Perfection: The Enemy of Relaxation

I really wish this post would be perfect. I wish my home was just a bit cleaner and tidier. If I spent a little more time I’m sure I could make my work perfect, or that project for school just right, or that party just a little better. The pursuit of perfection can be paralyzing. From something as simple as having friends over for dinner and planning a surprise party to starting a blog or a small business, fear and the desires to make things perfect often keep us from taking action. Given enough time, almost all of us could make the activities in our lives perfect. Or at least pretty close to it. Whether it be work, school, family, sports, finances, or exercise, surely perfection would be obtainable. Wait, is perfection actually obtainable?

qualityvstimeI want to do the things that are most important in my life well. I actually enjoy working hard and working efficiently. I enjoy seeing a job well done. I also enjoy relaxing. The nagging thought of perfection can rob us of relaxation. For most activities there is a point where good is good enough. We don’t have to be perfect to meet our goal. Often, getting to good enough takes much less time than perfection. In some cases, getting to perfection takes more time than we will ever have. It is rare that a blog post will impact me for years to come, but J.D. Roth wrote about this subject (picture from GRS) when defining the fundamentals of personal finance. Understanding good enough is one of the key tenants to an efficient life and a primary factor that determines how well we are able to relax.

The time it takes to be perfect
The trouble with perfection is that it takes too much time. Time we don’t have. If we try to be perfect in everything, we simply will not have enough time in our days to fit life in. In addition, striving for perfection often puts unneeded stress in our lives, due to the fact it is very rare that we can control an entire situation. When imperfections arise, adapting and moving forward is much more relaxing than freaking out because things are not perfect.

I remember first understanding this concept and applying it to my life in school. I’ve always been pretty good at school but the true key was to focus on understanding what actually needed to be learned and spending my time efficiently learning that. It is almost an 80/20 rule of sorts. It may only take two hours to learn 90% of the material, but to fully understand 99% it might take an additional twenty hours. The effort to results ratio has a huge diminishing marginal utility. In addition, writing a post for the blog may take three hours but editing takes me almost as long so I get Ms. SE to do most of it. She can do it efficiently. I can get it to good enough and she can take it to publicly acceptable. This concept can be allied across almost any kind of field. This concept also has practical implications related to minimum effective dosing. This idea isolates what is needed to achieve the maximum result. The art of determining what it takes to get to good enough is much more practical and useful than the skill of perfection.

When Perfection Matters
There are certain tasks that need to be done as close as possible to perfection. Income tax returns might be a fitting example of that. With the right tools it is not extremely complicated, but it does take some time to get them correct. And it is time that is necessary and well spent. However, getting every blade of grass in your lawn the exact same height is a job that is possible to do perfectly, but the time it would take does not justify the outcome. In general, almost every teacher, boss, or dependent desires the task requested of you to be perfect. When a teacher asks something of you they expect it to be done well. Your boss expects that the work you produce is as good as you can make it. Your wife wants you to do your best. However, we all have constraints. We must make choices due to limitations of time in our lives. When you begin to get stressed out, take a moment to step back and really think about perfection. Will this be important six months from now? We can all strive for doing well, but life will not be perfect and the pursuit of perfection leads to dissatisfaction and stress.

I’ll be the first to tell you that you will make mistakes. I make mistakes. We all make mistakes. And we will continue to make mistakes. Every individual whose life appears to be perfect has issues they struggle with too. You can’t always will your way to perfection. It doesn’t happen. Accepting imperfection is one of the key tenants to maintaining a relaxed mindset. It may come natural to some and it may take work for others but, again, it is worthy of pursuit. Work on making progress towards perfection but don’t raise your expectations so high that you are disappointed when things do not turn out in real life like they did in your head.

Action trumps inaction. An imperfect product is better than a perfect one that never makes it into production. A good small business is better than ‘the best’ small business that never starts. There is never a perfect meal, gift, or compliment. We could spend all the time in the world striving for perfection just to be left with the guilt that even more perfect may still be out there. And a nice meal, gift, or compliment is sure to be enjoyed.

Relaxation is a worthy goal. And doing a great job is also a worthy goal. But we don’t have enough time or energy to make sure everything in our life is perfect. Do less, do it well, and don’t fret if it never reaches perfection. I actually enjoy working really hard on things that are important to me. It is quite satisfying to work hard and see fantastic results. It is also important to take a little time and develop a set of priorities that may help when deciding what gets our full attention. Our lives will not be perfect; and once we are able to accept that fact, we can begin to craft a life full of joy and relaxation.

One thought on “Perfection: The Enemy of Relaxation

  1. Ive read most of your articles after finding you through MMM and really enjoyed your perspective. This was another excellent post. You articulated what I accidentally understood about effort vs. understanding in school. That said it is still very challenging for me to recognize when I’m doing this in the real world. I have a tendency to keep plugging away thinking I’m getting more and better work done when in reality it should have “shipped” hours ago.

    I also think that you touched on another key to being efficient. Getting the majority of your thoughts out and then putting it in someone else’s hands. I’ve found that to be very helpful. Partly we all get a bit brain dead if we just try to keep pushing and partly because others are often better at clean up or refinement of an idea.

    Oh, and go Dawgs!