Perfect is the Enemy of Productive

One of my 2015 goals was to write at least once per week, and by the second week I had already failed. To my credit, I had written a very rough incomplete draft, but felt it wasn't good enough to publish. So I kept putting it off, and by the time I remembered, it was already the third (this) week.

I failed, and I failed early.

It finally took a 3-hour flight with no in-flight entertainment to force me to write this week. I was hampered by the idea of perfection, which was now out of my reach; that somehow because I messed up on the 2nd week, the goal of writing once per week was no longer worth striving for. Not being able to say "I wrote at least once per week for all of 2015" had made the endeavor of writing regularly not worth pursuing. And I realize this happens quite often in my life:

  • Giving up on running after a multi-day streak is broken
  • Starting a game over because the beginning wasn't perfect
  • Eating less healthy after a junk-food weekend ruins a diet

The idea of perfection is powerful. We elevate sports figures that pitch a flawless game or complete a season without a loss. We celebrate perfection in the media and teach kids to strive for perfection in school. Similarly, we put extra focus on aspects of our own lives that have the chance to attain perfection. 

Obsessively striving for perfection has two side effects. First, in trying to be perfect, we often get stuck on something that just isn't quite right. Take writing essays as an example - often I get stuck just trying to think of a good title or an enticing introductory sentence. And as many of us do when stuck, I turn to distractions and eventually forget altogether about the original task. 

The second side effect is that by trying to perfect every detail, we are likely to be less happy about the end result. Studies on people with maximizing tendencies have shown them to be less happy, to have lower self esteem, and to be more likely depressed. Part of the reason is that by setting very high expectations (i.e. perfection) on the outset, the results never quite match expectations. As Warren Buffet famously said on the secret to happiness: "it's not looks, nor intelligence, nor money — it's low expectations."

This isn't to say that perfection is a bad thing. Obsession over perfection has led to some of the greatest works in history. The key perhaps is to focus that perfection on just one thing, whatever is the most important element of our lives (or in context for entrepreneurs, your startup).

For everything else, we should learn to accept 'good enough' and satisfice. Satisficing (combination of satisfy and suffice) is a decision-making heuristic requiring us to determine an acceptable threshold and work until we find an acceptable solution. Satisfice requires a little bit of pre-work in thinking about the acceptable threshold, but can help us get on to the more important decisions - like the 'just one thing' that needs to be perfect. The President only wears kinds of 2 suits (one gray, one blue), both of which meet the acceptable threshold for being presidential, so that he can move on and make more important decisions. Similarly, in our own lives, the less time we spend trying to maximize every detail, the more we can focus on what's important.

Perfect is the enemy of productive. 

And as for this post, well it's not perfect, but it'll satisfice.

Thank you to Nick Hong, Han Jin, Neil Sharma, and Cathryn Chen for reading and providing feedback