B+: When ‘good enough’ is good enough

About a year ago, I built a cupboard to fit into an alcove to one side of the fire in our living room. By any professional standards, it’s a decidedly average piece of joinery. But as a piece of DIY, it is a source of immense (and no doubt disproportionate) pride. It looks how I wanted it to, the joints are neat, edges square, and it functions exactly as intended. Fast forward to this weekend just past, and it seemed about time to finally finish it. And while applying a second coat of Ronseal Quick and Easy Brushing Wax (which performed as expected – if only there were a neat phrase to encapsulate that…), I started pondering on perfectionism.

More precisely, it was as I concluded that the back edge of a shelf, invisible from all accessible angles, could probably forego its second coat – as I decided, in other words, that ‘good enough’ was, in this case, good enough – that I realised this is perhaps one of the more important lessons I’ve learnt in my working life.

Let’s face it, if you’ve got anywhere at all in science, you’re probably a bit of a perfectionist in at least some areas of your work. You enjoy the challenge posed by difficult problems, and are prepared to work hard until that challenge is met. This is, of course, admirable; it’s also probably necessary in order to get research of any worth done. But as your responsibilities increase beyond research and into management, administration and teaching, and so the number of tasks requiring your attention proliferates (while days remain stubbornly stuck at 24h), then focusing this beam of perfectionism on every single item becomes untenable.

That’s when it’s helpful to realise that sometimes (whisper it) it really doesn’t matter if this isn’t the finest report ever written.

This is simply another way of looking at prioritising. Now, faced with a list of things to do, all of which absolutely have to be done TODAY, prioritising can seem impossible. But although you can’t choose what to do and what to neglect, you can decide which tasks require an A+ effort, and which can be safely relegated to B or C. This grading can occur within different realms of responsibility as well as between them. For a given piece of work, you should ask yourself, what am I doing this for? Who am I doing this for, and do I need to impress them? Most important, what do they expect out of it, what will they do with this output? And then you tailor your effort accordingly. For instance, if a final report on a grant will get graded as either ‘satisfactory’ or ‘not satisfactory’, is there really any point in aiming for ‘excellent’?

This is not meant as an excuse for slapdash or unacceptable work. Rather, the aim is to make sure that your most important tasks – the career-defining paper, the big seminar – get the time they deserve.

Of course, some tasks always warrant an A+ performance. Blogging, for example, is one…