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Perfect is the enemy of done

To me, perfectionism is the other side of insecurity.

Perfect is the Enemy, Amy Bernstein, editor of Harvard Business Review

At a WACL Gathering on Monday night (Getting to the Top – How to Think Strategically) one of the speakers offered a phrase I’ve heard before and always found helpful ‘perfect is the enemy of done’. I think there are a few different variations on this theme and any of them are helpful.

I’ve been thinking about perfection at lot this week and in previous weeks as I think about the ways in which we stand in the way of our own success. I’m lucky enough to have so many friends I admire and some of them are great at just getting something at 80% or 90%… and others so badly need it to be perfect that it never gets done.

I believe that we often look at perfectionism through the lens of the bullshit interview answer – ‘what’s my biggest weakness? oh, probably that I sometimes just care too much. I’m such a perfectionist, y’know.’ Or as a bit of a humblebrag or something heroic and to be impressed by. We rarely seem to go much deeper to examine what’s really going on underneath it all. And that’s probably because a lot of perfectionism is caused by fear; fear of someone’s reaction; fear that it will ‘never be good enough’; fear that it’s the last good work we might do; fear that we’ll only ever have one chance to get it right.

I’m the kind of person who has a bunch of different empty and very pretty notebooks that I can’t bear to use because notes are too messy and scribbly and they’ll mess up the nice pages. I never, ever write notes in books. I hesitate before bringing a nice new book with me on the Tube because it might get creased in my bag.


I intended to write something on this subject back in October last year and again in December. At the time HBR’s Women at Work and Refinery 29’s Strong Opinions Loosely Held (excellent podcasts I strongly recommend) had both spoken about perfect. As you can see I didn’t write on this subject in 2018, but with the subject having come up a lot for me recently I thought this would be a nice time to think about it.

I think that perfectionism holds us back. We can’t make progress until we’ve tried that first edition, put it out in the world and seen it complete. Some of my biggest lessons/mistakes/successes have only come after pressing send. There’s a kind of growth that comes through the momentum of moving through completed projects.

I’d really recommend listening to both podcast episodes (Perfect Is The Enemy and The Problem With Perfect) because I think we all need to work out for ourselves where our self-sabotage is coming from and that’s a personal journey. But once you’ve done that, I think there are some good solutions that they offer and for me, three different things have made a difference in fighting perfectionism:

  1. Break the task down into very small, very manageable pieces. For this I tend to try and attach a deadline to every part to keep the whole thing moving (I usually write the pieces down and then once I feel like I’ve broken it down I’ll add it to Todoist). I know that this isn’t earth-shattering advice but it makes everything far less daunting and means that your task is just simple maths: 1 hour a day or 500 words every Saturday or three jogs a week etc.
  2. Just do it. I’d recommend following the advice of prolific authors like Stephen King who don’t just wait for the Muse to arrive and do the work for them. They turn up at their desk every single day and just write. And some of the time what you’re writing is crap, and other times it’s gold. Just do it. I really like tips 17-21 in this piece from him in The Independent. Just do it.
  3. Focus on the process not the product. This isn’t a tip I could have appreciated properly when I was young. And it’s not one I could have really appreciated until Japan. There’s probably a reason that you’re looking to do whatever you’re doing (and letting fear get in the way of) and I suspect that it’s something you enjoy, or care about, or feel drawn to, or passionate about. If that’s the case then relaxing into the process shouldn’t be the chore that you’ve turned it into. Yes, you’ve got a goal and an end-product in mind (tips one and two above) but once you’ve got that set you have the freedom to just enjoy your craft. Whether that’s writing or illustrating or filming there’s pleasure to be found in indulging in something you’re good at and are fortunate enough to have the time and the resources to do. Stop beating yourself up about it.

“The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.”

Stephen King, On Writing, page 138