Is there really a cure for perfectionism?
How can you make your work far superior in a shorter amount of time, often moving ahead of your peers? The answer lies in nature. In this episode, we look at two different kinds of plants: the monkey puzzle tree and the campion flower.
The monkey puzzle tree stands for perfection, but the campion flower is able to make 120 dramatic changes while the monkey puzzle struggles with perfection. Interesting? Find out more in this episode and get rid of your perfection sooner than you think.
You've probably heard of the Monkey Puzzle tree.
The Monkey Puzzle tree is a conifer that grows to 40 metres (130 feet) and may live for hundreds of years. Yet, there's a bit of a problem because the tree doesn't reach sexual maturity until it's 40 years old. Compare the Monkey Puzzle tree with a Campion flower and the flower looks puny at just a foot or two. But here's where it all gets very interesting.
The Campion flower reproduces within just four months.
This means that while the Monkey Puzzle tree goes through a single generation, the Campion flower goes through 120 generations. And with every generation, there's a possibility of a genetic mutation.
That mutation that may give it some slight super power to help it survive and thrive. The speed of the lifecycle means one very crucial thing: The species can adapt to rapid changes in the environment. There's a far greater chance of them getting better, hardier, different and possibly superior.
Perfection, on the other hand, doesn't allow for speedy turnarounds
Many of us like the idea of perfection, toiling away at our work, in order to reach a seemingly impossible goal. And like the Monkey Puzzle tree, we put ourselves at a disadvantage that's may seem hard to measure. But in reality, it's relatively easier to measure, and that's exactly what we've done on our courses like the Article Writing Course; or when training our niece, Marsha.
We've seen speed work better when learning to cook or learning to draw cartoons. And yet this isn't a clarion call for shoddiness.
In this series, we'll explore the importance of speed vs. perfection, while also giving a nod towards really outstanding work. But is it all about speed? Doesn't a lack of speed play its role? All of this information is about to follow, so stay tuned little Campion flower.
How speedy progress reduces drain on energy
Marsha, my niece, was struggling in maths in Year 4 and seemed to be almost at the bottom of the class. Four years later, she won a distinction in maths for being among the top performers in the class.
This year (five years later), teachers routinely call on her to evaluate and help with corrections of tests, plus she often gets called to the board to demonstrate how she solves a problem.
And you might have an inkling how Marsha was able to make this dramatic turnaround
Yes, there's hard work, and there's good mentoring. In fact, on IXL alone (which is an app for maths learning), Marsha has solved over 18,000 problems. Staggering as that figure might seem, there are two ways to get anything done. The first way is to be slow and methodical. The second way is to beat the clock.
In a Psychotactics course, clients are trained to beat the clock
When you're conducting a live course at a venue, it's easy to monitor what clients are doing. However, the moment you conduct a course online, it's impossible to tell how much time and effort is being put into a project. You don't get to see the drafts, the cancellations and the huge volume of edits.
All you ever see is the finished work. However, on Psychotactics courses, we have a simple bunch of questions that need to be answered every single day.
One of the questions is: how much time did you take to finish this project? In order to answer the question, it's important for the client to monitor the time. Which is why it concerned me deeply when one of the clients wrote her answer, after doing her article writing assignment.
Three hours? Three hours for an article? I'd imagined my instructions were clear enough. That you needed to get the job done as quickly as possible, but I wasn't counting on the perfection monster. It's not hard to imagine the state of that client.—let's call her Candidate No.1. Perhaps she started the assignment at 9 pm, after an incredibly hard day.
At midnight, the article is still not perfect, but she's too tired to argue with her drooping eyelids. She hits “publish” and the article is done. On the other hand, we have Candidate No. 2 who rigidly follows instructions and stops typing the moment the clock strikes the 90 minute mark.
Whose article will be superior? The article of Candidate No. 1 or No.2?
The answer is that they're both not very good. When you're just starting to learn to draw, write, dance or draw cartoons, you know approximately where your ultimate goal lies. As the broadcaster, Ira Glass says: You have style. You know what the finished product looks like but there's this gap between what you would like to see, and what you can produce right now.
Hence, both the articles are usually very early versions of a good article and nowhere close to amazing. Yet one person has taken three hours while the other has stopped diligently at 90 minutes.
Who's going to be more tired? Who's going to make more mistakes as the fatigue sets in? Who's going to be struggling both at work and to complete the assignment the next day? And what about the day after next and the day that follows it?
The Campion flower comes to mind, doesn't it?
It's all very fine to aspire to be a Monkey Puzzle tree and soar at 100 feet or more. However, the Campion flower concept is what we all need to get there.
Which is exactly what Renuka did with Marsha's maths tuition. Instead of considering her situation, which was pretty dire four-five years ago, she simply gave her an assignment and used a timer.
Invariably the mistakes would soar at the start, but all the mistakes were made in a precise amount of time, giving Marsha, a chance to recover. The brain learns a lot while doing the task, but the downtime is just as, if not more vital, in the learning and implementation process.
