The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

Perfectionism is optimizing at the wrong scale

At the risk of stating the obvious even more obviously than I usually do: sometimes the perfect approach involves tolerating imperfection.

Imperfection?! Yes. Specifically, the more macroscopic one’s view becomes, the more microscopic imperfections may need to be tolerated — if they don’t matter to the goal, or the effort required means it’s a trade-off with something else that would make the whole more perfect.

This is why perfectionism can be a flaw as well as a virtue. Precision is expensive. A perfection-mindset should be applied to the end goal. Assuming limited resources, it isn’t always possible to do everything — let alone do everything right. Applying a perfection mindset to subtasks can come at the cost of perfection at the project- or life-scale.

How do we zoom out and remember this? And when is aiming for perfection the best approach?

The perils of perfectionism have been thoroughly discussed — but so have the benefits of doing things properly, and superlinear returns.

As far as I can tell, regardless of domain, Quality is almost always rewarded in the long term. Excellent work generally gets better pay and is more satisfying, and excellent character accrues good friends and reputation.

So the question becomes, what game are you trying to win? My current answer is, briefly, “life.”

And I know that means tradeoffs.

What approaches can we take to triage the irrelevant?

  • Triage nothing. Attempting to triage nothing usually results in triaging timeliness, or if there's a deadline, quality (or quality of life).
  • Triage quality. We can try to do everything, but at a lower grade.
  • Triage timeliness. We can try to do everything well, let timelines slide, and possibly never finish.
  • Triage projects. It’s possible to do a few things well.
  • Triage features. It’s possible to do the minimal version of more projects, instead of doing a few projects thoroughly.
  • Triage rest of life. We can temporarily take on more by drawing down some other area of our life, like sleep, health, or relationships. It can feel like free energy at the time, but it's more like credit card debt: it must be repaid at a later date, with interest.


Sometimes optimizing at all scales is a bad idea because of a shortage of lifetime resources, like energy and money. But more often the problem with perfectionism is that it results in missing the timing.

“Perfect at the wrong time is worse than good enough at the right time” — Immanuel

Opportunities open and close. Often there isn’t time to do a great job of a time-sensitive project, but there is enough time to get a good enough version of a time sensitive project into the world while the world still needs it.

“Perfectionist” is often a euphemism for “someone who doesn’t understand that timeliness is part of perfection”.

So, what matters to you?

Are the actions you’re taking leading to it happening?

How are you sticking to your priority, knowing some things will be left undone?

♫♫ Nobody said it was easy / No one ever said it would be this hard♫♫