The Perfection Trap

Writers and artists have more in common than creativity. They’re often dogged by a nasty devil that sits on one shoulder whispering, “Perfection!”

I’m all for excellent outcomes. But the temptation to change one more word, rewrite one more phrase, or spin it a bit differently can be so strong that it paralyzes even the most productive among us.

In the book “Uncommon Service,” Anne Morriss and Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei acknowledge the downside of perfectionism. Morriss states that the “failure to make necessary tradeoffs is the number one obstacle to excellence in service organizations.” Wanting to do everything perfectly can lead you down the road of confused priorities and procrastination.

But one of the biggest costs of perfectionism is lost connections. After all, if you can’t get it out into the world, it can’t be shared, and you can’t begin building a community of people who can benefit from what you do.

So how do you know when it’s done? My friend, artist Cindy Harris, describes it like this. “Something just happens when I know it is time to step back from my easel and stop. That’s not to say I don’t tweak it ever again. Usually I’m just ready and excited to start something new. I try to listen to my inner voice, my intuition, and let the painting lead.”

When it comes to writing, there are a few ways to test your work before you publish it.


  • Proofread, spell-check, and proofread again. Errors have a way of popping out on paper, so print important items to double-check.
  • Run your piece by a trusted colleague who can give you honest, constructive criticism.
  • Let first drafts sit for at least a day or two before finalizing. Time reduces your initial glow of achievement and makes weaknesses apparent.
  • Trust that your work will find a ready audience.


  • Ask yourself: Is it good enough? Your answer can only be subjective. Ask instead: Does it achieve its purpose? (And if you don’t know its purpose, rewrite!).
  • Delay your personal deadline. Set the date, work to it, and publish.
  • Treat everything you write with the same scrutiny. Make time to polish only that which is vital to your business or must communicate something sensitive.

The more you write, the better you’ll become at getting it out there. Then move on! Chances are you’ll be tired of your current project and ready to explore all the new ideas that pop up as you’re working on something else.

Do you have a story about perfectionism – and how you overcame it? Share it!

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