“Always doing your best” considered harmful?

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!

I can’t dance well, and I’m a bit clumsy in general, but if my wife wants to dance, I won’t let my inability to do it right stop me from doing my best.

I’ve always thought that doing my best was a better guide than getting it “right,” but lately I’m more and more aware that even doing my best undercuts my ability to get things done.

My urge to always do my best is often the enemy of “good enough.” I have been avoiding hacking together a quick script to automate a frustrating chore, because whenever I start on it, I immediately think of all the corner cases where the script won’t work, and I know that I don’t have time to write a script that is smart enough to handle everything.

I suppose the other alternative is to spend a hour to automate the 80% of the cases where the script doesn’t have to be smart at all. Unfortunately, I don’t want to do that, because it’s ugly and hackish, and requires the user to know the corner cases where it won’t work. I suppose that  I could just have the script ask, “is this {corner case} true?” and bomb out if the user says yes, but that’s clearly not the best that I can do.

Unfortunately, I just don’t have time to do it right. If I can get out the mindset of either doing my best, or not doing it at all, I would notice that I have three choices:

  1. Keep doing everything manually, and spending a total of 20 hours on this task over the next year.
  2. Spend 60-80 hours automating the whole task.
  3. Spend 1-2 hours automating 80% of the task, and 4 hours doing the non-automated portion of the task this year.

Clearly when it’s laid out this way, option 3 seems great — it gets the job done in half a day rather than the two days to two weeks the other options. But because I have this internal rule “always do your best” I am tempted to waste nearly two weeks automating something that would only take 20 hours to do manually over the next year. And, who knows if we’ll still be using that system then…

Esther Derby’s Software Management blog talks about how managers can handle this task with A, B, and C tags for their task lists. The tags to the quality of work required for that task with A level items being work that would receive an A grade. I’m a big fan of the David Allen system for managing your tasks and projects, but I think something like this for makes sense for tagging items on your Projects list. I’m not yet tagging everything like this, but I am certainly working to make sure that I identify the tasks where quality matters less than getting to done.

And, of course, I’m working to communicate this information to people when I delegate responsibility for these tasks!

It is easy to allow people to do things to a higher quality level than necessary. After all, you don’t see the time they are wasting on building in unneeded features or unnecessary polish, but the fact that it’s not your time, and that you don’t see it directly, doesn’t make the time any less wasted.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.

If it’s not worth doing poorly, it’s not worth doing at all. And of course, it might also be worth taking the extra time to do it right. But there are lots of things where good enough is less than the best you could give.

And even more humbling, there are lots of things in life where good enough is better than the best I can give, and so I have to either do them half way (when that’s better than nothing), or just leave them for somebody else to do.

4 Responses to ““Always doing your best” considered harmful?”


  1. My first thought after reading the first paragraphs of this post was “I’m not alone”.

    To always want to do my best seriously hurted me more than I wanted.

    Once I was trying to write a IRC library in Python.. my first draft was awesome, people said. Totally clean, nice error handling, flexible, etc. The thing is, I spent more than someone would problem spend *finishing* the whole thing.

    So it’s a mixed feeling: I just did this thing and it’s great but I’m depressed because there 70% of it undone and I’ve already spent a lot of time, you know?

  2. Interesting thoughts Mark. From an artistic perspective I can agree whole heartedly that striving for my best often undermines whatever I am working on. Looking at my problem more closely I think it’s not that I am trying to do “my” best, but that I am trying to do “the” best.

    When I am drawing for instance, I will stop in the middle of what I am doing and decide that I don’t like it. “I can do better than this,” I’ll think. Sometimes that attitude helps and I see how I can do better and finish what I am working on. But other times I just trash what I am working on and start over.

    Now, I have heard that the difference between genius and failure is that genius keeps trying. But the real genius is knowing when to stop trying and accept what you have. I can keep redoing drawings until I’m dead but when I have a deadline and the publisher is asking for my illustration I have to give him something. I have discovered that even though I don’t like a lot of what ends up in the publisher’s hands most of it is good enough. I get paid, the publisher is happy, and I move on to the next project.

    If I am honest with myself, sometimes ‘my’ best is pretty mediocre. But then I can honestly say I did ‘my’ best even if it’s not ‘the’ best… and my best always gets better.

  3. You’ve hit another area I’ve been meaning to blog about.

    “My best” is a subjective and changing phenomenon. Some days (hopefully most) my best is better than it was the day before. But some days I’m tired, or distracted, or I have a headache, and my best is less than it was before.

    I almost wrote my best is less than it should be — part of me believes having a headache or being tired is a moral failure.

    So when I look back at how I coached one of my team members at work last year, I have this constant refrain of “You know better than that,” and “you should have done it this way…” going through my head.

    But the thing is, I didn’t learn how to do it better until this summer. I know better now, but I didn’t then, and to judge the actions of the “then me” by the standard of the “now me” is pretty stupid. But if I don’t stop myself I’d do it all the time.

  4. This really only requires one single attitude adjustment.

    I used to have this problem. A project I led had a defined set of features that were requested by marketing for the next release as well as a defined list of bugs to fix. The schedule wasn’t looking good at all, so I was working silly hours trying to make up the slack to get them done–which led to more fatigue, which led to more bugs, etc.

    My manager sat me down to ask about the project, and I told him what was going on. He gave me one piece of advice that I’ve used ever since:

    “Shipping is a feature. Not shipping is a P1/S1 bug [priority 1/severity 1]. Any feature except shipping, and any bug except failure to ship, can be triaged.”

    Once you think of “completion by X date”, “completion by Y date”, and “completion without killing morale” as features to be implemented (with individual priorities), it’s a lot easier to make these kinds of decisions.

    By the way, this incident happened around 1994, but I’ve heard “shipping is a feature” many times since then, so I don’t know from where the phrase originates.

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