The perfect way to kill productivity

I pass a curious little shop on my daily commute that has intrigued me for years. Situated on prime Sydney main street real estate, is a grimy, chaotic-looking discount appliance retailer - an ugly blight on the upmarket landscape. And what I love about this odd shop, above the washing machines and fridges crammed together and covered by a thick layer of dust, is its signage. Spanning the length of its façade and impossible to ignore with large bold red capital letters it reads: “FACTORY CLERANCE” with the promise of “IMIDATE DELEVERY” and even “REPEARS”.

These wonderful typos always make me smile. For the grammar nerd, silently spotting and correcting spelling mistakes is a favourite guilty pleasure. But above all, I marvel that it has remained unchanged for years. How can something be so wrong, and still happily and proudly exist, especially in full view of thousands of passing motorists?

We are, as a society, a little obsessed with perfection. Oh how we love and applaud success, while sneering and ridiculing failure. In a world of auto-correct and airbrushing, it’s hard to see that imperfection is actually everywhere.  We just want it to go away. So we strive for perfection in virtually every aspect of our lives – we want to look flawless, have perfect homes, to be perfect parents. If you call yourself a perfectionist it is probably a source of personal pride.

The pursuit of perfection can motivate some to spectacular greatness. Many extraordinary people have achieved great things and redefined what we consider possible – think of world-record breaking athletes or the inventors of game-changing technologies. Yet for many people, the desire to achieve perfection (and the ego-crushing outcome when they don’t) is a major roadblock in their productivity and creative expression.

Author and teacher, Elizabeth Gilbert was recently in Sydney speaking on the topic “How to be creative” and she talked quite candidly about her struggle to accept her writing wasn’t perfect. Her biggest consolation to herself was that she got it done. Her books were published, people read and enjoyed them. In the end, in spite of her anguish, she decided that “done is better than perfect.” And I have to say, I’m grateful that she, and many like her, just did it anyway.

Procrastination is mostly thought to be a symptom of laziness when often it is a symptom of perfectionism. Our sense of ourselves is often strongly tied to our achievements and talents. We are afraid that doing something may reveal our inferior talents; that we will fail and see ourselves as failures in general. This fear is a strong motivator to avoid activities and projects altogether. We will never know how many great feats or bold ideas have been thwarted by the fear of not being perfect.

Overcoming perfectionism doesn’t mean settling for mediocrity or becoming apathetic. It means changing the goal.  Striving to be ‘good enough’ will unlock your productivity and creativity. Getting it done, though imperfect, is better than the perfect product that is never complete.

We’ve learned that ‘practice makes perfect’. It’s true that hard work and determination lead to improvement and success. Yet true perfection is unattainable, even with years of practice. Instead we should look at our process towards perfection as a continuum rather than a goal. We begin with no skills. With persistence we improve, we get faster and make fewer mistakes. Striving to do it and getting it done in spite of our fears, however imperfect, will reveal itself as a great achievement.   

A new sign has gone up next to the ‘factory clerance’ outlet declaring a luxury apartment development is to be built on the site. So it will soon face the wrecking ball and be replaced by something far more in keeping with the surrounding perfectly presented street-scape. Most would be happy to see the ugly shop demolished. As for me, who now appreciates this daily reminder to get over my own perfectionism, I’m a little bit sad to see it go.

Five tips to help content writers avoid perfectionism and get it done

  1. As Mark Twain said start by “eating the frog”. In other words, tackle the most difficult task first. 
  2. Set deadlines. A realistic but firm deadline does wonders in focusing the mind. Don’t give yourself extensions. For large projects, give yourself mini-deadlines, or use a timer to ensure you don’t procrastinate.
  3. Avoid over-editing. Write a first draft and allow one or two round of edits. If you find yourself over-working the piece, abandon it, publish it and move onto the next.
  4. Ask others to review your work, and focus on the good feedback, not just the criticism.
  5. Decide what “good enough” looks like, and don’t be too harsh on yourself. If it is valuable to your audience it will be more than good enough.