perfection is the enemy of progress

February 20th, 2008

Perfection is the Enemy of Progress

I try to ignore it, but I really am at heart a perfectionist. I like to do things well, and do things right. But too often I aspire to be perfect, and instead of planning a course of action and starting something, I don’t actually get anywhere. Aspiring to always finish what I start has actually made it harder for me to complete anything, ever.

The idea behind finishing what you start, is, of course, simple. Set aside time, focus on the task, and go through everything until it is complete. Don’t put off part of the project and come back to it. Get to the end point and then move on to a different task, knowing you have finished with the first. In theory it sounds wonderful. I love the concept. Deal with everything, be done, move on. And I have thought for a long time that an efficient person operates this way. Start something and completely finish it. And then move on to the next thing. Excellent.

In reality – I don’t operate this way. The idea of processing everything related to a task and completing it before starting anything else has made me avoid more tasks than I’ve completed. It stymies me from even attempting certain things because I know I won’t be able to finish, and it has caused me to abandon many tasks midstream because I realize there’s no way I’ll complete them any time soon. In the past, it has even led me to pay bills late – I would set aside time to sit down and pay all my bills, and then realize I was missing a statement for something, and just abandon the idea entirely for another day. And then I’d forget and… whoops. Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. I have the opposite problem. I can’t see the trees for the forest.

In my present financial life, it may look like I ascribe to the single-minded focus philosophy that finishing what you start entails. I concentrate on one debt, I pay it off, I concentrate on the next. This has worked for me, and continues to work much better than any other method I have tried, as far as concentrating my focus on one debt task at a time. That’s because I am finishing really small pieces of the overall puzzle, not concentrating on my entire debt profile. This week, when I started thinking about being done with the credit card debt, and looking at the debts we had left, instead of being excited, I became overwhelmed. $26,000+ to go! Oh… my. So to make any progress, I have to narrow my focus and think about the really small picture. If I think about the big picture – like my debt in general – I just feel overwhelmed. One thing at a time is how I operate.

As an overall philosophy for my finances being a perfectionist really doesn’t work for me. There are many parts of my financial life that need attention, and many of them are too overwhelming for me to think about dealing with all at once. For example, our retirement accounts. I have done some things – I moved my IRA to a company and investment I was happy with, and we’ve developed a plan to increase my spouse’s 401K contributions. But there are a lot of other pieces of the retirement puzzle that need to be figured out – how much do we need to save now? I’ve started that but I still haven’t gotten to an answer. What allocation is really best for my spouse’s 401K? Again, I have started thinking about it, but I have only done the most preliminary of research. In my brain, I feel like I should sit down, do the work, and be done, but in reality I don’t operate in that manner. If I tell myself I need to do this start to finish, that will be enough reason to never start. But letting myself do things at a slower pace, little by little, I will get them done, and not be intimidated by the overwhelming process, to boot.

And so I ascribe to a less than perfect philosophy, both in my financial life as well as the rest of my life. Ninety percent is the new one hundred percent. This morning, when I thought for the thousandth time, I really need to clean off my desk, instead of starting, finding a few things I didn’t know how to deal with right then, and abandoning the project, I just made a pile of “later” stuff. Now my desk is 90% cleaned off and yes, the “later” pile might take as long itself as the other 90% did to deal with, but at least it looks small and annoys me a lot less. And I can see my desk. Throughout the day today, I’ve been picking up tasks to do from that small pile and actually completing them and putting them away, something I wouldn’t be doing if they were still buried in the other 90% of randomness that used to be on my desk.

Little things add up, and if I make it a goal to get a little bit done every day, instead of trying to do everything all at once, it does get done. Eventually. But at least, it gets done. In everything from my finances to cleaning my desk to organizing my kitchen. It gets done. I make progress, instead of trying to be perfect. With money and with life.

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21 Responses to “Perfection is the Enemy of Progress”

  1. Ninety percent is the new 100%: Ha! I love it!! One of my New Year’s resolutions one year was to finish everything I started: books, needlepoint projects etc. And I couldn’t do it. Some books just aren’t meant to be read, and time’s too short, etc etc.
    I feel like since the birth of my third baby, and of my blog (how stupid was that, starting another blog just after having a third child!), I spend my life frantically trying not to go backwards. I feel like my life belongs to the ‘Give A Mouse A Cookie’ variety.
    This has become a rant and whine, so I’ll finish up with this: great post, and I’m going to start to approach things from the 90% starting point!

  2. I think I’m going to repeat “90% is the new 100%” to myself frequently. I’m a perfectionist too, and it’s prevented me from starting things more often than I can count!

  3. What’s funny is that I originally titled this post “90% is the new 100%” but I didn’t like all the symbols in the title. lol!

  4. Getting even to 95% is a start because you can adjust and correct your trajectory when you get there. Breaking down a bigger project into small pieces also works. Heck if I got my debt down by 95% I’d be pretty happy with myself – I might even be inclined to make it all the way.

    while waiting for perfection life might pass you by.

  5. Do not repeat that mantra to my hubby please :)

    I am not a perfectionist. I am more than happy with good enough in almost everything I do. But I want my house finished some day :)

    Great post. I love this kind of stuff that you write!

  6. This is certainly something I struggle with almost every day. You want to set the example for your children in order to show them how important it is to finish something you start…yet you also want to show them to do a very good job as well. It’s a very difficult balance to maintain.

    In the software world, we’ve actually had a rule of thumb for a very long time to always shoot for the 90%, ship it, then fix whatever in the remaining 10% that you can’t live with. Whether it be because of customers complaining or something that corrupts data. Get the 90%, then let the remaining 10% let you know when it needs to be done.

    That’s the main reason I started my blog before I had all the features set up that I wanted. I just wanted to start writing and getting into my budgeting groove. The rest will fall into place when it needs to, or it’ll go away because it wasn’t really necessary.

    Excellent insight on this one PT. :)

  7. Excellent article! My wife is a perfectionist, a real perfectionist. Most people who think they are perfectionists, aren’t. I used to think I was a perfectionist until I got married. I am a notch below – just want things right. Being a perfectionist is paralyzing. My wife can’t get anything done for trying to get the thing she is working on perfect – she can spend the entire day cleaning the kitchen floor, and still not be happy with it. i have spent weeks putting lights on a Christmas tree. Having kids has helped in some ways – our house is not always pristine perfect.

    Thanks for sharing this. I plan to include your article in my weekly carnival review this Friday.

    Best Wishes,

    Best Wishes,

  8. This seems like an interesting article, but I have a headache now, so I’ll read it later when I feel perfect.

  9. Jason Harrison Says:

    February 23rd, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Look to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”:
    – for each of your projects what is the goal (what does “done” look like and why does that matter) and what is the next physical action you can do to move this forward?
    – then build a list of next physical actions, review it and keep it moving forward
    – sometimes avoiding a project or a task is a great motivator for getting other things done.

    etc, look to lifehacks, and GTD.



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