Choose progress over perfection

by | Jul 4, 2019 | Leadership

Recently, I co-facilitated a leadership programme that I hadn’t delivered before. The programme had already been designed so, after the other facilitator and I had agreed what sessions we were going to lead, it was just a matter of familiarising myself with them so I could bring them to life for the participants.

Simple, right?

Well, it should have been except what I found myself doing was going over and over and round and round trying to decide on the best way to deliver “my” sessions – how I would open them, how I would sequence content, what examples and data I needed to use. Right up to the moment I was delivering certain sessions, I was still prevaricating over what the “best” option would be to approach them.

The curse of perfectionism

I was, of course, suffering from Perfectionism, a fear-driven strategy to avoid any sort of criticism or reproach. In fact, I was effectively trying to control the future! How ridiculous is that?!

What about you? Do you have perfectionist tendencies? Perhaps it’s trying to get that report just so before you share it with your boss or the Board? Perhaps it’s reading an email over and over before you press “send”? Perhaps it’s poring through data to make sure you haven’t missed anything?

There is a way out : Choose “Ish” over perfect

Fortunately, help is at hand. I’ve just read the fabulous new book “Ish : The Problem with our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough” by Lynne Cazaly. I highly recommend you buy a copy if, like me, you battle with perfectionist tendencies.

In the meantime, here are my key take-aways :

  • Perfection doesn’t exist. I’m going to repeat that because it’s very important : Perfection doesn’t exist. It’s an imaginary, invisible standard we create in our minds. We can never reach it. Pursuit only causes unhappiness.
  • Time spent on a task doesn’t equal quality of work (note to self). It only makes us feel CONFIDENT about the quality of the work. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Pareto principle – 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. It’s another way of saying that.
  • Pursuing perfection means that we risk “great waste” of our potential rather than the possibility of “great work” which serves the world around us. Nobody can benefit from what we have to offer if we hide out.

So what can we do? We need to perfect less and “ish” more.

  • Define “done”. Don’t rely on your own idea of what’s needed because it’s likely way above what’s expected. Ask questions. Know what “good enough” is.
  • Know when to start. Work in increments to help you stop procrastinating and start doing. Baby steps that seem manageable rather than a seemingly overwhelming mountain to climb.
  • …and know when to stop. Go for feedback, not completion. Bring the “go live” date closer to make sure you’re doing 80 : 20.
  • Work in iterations – high quality doesn’t happen in isolation. Put your first attempt out there, get feedback and apply the insight you gain to make the next version even better. Test early and often.

So on that note, I should get this post out there. I’ll just leave you with this quote Lynne shared from Robert Hillyer : “Perfectionism is a dangerous state of mind in an imperfect world. The best way is to forget doubts and set about the task in hand. If you’re doing your best, you will not have time to worry about failure.”

In other words, stop worrying and just do something, anything. The world is waiting for you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do drop me a line at

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps new Directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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