When Good Enough is Better than Perfect

By Hannah Rasmussen posted

When I was a PhD student I had a terrible habit of wanting something to be perfect before I’d let anyone see it. In hindsight, I started to refer to this as being stuck in a “perfection trap.” That’s one of many reasons it took me six years to do a four-year degree. Finally, my supervisor took me aside and said “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be done.”

I used that as a mantra for the rest of my thesis writing and it really helped me focus. I was able to set myself deadlines and get things to my supervisor even if they weren’t “perfect.” I even defended knowing that there were problems with my thesis. And I passed—because even though it wasn’t perfect, it was good enough for a PhD. I’m still fighting the perfection trap in my academic work. I hold off on sending things in working drafts, even if I have a co-author. If I do send something that’s not “perfect,” I’ll apologize and include a statement such as “feel free to ignore this until it’s better.”

I know this habit has hurt me professionally in my academic work. It has made me miss conferences I wanted to attend but didn’t because my work wasn’t “perfect.” It has also kept me from submitting papers to journals because I wanted to do another round or rewriting to make it “perfect.” Procrastination often goes along with perfectionism. I’d put off working on a paper because I knew that I could never make it perfect. My house was always really clean when I was first struggling with my thesis. 

What is strange is that I don’t do this in my consulting work. When I’m consulting I never get stuck in the perfection trap. I’m happy to send rough drafts to people to get their feedback before finishing a report, to present ideas that are not fully formed, and even to stop working on a project because it is done, not because it is perfect. And I have never needed an extension on a deadline.  

When I moved back into the library with my CLIR fellowship I knew I had one year to do a lot of work. I quickly found myself slipping into the perfectionist habits from my PhD years. I realized that in a library these habits could hurt both me and the library, since many of my research projects were attached to larger library-wide projects. If I didn’t get my work done, the quality of services provided to HBS faculty and staff could be affected. Understanding this helped me see that I needed to avoid the perfection trap during my fellowship. I decided to treat most of my work as though I were consulting. I used these “rules” from my consulting work to make sure I didn’t get trapped again:

1. Do what’s necessary, not what’s nice

This is something I asked myself at the beginning of, and throughout, a project. Was what I was working on “nice to have” or “necessary”? I kept a list of parts of a project and sorted them into these two groups. If I had time, I’d tackle the “nice to have” list, but if I were pressed for time or had something else to move on to, I’d stick to the “necessary.”  

2. Set real deadlines (and immediate consequences)

Obviously there are deadlines in academia but often, as you get higher up, these deadlines are self-imposed, and if there are consequences they are far in the future. With consulting, not making a deadline would at least involve having to explain yourself to your client or boss, or both. To create real consequences I started to schedule presentations, big and small, of my research. I never wanted to have to explain to the group that I didn’t have something new to present so I would present things before they were perfect.

3. Set short deadlines and stick to them
Related to rule 2, I worked really hard to have short deadlines and stick to them. I would break projects up into small parts so they didn’t loom large in my life. Then I’d set short, but realistic, deadlines. Once the deadline hit I had to move on and could not revisit that part until everything else was done. It led to some frantic writing close to the deadline but it meant that a project, while not perfect, was finished. Then I could improve it if there was time.  

One of my friends who consults always repeats this quote from Lorne Michaels, the founder of Saturday Night Live, to new hires:  “The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30.” Using this quote and my three rules, I got a lot more done during my year at HBS than I ever thought I could.  I’d love to hear from other people about approaches they use at work to avoid falling into the "perfection trap.”