Your Projects, Diminishing Returns, Phantom To-Dos

To complete some projects, all you need is to reach a good-enough point. For others, just good enough is a recipe for trouble. Know the difference and avoid the psychological stress of taking your projects too far or not far enough.

Photo by Dan Foy.

Perfectionists and Good Enough

Sometimes a healthy dose of perfectionism is exactly what makes a person excellent at her job. But if an obsession for perfection takes over after a project or task has reached a point of acceptable completion — and you find that it's difficult to cross it off your list and move on — you may want to get more comfortable with good enough.

For a perfectionist, the idea of good enough can sound like a cop-out and a recipe for below-standard work. It's not — as long as you recognise when good enough really is, you know, good enough. In a post on the subject from a couple years ago, our always-helpful readers discussed the implications of good enough.

AndyFromTucson said:

It's odd that this article misses what I think is the only consideration in deciding what level of perfection is needed for project or task: What are the practical consequences of a flaw in your work?

If you are sweeping the back porch, its not the end of the world if you miss a spot so trying to achieve perfection is not a good use of time. If you are a commercial airline pilot landing a 747, well, I hope you are aiming for perfection!

AndyFromTuscon's response is common when you start talking about good enough. But reader MeOhMy offers this excellent counterpoint:

Amusingly, the "landing a plane" analogy came up on a similar thread some time ago. Here's what's missing:

You don't want the goal for perfection to paralyze you from completing the result. Here's how it applies to landing an airplane:

You want the pilot to AIM for perfection.

You do not want the pilot aborting perfectly good landings just because he didn't put the gear *RIGHT* on the centerline.

In other words, spec your project with perfection in mind, but do not let pursuit of perfection prevent you from ever completing the project. At the end of the day, the client only cares that the plane landed safely. That the pilot was a little to the right is immaterial to them... and that's assuming they even noticed.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The problem with continuing toward perfection beyond a certain point is described pretty well by one of the more famous economic laws, the law of diminishing returns, which, per Wikipedia, states:

In economics, diminishing returns refers to how the marginal production of a factor of production starts to progressively decrease as the factor is increased, in contrast to the increase that would otherwise be normally expected.

In short: Once you cross a certain threshold, the results of your extra effort get smaller and smaller. I'm not an economist, and translating an economic theory to your to-do list may not result in a perfect analogue, but it's at least useful to illustrate why good enough is not only acceptable, but sometimes important. In certain circumstances, if you keep working long after good enough, you may just be wasting your time.

On the flip side, we're not all perfectionists, and some of us have the opposite problem: We call a task or project good enough when it's actually not quite there.

Making Sure Good Enough Is Good Enough

Consider, for example, the media centres of geeks. Or, to be more specific, my media centre.

I enjoy tinkering with my media centre. I've got a server that all my media lives on and a silent, standalone XBMC media centre that sits under my TV. The common problem I run into with projects — especially technology-based projects — is that good enough for me is a far cry from good enough for everyone. And when you're putting together something like a media centre, you want to aim for good enough for everyone.

So when I add a new episode of Mad Men to my server, I can navigate to the show folder, click an obscure button on my remote and issue a command to my media centre to update with the new episode. My wife or friends can't, and I would never expect them to. To me that's not good enough — I need to either make it easier for people to do it themselves or automate the process (I chose to do the latter).

Like giving a presentation, defining the good enough threshold is largely a matter of knowing your audience. If you're the only person who needs to deal with the results of your task or project, the good enough point may be whatever works for you. But remember, if the fruits of your labour get you to a point where you still have to regularly put in extra effort as a result of aiming a little low on good enough, you may be wasting a lot more time in the long run. (In the example of the media centre, I may be able to manually update my library without too much effort, but I also benefit quite a bit from automating the process.)

The Stress of Missing the Mark

I can tell you this from plenty of experience: When you call a project done before you've reached a truly acceptable good-enough point, you're essentially creating a phantom to-do list that's going to carry with it all kinds of psychological stress. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you're very aware that you've got an incomplete project looming. If you're not already aware of it, the unfinished project itself may give you frequent reminders. In the case of the not-quite-there media centre, I'd get reminders every time I added a new piece of media to my box.

Those of us who take our lists pretty seriously know that capturing a to-do item takes care of a lot of that looming stress. We don't have to constantly work to remember that we need to do something because we've got it on a list. If you've crossed a project off your list when it isn't really at a good enough point, you're inviting stressful, psychological clutter to kick around in the back of your mind. So what should you do about it?

Put Together a Polish List

I like to put together a polish list. Whether you've gotten a project to a serviceable, nearly good enough level, but you know you don't have time to finish every important detail, you may still want to move it from a Big Important list to a smaller polish list.

More importantly, though, I'd recommend taking inventory of all the projects I described above; all the tasks and projects you stopped working on that could still use those one or two extra steps. Put them on a polish list and keep that list handy next time you're in the mood for the serious to-done high you can get from moving those secretly stressful items into fully done territory.

How About You?

The way that you determine what's good enough, what's not and what you want to be absolutely perfect regardless of how much time or effort it takes may vary. Let's hear more about how you decide when a project is really done in the comments.


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