How to achieve more by doing less

'‘Working too hard burns us out and doesn’t result in the success – career or otherwise"

How to achieve more by doing less

Our culture is so focused on achievement, success and making things perfect, that striving for perfection is something we may have known for much of our lives.

Shouldn’t you try to do things perfectly? It turns out, no, not at all, according to Lynne Cazaly, author of ‘ish: The Problem with our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough.’    

Cazaly cited research data from over 50,000 people (between 2010 and 2015) from 36 countries showed extra work effort ‘associated with reduced well-being and inferior career-related outcomes.’ 

Avgoustaki and Frankort’s research showed the harder people worked, the more likely they reported stress, lower satisfaction and inferior outcomes.

“Working too hard burns us out and doesn’t result in the success – career or otherwise – that we might expect. It sounds crazy, but their research found that doing less (at work) can actually help us achieve more,” said Cazaly.

READ MORE: How to attain an authentic work/life balance

The science of doing less
According to Cazaly, we can afford to spend less time on things thanks to two theories of activity.

The Law of Diminishing Returns (where our return on effort reduces over time) and the 80/20 rule or the Pareto Effect (where just 20% of our efforts yields 80% of the results) are two approaches that validate the practice of going for good enough rather than the waste of perfection.

“Next time you’re working on a proposal or report, developing a new system or process, stay alert to your desire to pursue perfection,” said Cazaly.

“Good leadership starts with us, modelling behaviours for others; here, it’s about knowing when good enough is good enough.”

The rise of perfectionism
The problem is perfectionism is on the increase. Curran and Hill’s research data from 41,000 people revealed three types of perfectionism:

  • self-oriented (I expect high standards of myself)
  • societal (I believe society expects high standards of me) and
  • other oriented (I expect high standards of you).

All three are on the rise, with the second, societal, increasing the most, by 33% over the past couple of decades. Future projections “don’t look good”, added Cazaly.

“The hitch with perfection: it simply doesn’t exist and pursuing it is a foolish and wasteful activity,” she said.

“If we find ourselves - or a team - staying back, taking work home, working on weekends in a devoted effort to make something ‘better’, it’s likely there’s a wasteful pursuit of perfection underway.”

READ MORE: In the Zone: Finding HR’s perfect balance

Increments and iterations are the new perfect
The more contemporary preference is to go for ‘good enough’ or ‘ish’, which means somewhat or near enough, according to Cazaly.

The practice is to work on a smaller piece or packet of work – an increment – and work until it’s “good enough to get feedback, good enough to test it out with customers or clients and good enough to go again and improve via an iteration”.

It’s a process used successfully by lean start-ups, technology teams, and software developers.

For Cazaly, “increments and iterations are the new perfect”. They’re more effective in helping us make progress over perfection.

How to go for good enough
Cazaly outlines the following tips to set a course for good enough rather than the pointless pursuit of perfection.

  1. Stop expecting or requiring perfection. Accept first drafts, rough cuts and mock ups. The design industry thrives on them, gaining early feedback, ensuring efficiency of work going forward.
  2. Make the standard clearer. Great leaders clarify the end goal or outcome, beyond a generic call for ‘high quality or ‘really good’. Explain the standard in a measurable way; it will help people enormously.
  3. Improve over time. Allow learning, iterations and insights to build on first attempts. The best and brightest organisations know the power of improving over time rather than expecting perfect.
  4. Assess whether you can go for ‘ish’ on more things, where near enough is good enough. Check whether ish might be feasible, doable or acceptable to the business more often. It’s a major productivity gain and it’s more motivating for teams when they complete work.

Cazaly added that if you spot perfectionism behaviours or hear people being highly critical of themselves or others, know that a standard isn’t clear enough and perfectionism could be at play.

“Step in, coach, guide or suggest that a specific standard might help everyone ‘get on the same page’, gain alignment on the work and work to achieve the goal. There will be less stress and greater success,” she said.

“Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of doing good work - for yourself, your team and those in the organisation that you advocate for, partner with or support.

“Getting work done using increments and iterations beats the stress, burnout and mental health effects of perfection chasing every time.”

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