How to be an imperfectionist

By Rell DeShaw

November 16, 2020

(Image: Adobe/Gorodenkoff)

One challenge of working through the COVID-19 pandemic is that finishing work takes longer — sometimes much longer.

I’m blessed in my part of the world with first rate tech and ever-improving bandwidth, yet I am often fighting with technology.

Lost drafts, links that won’t open, software that freezes at inopportune moments. In the end, work gets lost or delayed.

In addition, many of us are working some form of a split shift — parents with young children or those with eldercare responsibilities may find themselves continually restarting their tasks, which may also slow things down.

Given that the tasks just keep coming, I decided to revisit a piece I wrote a while ago about the value of ensuring that things keep moving along at a reasonable pace even when challenges exist.

Though I have started with a nod to things slowing us down that are outside our control, many of our challenges are more internally driven.

I have managed a range of people, some of whom are perfectionists, others were procrastinators and other still optimistic time-managers who all struggle to let go of their products. This is what I’d like to share with them:

Here are some reasons to keep products moving:

The longer you take, the more chance that the “sell-by date” will pass

Many documents are relevant for a limited period and then get stale. Events overtake the issue or other more pressing issues hit the radar. In addition, solid products may require significant re-writes after a passage of time as events advance.

You’ve got one perspective, not the whole view of the organisation

I have supervised a few employees who seem intent on creating a perfect product, though it just doesn’t exist much of the time. Generally, people with various perspectives need to weigh in before documents get out the door.

It is impossible to know everything that is on the minds of the senior reviewer when we are writing. We have to let them see our products to hear their commentary.

So, short of extending your work day, how can you land on sufficiently polished work with ever shrinking time in which to work on it?

A favourite approach of mine comes from Steven Pressfield in his fantastic book Do the Work. His brilliant take on all of this is: Don’t prepare, begin.

If I bring this into a government context, we might say that if you are a policy advisor, you have to advise. Not prepare to advise, or to think about advising, but to simply get on and advise.

Pressfield speaks about the discipline needed to actually put ourselves on “research diets”, so that continual preparation doesn’t become a form of resistance to doing the actual work.

How to bridge the divide?

Realise more isn’t always better

This interesting article explains how enjoyable it is to do a lot of research on a topic because learning creates dopamine, a high similar to cocaine.

But, additional information doesn’t always generate better decisions. Significantly, the brain can overestimate the importance of data it believes are missing.

The longer you work on something, the greater chance that you are going to write a document that is way too long and detailed for your audience.

I would say that reviewing documents that are too long for busy senior managers has been one of the greatest hurdles of my job over the past 10 years.

If you are really struggling with slimming down your products, you could consider using annexes or including some form of executive summary, to support the reader.

Make your standards scaleable

Consider whether your highest standards should be directed at products destined for the most senior leaders in your organisation and external audiences versus an internal email that is only a minor transaction or a product that will be used only one time for an internal meeting.

In addition, there may be objective standards that apply to all documents (e.g. a document is free of spelling errors) versus standards that only apply to certain products (e.g., specific templates or consultation with certain parties).

Get early feedback

Instead of producing a full-scale product off the bat, consider whether you might produce a quick outline, or even a set of questions you’d like to answer to reduce the risk of investing the time and energy costs of a full scale treatment of a subject that isn’t in the right ballpark.

My final thought about strategies to move things along is that you may have to experiment with sending a product forward, even before you think it is ready.

Reviewers will be pleased to receive a solid draft with sufficient time to review, versus a similarly solid draft at the 11th hour.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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