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My guess is that, if you found yourself in the development and education world somehow, you were probably a good student in school.  It pained you see see anything other than an ‘A’ on a paper.  Every red-ink-pen stroke was an injury.  You had strong feelings about group projects and their impact on the quality of your work.

Sound familiar?  That probably means that many of those character traits that served you well in high school and college have continued to serve you well in your professional life; you’re hardworking, you set high standards for yourself, you don’t quit until it’s done.

What many of us “good students” may not realize is that part of that “good student” mentality may be hurting us as adults.  You can call it perfectionism.  You can call it high attention to detail.  You can say your quality standards are higher than others.  But what it’s doing is sapping your time, energy and money.

Picture yourself working on a creative project.  You work and work, refining, perfecting, maybe even scrapping and starting over once or twice.  You might keep working, perhaps staying up all night, until your deadline arrives and you must turn it in.  You feel pretty good about yourself, right?  You’ve done everything you can to make that project as good as it can be.  You’re exhausted, but it’s a good exhausted.

Now picture that project in a work setting.  Whether you’re hourly, salaried, billing a client, or simply building your portfolio, you’ve just given everything you’ve got to make that project perfect.  You still might feel pretty good about the quality of your work and the quantity of effort you poured into it.

But now there’s another side to the coin.  Did you just spend 16 hours on a project that would have been good enough at 8? Or even quite good at 10?

Business folk have all kinds of terms for this phenomenon.  Economist talk about diminishing return on investment.  Salespeople recognize the difference between pay-time and no-pay-time.  CEOs talk about revenue drivers versus cost centers.

Good students only talk about how “good” something is, equating “goodness” to how much effort is put in.  Good business people need to adjust that equation.  It’s not linear – it’s not true that the more time you put into something, the better it gets.  Instead, think about the law of diminishing returns.  There comes a point in every project where all the criteria for “good work” are met: it’s neat, accurate, it does what it says it’s going to do.  If you keep working on it, you can improve it.  Perhaps this font is just slightly artsier than that one.  Perhaps you could fancy up a graphic or provide user feedback in four ways instead of three.  But the value you get out of the time you put in, if you get any, is negligible.

Here are my four laws that help me abide by the law of diminishing returns:

  1. Make a solid project plan, with specific goals and objectives.  Are all the objectives met?  Great.  It’s time to call it done.
  2. Know how long each step should take, and stick to it.  Writing a first draft?  By the end of today, send it away for feedback, no  matter how rough it is.  Creating a small icon for an e-course?  If you’re not on to the next thing in thirty minutes, use it as-is or do without.  This step will require a solid foundation: spend a few weeks or a month logging your time, and you’ll quickly get a feel for how long each task is taking.
  3. Know your hourly rate.  You probably know what you earn per hour.  If not, calculate an average right now.  That’s a real number you need to hold in your head when you think about how you spend an hour.  But then, start rounding it up as you consider benefits, the other projects you could be working on if you’d finished this one,  and the time you could be spending on real life, with friends, family, or yourself, if you were done for the day.  One hour is pretty pricey, right?
  4. Know the monetary value of what you want to do.  The next time you consider going above and beyond the call of duty, as yourself: what would I pay for the added feature?  We’re not talking about money coming out of some corporate fund for things that are neat.  We’re talking about your own hard-earned cash. Would you spend fifty dollars on a button with a slightly cleaner design?  Didn’t think so.  Move along.

A lot of people don’t like being told they can’t continue to put time into a project they are passionate about.  They tend to think more is more, any anyone who tells them differently is a fun-hating, corporate bean-counter who is probably dead inside.  And this desire to make things better applies to a wide range of people, whether we like to put them in “creative-type” buckets or “perfectionist” pigeon-holes, or some other category.  Most of us just don’t want to put our name on something that’s not as great as they way we imagined it.  I know, I struggle with this all the time.

So let’s think of it another way: let’s do something good, release it out into the world, and move on to another good thing.  Otherwise, we’ll spend all our time on one thing that’s never quite good enough.

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