Why Settling for “Good Enough” Might be Even Better

I used to hate the phrase “good enough”.

“Good enough” meant you were settling for something inferior. You could have done better—done more—if you just put a little more effort into it. For example, I knew I could get 100% on a test, so that’s what I went for. I usually came pretty close. I used to joke that when it came to grades, “‘A’ is for Average, ‘B’ is Below [Average].”

Here’s the problem: you can always put a little more effort in, do one more thing, go some extra mile. You have to draw the line somewhere. Where you place that line is as much art as it is science—it’s a judgement call. Perfectionism says there is only one place you can put the line, and if you draw it in the wrong place, you’ve failed.

Now, I think that “good enough” might not be all that bad.

Photo courtesy of @iStockPhoto/hansslegers

In 1906, around the time that Ivy Lee was talking to Charles Schwab, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the peas in his garden came from only 20% of the plants. He also observed that 80% of Italy was owned by only 20% of the people. I’m not sure which he noticed first.

This rule of thumb has been called the Pareto Principle in his honor. It’s also known as the 80/20 Rule.

  • 80% of what you get done comes from 20% of what you do
  • 80% of your bugs are in 20% of your code
  • 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your sales
  • 80% of your time is spent dealing with 20% of your customers
  • 80% of your weight loss will come from 20% of the changes you make

…etc. This isn’t hard and fast rule, obviously, but it’s a pervasive principle.

In The Four-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris recommends that you identify the 80% of effort or resources that’s only yielding 20% of results and rid yourself of it. Fire the customers. Let employees go. Don’t renew that contract. That’s a profound concept, and honestly, a little bit frightening.

Imagine striking the following deal with your employer: you’ll show up to work at 8am on Monday and focus on the top 20% of your activities that produce 80% of your results. At 5pm, you’re done for the week. You’re still producing 80% of your results, so you’ll still draw 80% of your current paycheck.

Now you’re drawing 80% pay and only working one day a week. That’s not bad. But why stop there? Strike this deal with five employers, and for the same effort you’re putting in now, you could make four times what you currently earn. (Although I think that 320% and three-day weekends would be a sweet spot.)

You’re not likely to find one employer that would agree to this, let alone five. (If you do, let me know how you pitched the idea.) You’d probably need to be self-employed and take on all the risk yourself. But this illustrates what could happen if you don’t worry about the 20% of your lowest-value activities that take up 80% of your time.

This is at the core of “work smarter, not harder”. You can only get linear gains by increasing the number of hours you work. You can get exponential increases by focusing on the right activities and dropping the wrong ones.

Everything we do is about tradeoffs. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, or how much money you have, everyone has 168 hours in the week. When we say “yes” to doing something, we’re saying “no” to doing everything else.

Sometimes, spending five times as long on something to get that last 20% just isn’t worth it. Sometimes it will be. You’re the only one who can decide whether chasing that last 20% is worth it or if you’re just procrastinating in the name of perfection. (If you’re not sure, ask your boss, coworkers, and customers.)

Know what’s important. Focus your attention and energy there. Polish it until it shines. If it’s not important, it’s not where your attention should be, and “good enough” may be better for you than you realize.

Question: How do you decide which tasks get polished to perfection, which get the “good enough” treatment, and which get dropped on the floor entirely? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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