Find breathing room by avoiding the perils of perfectionism


Getting your creative practice into solid shape, from a profitability and business perspective is not easy. Any way you slice it, to straighten out your finances, your schedule, or your marketing is going to take time. And the eternal catch 22 of poorly performing businesses is that lack of profits always expresses itself, not only in a lack of revenue, but in extreme time pressures.

So how can you find the time to fix the problems, when lack of time is part of the consequences of those problems? At a basic level, if you want to fix things, then it’s true that things will get a little harder for you before they get better. You will have to eke out whatever time you can, to apply solutions that will begin to make fundamental changes.

Paring Down Perfectionism

But there may be an area of your practice where you can find some time. And that’s by avoiding the peril of perfectionism. This is a peril that creative entrepreneurs face more than most. That’s because of two dynamics inherent in the creative process.

Number one, there is no objective state of any project that can be measured as being “done.” With products or other professional services, there are objective measures that can confirm the completion of a task. When your tax return reports all the necessary financial figures, it’s done. When the computer is assembled, tested, and packaged, it’s done. But what about a logo, or an ad layout, or an illustration? While it might be clear when something is clearly not done yet—still in sketch mode—there’s no state that is ever objectively done. You might have to simply stop working at some point due to a deadline, but how often have you had to stop working, and felt like you could not possibly improve on your work, if only you had more time?

The Time Sink of Perfectionism

Compounding the lack of objective completion measures, is the creative’s drive for perfectionism. The creative process is deeply engaging, and it involves experimentation, tweaking, re-arranging, and sometimes scrapping and starting over. You invest so much energy and focus in this process, and the results are often stunning. Your clients appreciate and delight in the results of your artistic striving. But where they see beauty, you often see flaws. Having been so engaged in the process, you see all the unexplored possibilities, and elements you never fully resolved. You know you could make it better.

The Inability to Perceive Perfection

This bittersweet tension is built into the creative process. And it’s a huge liability for your business. Let’s consider the differential between your creative insight as you evaluate a piece that you have “finished,” for better or worse, and your client’s (and the rest of the world’s) evaluation of your work. Whereas you see the unaddressed potential, they only see a wonderful finished product. And truth be told, even if you did spend another day, or week, and did in fact improve it, it’s highly unlikely that your client would be able to discern the difference. Most people in the world simply don’t have their aesthetic sensibilities tuned to the degree you do. Audiophiles swear that they can hear the difference between the putre analog sound of vinyl, and even the highest bitrate digital audio. I believe them, but I sure can’t.

The High Price Tag of Perfection

Now here’s where things get costly for you. You see, as you approach the highest end of fidelity, or the most fully developed designs and artwork, as you approach the nexus between acceptable completion and pure genius—as you close that gap you experience increasing degrees of effort, for quickly diminishing returns.

But what if you could measure the quality of design in terms of percentages? The truth of the matter is that once you’ve reached the 90-95% mark of quality, the average beholder of your work can’t detect any further improvement. Any additional time you spend moving the quality scale toward 100% is effort that only you, and perhaps a few other sharp-eyed designers, will ever appreciate. Now if the time and effort to get to the high 90’s level of quality only took a proportionate amount of time as it took to get to 90%, then I suppose satisfying your own standards could be worth it. But that’s never the case. The effort to squeeze out that last 5-10% takes a disproportionate amount of time. Consider the price between a really good stereo system, and an elite audiophile system, or between a very good camera and a cinema quality model. The better equipment, with extreme dynamic range, comes at an extraordinary premium. Those options are not 5-10% more expensive. They could be 5-10 times as expensive—just to close a gap that only the most refined sensibilities can even detect.

An Imaginary Design Quality Detector

What if there was a design quality detector that you could use that would tell you when you arrived at 95% quality. And let’s suppose it took you forty hours to get there. And to get to 98% would take another eight hours. Would you stop? Or would you keep going? And what if getting to 100% would take twenty more hours?

Of course no such machine exists. And these kinds of subjective determinations are immeasurable. But I would venture to say that most creatives enter into that zone where increasing quality comes at a high cost on your time. You’re so stuck in the zone, having invested so much already. You’re so far in that your mind is full of more possibilities, ideas that could not have conceived of at the outset. Do you keep going, just a little further, to try out just one more idea?

When do you actually stop? How far into the costly, unproductive zone do you tread each time? How many hours does that equate to? And if you added up all those hours across every project, how much time have you spent satisfying the inner perfectionist at the cost of your own profitability and exhaustion? Quite a bit I imagine.

Take Control of Your Inner Quality Meter

If you can just ratchet that impulse down a notch or two, you may be able to recover a disproportionate amount of time, to redirect to matters that really need your attention. Even if they are not as engaging as the creative process.

No doubt this is a hard thing to get a grip on, and even harder to control. But it’s worth thinking about, and gaining some self awareness. It may be that you have some potential time resources available that you were not aware of. And redirecting, even a little of that, might make a big difference.