The Point of Minimal Return: the Fatal Flaw of Perfectionism

So I just started a new internship with a new company today and one of the concepts that my supervisor brought up is called The Point of Minimal Return. She started off by telling us about one of the many flaws that many of us have (herself included): we are perfectionists. It’s a fatal flaw that doesn’t always work out (hence the flaw bit, right?) and it takes a special skill to maintain the balance between making someone as perfect as it can be and stepping back to say, “Okay, it’s time for me to let go now.” And this is something that I’ve struggled with a lot.

I’m a perfectionist to tell you the truth. I have a very picky taste, especially when it comes to blog aesthetics, so it’s not surprising that people sometimes do call me neurotic. With anything I work on, it has to be just right. Again, this is a huge issue for me when it comes to my blogs – the font has to be just right, the color palette, the images, the links, even the colors of the visited links have to fit into my overall color palette. Yes, you can all say it: I’m neurotic and slightly crazy.

But at one point, we have to realize that we are fast approaching the point of minimal return. Wait a second – what’s that?!

The Point of Minimal Return (or diminishing return) is a concept in economics and in its basic terms, it dictates that when you increase the productivity of a single input factor (while the other factors stay constant), the output will actually begin to decrease marginally. Basically, if the hypothetical equation to this concept was: 2A + 3B + 4C = 5D (all arbitrary values, of course) and we were to increase the value of A to perhaps 4 in small increments, we might approach a point where the value of D might actually begin to decrease. Basically, with adding more A, at some point we would begin to become counterproductive.

Ok, enough of the math. Let me translate that into writing blog posts.

If I were to spend 45 minutes – 1hr on writing a post and then another 30 minutes on editing it and making it perfect content-wise, that’s good. But I were to start nitpicking at every detail and the editing time goes up to 45 minutes first, then it takes up an hour, maybe even hour and a half, I will slowly start approaching the point of minimal return. At this point, I’ve increased the time I’ve spent editing (read: perfecting) the post to the point where my result of actually publishing the post and therefore attract new readers to my blog has actually diminished.

Why? Well, for the simple reason that I never actually posted the article in the first place! I was so focused on making it as perfect as it could be that it was never really perfect enough for me to publish it.

And we all have moments like this, don’t we? Especially when we’re about to start a brand-new project of any sort, we want it to be as perfect as it can be so we don’t get criticized as heavily as we could be. We want to aim for that feeling of praise with the least amount of people trying to point out our mistakes. The problem is that we might get so focused on perfectionism that we won’t actually increase our productivity; we’ll end up decreasing it.

This is a very real issue for me as a writer; in creative fiction, one of the biggest pieces of advice we’ll ever get is that we must keep writing. Our first drafts will always suck and there’s no point in us even arguing about this statement. They’ll suck, we have to be okay with it, and we have to just get the damn story written. I literally struggle with this because I can write an entire chapter and I won’t be able to move on because I go back and find an issue with a scene, or a piece of dialogue, or the pacing. By the time I realize what’s going on, it’s three weeks later and I’m only still one chapter in.

My solution? Take a deep breath, step, back, and make that mistake. It’s one of those solutions that make you say, “K, very easy to say but hard to do” but you’re absolutely right! But believe me, it’s what you need.

Take a deep breath.

Step back.

Make the mistake.

Hit publish.

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