The human brain is capable of extraordinary creativity and inventiveness. Our lives today provide us with overwhelming proof of a history of great breakthroughs and progress in all fields of endeavor. All of these achievements were generated by unique ideas of countless intelligent men and women. At the same time, the power of the human brain can work against itself in ways that leave many people feeling chronically guilty and dissatisfied—in spite of living in a world of great achievements. With seemingly everything in the world to be optimistic about, many people are frustrated and non-productive throughout much of their lives. What accounts for this paralysis of thinking and action when so many opportunities for personal confidence and productivity are available?
Two mental habits that can paralyze us for an entire lifetime.
The answer lies in the realm of habits—mental habits that are just the opposite of creativity and inventiveness. Two in particular, perfectionism and procrastination, are perhaps the biggest factors in the undermining of personal confidence and motivation. The habit of perfectionism paralyzes our ability to make decisions and commitments, while the habit of procrastination paralyzes our ability to take action. Perfectionism is the result of a mental obsession with achieving the “ideal”—as a minimum requirement—in all situations and areas of life. Procrastination results from the refusal to take action until an “ideal” result is guaranteed in every situation. These two habits almost always accompany each other. You seldom have one without the other.
Two negative habits that continually reinforce each other.
Perfectionists are always procrastinators, and procrastinators are always perfectionists. All individuals have some perfectionism and procrastination in their make-up—even if in very small amounts—but for some people these two habits dominate their thinking and action over their entire lifetime. As a result, they always have chronically low personal confidence, and this will never improve until these paralyzing habits are eliminated.
Perfectionism: obsession with the “ideal.”
Perfectionism represents a belief system about how life should work— not how life actually does work, but how it should. This is a crucial point. Perfectionists live in an all-encompassing world of “shoulds.” They especially direct this toward themselves. They “should” be this, they “should” have done that, this “shouldn’t” have happened to them. And, in every case, what actually did happen never measures up to their judgment about what should have happened. Perfectionism leads to a perpetual dissatisfaction with the past and pessimism about the future. In both cases, past and future, as well as the present, perfectionists never take ownership of what happens to them.
Procrastination: refusal to take action.
Procrastinators insist on guarantees before taking action in a world that doesn’t provide any guarantees. They continually end up feeling guilty over their stupidity, and yet they keep emotionally insisting on the guarantees. Because of their obsession with perfectionism, they find it difficult to make a decision or a commitment unless they can be certain it will lead to an “ideal” result. Out of necessity, they have to produce some results in life just to make an income, but it’s always a struggle. Procrastinators are their own worst enemies because they undermine their own confidence and cut themselves off from opportunities, resources, and capabilities that other people could provide to them—if only they would take action at the appropriate time.
Everyone who wants to can break out of these traps.
These two obstacles to individual confidence—perfectionism and procrastination—are universal maladies. With rare exceptions, every human being suffers from them at some point in life. A solution to both obstacles would be extraordinarily valuable, not only for the individuals themselves but for the world as a whole. On the following pages, we’ll examine a concept and method, “The 80% Approach,” which seeks to provide such a solution. Anyone who is willing can utilize this solution in a remarkably short time.
I’ve noticed something about my experiences with trying to get projects done. If I just jump into the project and finish it as quickly as possible, my self-judgment when I’m finished is that the result was only “80% good enough.” If, on the other hand, I procrastinate for a long time, feeling that I am not prepared to launch into the project, when I actually do complete it, my self-judgment is also that the result was only 80%. And, if I take weeks to think through the project, attempting to be as prepared as possible, my self-judgment when I complete it is that the result is still only 80%. No matter how I approach the project, my self-judgment about the result is always the same.
Confidence only comes from fast engagement and completion.
Why is my self-judgment always 80%? I think the answer lies in what happens to my thinking, and yours, when we’re actually engaged in completing a project. We start with an idea of the best way to complete the project and what the best result should be. As soon as we’re engaged, however, our understanding of what is involved and needed expands, deepens, and transforms. But none of this new learning can take place until engagement starts. Regardless of whether we’re procrastinating or trying to be more prepared, little or no learning takes place until we actually start. Something powerful happens to the mind and emotions when we’re engaged in producing a practical result. We become focused, blocking out other possibilities. We begin utilizing all of our intelligence and creativity. And we feel a sense of urgency, risk, and excitement.
Why procrastination is always doubly bad for us.
Procrastination—which I contend is based on judging ourselves by a standard of perfection—is always counterproductive in two particularly harmful ways. First, it robs us of personal confidence during the period before we become engaged with the project. When we procrastinate about a particular project, it’s because we don’t feel confident enough to take it on. But by procrastinating, we take away any confidence we do have. It makes getting started doubly difficult from an emotional and psychological standpoint. Second, when we actually do engage with the project, we feel a sense of personal loss and guilt about the valuable time and energy that was wasted by procrastinating. No experience makes us feel worse than having deliberately undermined our own self-confidence. And, after all the procrastination, our self-judgment about the result of our effort is exactly the same as if we had started immediately.
Preparation without engagement is worthless.
I’ve noticed that when I’ve tried to prepare without being engaged in a project, my judgment about this preparation after the project is completed is that it was essentially worthless. The reason is simple: My preparation (without engagement) makes the project more complex than it needs to be. I’m using only a small part of my intelligence and creativity, and I have very little sense of urgency, risk, and excitement. I learn very little, and I gain little or no confidence.
