This Productivity Killing Self-Talk Sounds Completely Reasonable
Perfectionism disguised in four innocent words
When you remove all the rough edges from your work, you might inadvertently remove what makes it interesting.
I had just put the finishing touches on a two-thousand-word story. I tossed it aside for twenty-four hours before my final edit. The next day, I read it over and decided it still wasn’t ready.
This cycle continued for several days until I finally deemed the story ready for publishing.
But there was a problem.
In my drive for perfection, the story lost its essence, the zest that communicated the raw emotion. The story may have been error-free, but it read like a DIY manual from IKEA. I decided to scrap the whole thing and start over. I had lost weeks of effort.
These paralyzing four words not only killed my productivity, but they also sterilized my work.
“It’s not ready yet.”
Yes, sometimes your work needs more polishing, sanding, love, or sweat. But other times, “it’s not ready yet” serves as an excuse. We reason that until it’s perfect, we cannot let the world see it. Perfection first. Distribution second.
“It’s not ready yet,” is a story we tell ourselves to justify hiding. It shelters us from the possibility of rejection and criticism.
We can never reach perfection, but we can achieve the point of maximum return — the state at which additional effort yields no discernable benefit.
If we proceed too far down the path of perfection, we venture into negative returns. Perhaps you’ve seen it in a book, movie or even a sales presentation. Something seems too polished, over-edited or too rehearsed.
When we keep our work “almost” finished we keep hope alive that someone will shower us with praise, buy our product and share it with their friends.
Ship your work. Call that prospect. Make that pitch. These are acts of risk and vulnerability. When indifference or rejection follow, it feels like a punch in the gut. And so we avoid that fate by telling ourselves we need to throw more effort at it.
You’ve seen it before
Have you ever read a book and marveled at the beautiful prose and tight storyline but struggled to keep your eyes open?
“It was technically brilliant but utterly boring.”
Perhaps that book was engaging at some point but was edited and polished to the point of sterility. When you remove all the rough edges, you might inadvertently remove what makes your work interesting.
How do we strike the right balance?
All great work requires some rework. How do we know when it’s enough? How do we avoid the “it’s not ready plague” while ensuring we meet the standards of quality?
Let’s define what it means when we tell ourselves our work isn’t ready. It could mean one of two things.
- Something lacks in your work. It could be that your novel lags in the middle. It could be your presentation fails to make a compelling argument. Something’s amiss. You may not know the problem, but you know your product fails to meet a minimum standard.
- Fear. You’re afraid of someone telling you no or rejecting your work. To avoid that fate, you convince yourself of imagined shortcomings. You might spend time polishing. Worse, you might remove or tone down the rough edges which can suck the life out of your product.
How can we tell the difference?
Ask yourself what’s missing. What improvements are keeping you from advancing to that next step? Write down your answers and categorize them into of these three buckets.
Essentials — Making a material change to your work that will alter its meaning or produce a discernable improvement in quality. An example might be adding a new character to a novel, tightening up lackluster prose, or adding a compelling benefit to a sales pitch.
Life-draining — This occurs when we file the rough edges, anything that might provoke a negative reaction. Life-draining modifications result in lifeless and sterile output.
It could take the form of toning down a character’s negative traits, watering down arguments to avoid offending an audience or adding qualifiers to bold statements to appease those who might disagree with you.
Illusionary — These changes are delay tactics. We call it polishing the apple. You might instinctively know your work is ready for primetime, but fear keeps you from shipping it. Examples might include obsessing over the professionalism of a diagram or waiting for something to happen before you move forward.
I need to practice my presentation one-hundred times before I approach a customer.
I need to do [fill in the blank] before I submit an article for publication.
I’ll state the obvious. Avoid the life-draining and illusionary changes.
The completely reasonable excuses
We mask our life-draining and illusionary work with these typical excuses.
You’re working hard.
You’re recognizing deficiencies in your work.
You’re striving for perfection.
All of these excuses sound completely reasonable to your ears. You might realize they’re bullshit on some level, but you don’t recognize it consciously.
So, now you’re aware. What do you do about it?
Cross the threshold
Sometimes awareness alone jolts us forward to the next phase. More likely, you’ll need to persuade yourself. You’ll need to trick your brain into downplaying your fear long enough for you to click publish, make that phone call, or whatever it is you’re putting off.
I like to use the what if this happens exercise to downplay the fears long enough and create a window for me to act. The effect does not last forever, but it lasts long enough to take action.
- Using the phrase what if, identify everything you fear about shipping your work or at least taking it forward to the next phase. Include everything, no matter how ridiculous it sounds in your head.
- Write it down on paper. It doesn’t need to be formal, you could use the back of a napkin if you want, but it works better when you write by hand.
- Next to each what if, write down a reasonable worst-case scenario.
What if people hate it? It’ll suck for a while but I can try again.
What if nobody reads it? It’ll hurt my ego for a few days.
What if they like it? I’ll have a lot of work to do to get to the next stage.
What if I offend someone? I’ll feel bad for a half a second.
What if they tell me no and to never come back again? I’ll try and sell it to someone else using another angle.
Worst case scenarios always sound life-crushing in your head. When you see them on paper, you wonder how you ever let such a thing get in your way. The realization creates a short but definite window for you to conquer your fear.