Whether it's cooking a meal or completing a project, you should be a Campion flower
This goal is important because it allows you to make a huge number of mistakes. Skill, or talent, is really a reduction of errors, so you need to make the errors and then reduce or eliminate them completely. If you take your time over a project, you can only make a fixed no. of errors.
Which is why, on a course, on in a workshop, I encourage clients to do their assignments quickly, rather than perfectly. Which means that if a client were to do their assignment early in the morning, they could get a correction, possibly many corrections within an hour or so.
By their break time, they could fix their minor errors while having a cup of coffee. Then at noon, another correction later, they could fine tune their errors (after I corrected their third or fourth tweak of the assignment).
By teatime they could have gone through four or five drafts, and with every submission, they'd have fewer errors to fix. However, only the first submission would be lengthy. The submissions through the day would be shorter, and we'd be tweaking nuances which don't take too much energy or focus.
Now compare this with ol' Monkey Puzzle client
The client who waits all day, mulling and toiling over his work. When he finally submits it, late at night, he misses out on all those nuances, but more importantly from an evolutionary point of view, he's barely budged at all. Ironically it's the speed that has created more errors, more genetic modifications to the skill.
If you're trying to be perfect, your Monkey Puzzle submission is the worst possible way to go about it.
Energy is crucial when working on any project
Creating versions, or tiny bits, to a fixed deadline and moving on to the next version might seem like a pretty idiotic method to go about your work.
However, the main point of this article is that your work will not improve dramatically if you put 200% more time, or 300% more time. If, on the other hand, you create more versions of the same job, you will almost always see a fairly dramatic improvement.
Even when we are struggling to learn or implement something, we are almost always able to come back and do the same thing better, the second time around. Let's say you're recording a YouTube video or a screencast. Not one of us is surprised to find the third or fourth version to be superior.
If you're asked to take four different pictures of an object, you'll find yourself composing the picture a tiny bit better in the second, third, or fourth round.
Even in the movies, they do many takes, not because they have money and time to blow, but because the versions improve with every take. Instead of trying to labour onwards with your first version, it's almost better to move on to the second and third and fourth—and to a deadline.
The problem is we often look at projects as a whole
For instance, you see yourself as writing ONE article, doing ONE podcast, writing ONE book. However, the bigger picture is far more important. What if you had to write an article a day? Or a book a month? What would you do differently? The changes you'd make would all be energy-dependent.
You'd work in short, intense bursts, improving as you went along. And you'd proceed to create a greater volume of work, and far, far superior work than your peers.
Doesn't painstaking work count?
Yes, it does. You want to do outstanding work and take loads of time over it. However, just working as a perfectionist, means you're going to just manage a single version of your work.
If two people: Person A and Person B were to start the same assignment on the same day, the person that lavished more attention to their work would have a much better result.
However, that advantage would not stay in place for long. Within a few weeks, Person B would be far ahead of Person A. And just remember one thing. What you consider to be imperfect is often just your own perception.
If the client or the person receiving your work is happy with it, there's really not a reason in the world to be a perfectionist. If you truly want to do outstanding work, you have to be Person B most of the time, occasionally slipping back to your Person A perfection level.
The greater the output, the better your work is going to be, especially if you take feedback as you move along. Marsha moved at a high speed, but the program always gave her feedback.
The students on a course move quickly and they get feedback just as rapidly, thus allowing them to make big changes. The painstaking work is great when you have the luxury of time. Ironically, that time never seems to be on the horizon, so we have to improve even as we battle deadlines.
One more point and we're done
I really struggled to write this article. I wrote one version, then cancelled it. Then another version, and that too was deleted. In fact, I ditched well over 1000-1500 words including some really nice stories because I realised they didn't fit.
However, I had a deadline for this article. And right now, I'm seven minutes over the deadline. Which is why I must stop. In short, you make your revisions, learn from the feedback, but then there's a deadline that you can only overshoot by a tiny margin.
After which you have to hit “publish”.
And that's exactly what I'm going to do in about three seconds.
Three, two, one…
Let's face it. If you consider yourself to be a perfectionist, well, you'd have spent almost all your life being told, or telling yourself that you're a perfectionist. You're probably trying to shake that habit, but it's easy to see why it's easier to stay in your comfort zone.
Well, here's what psychologists suggest
If you want to break out of your comfort zone, you stretch yourself ever so slightly. If you're labouring over a single article for several hours, how about spending half the time getting to the same goal?
Your work may not be as perfect as you hoped, but it gives you a chance to get feedback and to improve your next article. If you're struggling to do one cartoon (correctly, of course), how about drawing just two, getting feedback and drawing even more in the given time?
It's easy for an article like this to suggest that you need to take a big leap
That massive jump may not be possible. Instead, take a smaller one—just a slight stretch goal. Set yourself the time in which you'll complete the job, stop, and get feedback. Then, tomorrow, do the same.
If you follow this simple formula you'll find yourself less exhausted and with more energy. However, the biggest benefit of all is you'll become far better and far quicker at what you're doing.
And that's what you wanted anyway, didn't you? You wanted perfection! So there you go!
P.S. Oh, and print a picture of the monkey puzzle tree! Stick it on a prominent place where you can see it, just in case you forget. And don't look for the perfect picture. Any picture will do.