The Advantage: Since procrastination and preparation without engagement are counterproductive and worthless, your advantage lies in immediately engaging with and completing the project—reaching your first 80% as quickly as possible.
Perfectionism puts people into an impossible psychological trap, usually for a lifetime. In a world that is both unpredictable and constantly changing, perfection is virtually an unattainable ideal. Yet, perfectionists are obsessed with achieving “100%” in everything they do. Think of the extraordinary self-destructive stress this causes inside a person. Since it’s based on an ideal of perfection that has never been, and can never be, experienced, what does “100%” actually mean when we’re doing something new? No matter how hard we try, how will we ever know when we’ve reached 100%? Especially when in Advantage 1, if you accept the thinking, we’ve already established that our assessment of the result will always be just “80%.” The other reason the obsession with 100% is self-destructive is that life only requires an 80% result in 80% of daily situations.
Our “80%” is accepted by others as “100%.”
One of the great disabilities that undermines the perfectionistic person is not being able to understand how other people experience and value things. The perfectionist is fixated on achieving 100%, but no one else expects, requires, or will even appreciate this. In 80% of life’s situations, an 80% result is good enough to move things forward—and the best 80% result is the one that happens as quickly as possible. I’ll give you an example of this. I’m an experienced layout artist with 30 years of successful work behind me. In my company, Strategic Coach, I initiate most of the printed products we use in the Strategic Coach® Program and those that are sold to the public. Once I’ve completed the initial layout, a team of computer graphic artists take over and complete the projects. Before I created The 80% Approach, I used to take whole days, sometimes doing four or five complete drafts, to layout a single document. The layouts were beautiful—and totally unnecessary. I wanted to do it “100%” before handing it on. But no one except me required this degree of “perfection.” The other artists, who were familiar with my style and approach, only needed a rough layout to get clear direction on how to proceed. My obsession with achieving 100% was creating a bottleneck. I’ve seen countless other examples of this problem in coaching highly successful but stressed-out entrepreneurs. Their insistence on doing everything 100% before handing it on invariably makes them the biggest obstacle to teamwork and productivity in their companies. It increases their stress levels while diminishing the satisfaction they derive from achievement and progress.
When 80% is superior to 100%.
The mental and emotional shift I’ve undergone makes me certain that in most situations, striving for 80% produces far superior overall results than holding out for 100%. “Most situations” probably means 80% of daily work experiences—where other people’s abilities and teamwork play a crucial role. It is in these teamwork situations where “superior overall results” come into play. If I were working in isolation, with no one else necessary to the result, striving for 100% would make sense. But my daily life, with few exceptions, is completely based on teamwork. I find that most other people in today’s society would say the same thing.
The Advantage: Because modern life is based on teamwork and utilizes the different abilities of many people, striving for 80% instead of 100% leads to a much faster and superior overall result in 80% of situations.
One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I’ve gained over the past 25 years is that my activities fall into four distinct areas: incompetent, competent, excellent, and what I call Unique Ability®. Incompetent describes those activities that always lead to failure and frustration. Competent activities are those at which I’m able to perform at minimally acceptable standards, but even then it takes enormous effort. Excellent activities are those at which I have superior skills. They come to me easily, but I have no particular passion for them. Finally, Unique Ability is found in those activities where four things are always true: I have a superior skill; I love these activities and can’t get enough of them; doing them always energizes me, and other people are energized by my performance; and, I keep getting better at these activities. There are no upper limits to my improvement.
Doing only the 80% where I have a Unique Ability.
As I’ve organized my life increasingly around only those activities where I have a Unique Ability, my success and satisfaction in all areas of life have soared. At the same time, my ability to see where other people have a Unique Ability has dramatically increased. I now see that all the progress in my life lies in linking up my Unique Ability with those of an expanding number of people. But something else is also required for increased success: It’s crucial for me to focus only on my own Unique Ability, and it’s equally important for me to focus my Unique Ability on the 80% portion of a teamwork project where my efforts will produce the best and fastest results.
Fast layouts, graphics, copy, and recordings.
The single most important Unique Ability activity I do involves creating new ideas and learning materials for the Strategic Coach Program. I have some very well-developed skills for doing this. One, I design very good layouts that accurately show what the finished materials will look like. Two, I can create graphics that capture the essential ideas of a presentation. Three, I can outline the main copy points or provide a finished copy. And, four, I can do audio recordings with little need for rehearsals or second takes. Over the years, I have not only increased my skill level in these activities, but also the speed with which I can complete them. These, then, are the “80% contributions” I make to the production team I work with on a daily basis.
Many other people’s Unique Ability and “80% contributions” are required for the finished product.
As important as my skills are, however, they represent just part of the Unique Ability® Teamwork required for the overall result. There is also a project manager, a sound technician, a recording editor, two computer graphic artists, a final editor-writer, and a print coordinator. All of these other individuals have their own Unique Ability and their own crucial 80% contributions to make. If a project is to be completed in the most productive, successful, and satisfying manner, it’s crucial that each of us focuses our Unique Ability on our most important 80% contribution.
The Advantage: Success occurs extraordinarily quickly when all members of a team focus only on their individual Unique Ability and then focus their Unique Ability on their own “80% contributions” that guarantee the best overall teamwork and results.