I have spent much of my adult life fighting to overcome the desire to procrastinate, and the chief villain behind my procrastination is a belief that anything I do must be done perfectly. This is, of course, a completely unreasonable and unattainable standard.
When we hold ourselves hostage to the standard of perfection, the flaws we will inevitably find will cause us to doubt. Anything we do accomplish will be diminished in our own eyes because of these perceived flaws.
But worse still, being a perfectionist often prevents us from even getting started: When we believe that a task requires perfect execution, there is an enormous overhead that is completely self-imposed. This causes us to doubt that we even have the capacity to accomplish the task.
And when doubt creeps in, we begin a slow spiral that gradually diminishes the faith we have in our own capabilities and potential. Progress toward our goal grinds to a halt.
Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.
Perfection is the enemy of execution. Perfection causes us to believe the task is harder than it really is. Perfection makes us believe that our goal is too lofty, and that we could never form the habits necessary to accomplish it.
How do we break out of this belief? It is certainly not trivial, and I do not presume that a few of my words will lend the solution. But I can share what helps me break the cycle: I take an iterative approach:
Step 1: Make it
The first thing you should do is to just get started doing something—anything—to make some initial progress toward your target. At this stage, don’t worry about proper organization, and don’t hold back any creative processes; you’re simply attempting to make initial progress, however messy.
Step 2: Make it right
It’s always easier to edit and reorganize existing content, processes, or ideas than it is to create something from nothing. In this step, take the rough progress you previously made, and form it into something that correctly represents what you’re attempting to accomplish. I often find that the momentum from step 1 inspires me to do additional creation in this step.
Step 3: Make it shine
Now that you’ve got the basic idea, let’s refine it and make it better. Add polish to the slide deck; optimize and refactor the code base; sand, smooth, and stain that piece of furniture you built. This is where we have license to let a little bit of our perfectionist side show through.
When I find myself balking at the fear of undertaking what I believe to be a daunting task, I have started asking myself: What if this didn’t get done today? What if this didn’t get done in a week? What if this never got done? Be honest with yourself about what would really happen.
I often find that this exercise reveals the absurdity of what I’ve led myself to believe; I didn’t need to make the task as complicated as I had, and I can instead focus on simply getting the task done instead of agonizing over every possible detail.
In other words, you don’t need to do it perfectly, you just need to do it.