedly, you’re getting practice and improving way more than you would have if you had taken the time to get to 100% the first time.

This applies to discipline as well. Knowing you only need to go 80% of the way allows you to be “disciplined enough” that you can redirect your life without being so afraid of failing to reach “perfection” that you’re too afraid to even start. If I thought I had to reach perfection with each blog post, I’d never want to write them. That’s too much pressure and I don’t even know how to write a perfect post. There likely is no such thing as a perfect post. But by telling myself I have to write a post that is 80% of perfection, there’s no pressure for each post to be perfect and it’s much easier to sit down and just write. Because I’ve made it so easy to sit down and write, it takes less effort, and less discipline, to do it. With every 80% blog post that I write, I improve a little bit. After enough blog posts, my new 80% will be better than my old 100%. And, I never would have been able to reach that 100% if I had started with that as my initial goal.

How to Avoid Perfectionism

Know that perfect is arbitrary. No two people have exactly the same definition of perfect, so whatever you’ve decided is “perfect” someone else may have actually liked better before you made the last 37 changes. Someone else probably thinks its needs another half dozen improvements. It’s impossible to hit an undefined target. Achieving perfection is literally impossible because there is no one definition of perfect.

You’re wasting time. We do not accept time wasting around here. No one is allowed to waste your time, including you. If you can get something 90% of the way to perfect in an hour, and then you spend six hours tweaking it to get it 99% of the way there (since 100% isn’t even possible), you wasted those six hours. In those six hours you could have gotten SIX OTHER THINGS 90% of the way finished as well. Stop wasting time. Those six hours would be better spent creating more, instead of trying to perfect something that’s already very good.

This is going to sound harsh, but if you’re putting your work into the world, people are going to judge you no matter what. As Dita Von Teese said,

“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”

There’s also a hoard of miserable people living in their parents’ basements doing nothing with their lives who find joy in throwing those peaches against the trunk of the peach tree. The people who like what you do will like it if it’s “perfect”, but they’ll still like it just as much if it’s just very good. The people who do not like what you do won’t like it no matter how good it is. That’s not your problem, it’s theirs. They’re the ones missing out.

Make sure you’re not just procrastinating. Maybe you’ve created something, and you’re afraid to put it into the world or move forward with it, so you’re making endless tiny little tweaks to avoid having to put it out there. Suck it up, and get it out there. Move on. Don’t put in all that work just to keep it to yourself. Or maybe you’re afraid of the next step in the process, or aren’t quite sure what to do next, so you’re fiddling with the current step so you don’t have to face the music and move forward. You’re only holding yourself back by procrastinating. Rip the band-aid off and move on to the next thing. You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Sometimes, we strive for “perfect” because we want to give ourselves the best possible chance of succeeding. I get it, failure is scary, especially if there’s a lot riding on your success. But failure is valuable, too. By trying something and failing at it, you get valuable feedback about what worked and what didn’t. Embrace that. The expert in anything is an expert because she has failed more often than the beginner has even tried. Put your work out there, even though it’s not perfect, and listen to the critiques that come back. Use those critiques to do an even better job next time. Failure is valuable.

Know and embrace that done is better than perfect. In fact, done is better than good. Many people struggle quite a bit to actually complete most of the things they start. It can be hard to see things through to the end, and getting close to the end but being unable to finally tie the bow means that you put in all that hard work and didn’t even get a final product. Wrap it up! Don’t deprive yourself of the satisfaction of finishing just because you feel the need to keep making tiny changes in the name of “perfection”.

Stop aiming for perfection. It’s not real anyway. Just aim to be good enough. This results in much less pressure on you and with a bit of practice, good enough will be miles better than the old “perfect” anyway. Your definition of “perfect” likely isn’t the same as what anyone else’s, so if you’re creating for others, don’t overthink it. Finish it, get it out there, and see what criticism you get so that next time you can do even better.

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