Aiming for Quality without the Trap of Perfectionism

Here’s a story I see fairly often:

  • lawyer gets a significant new file or task to work on
  • lawyer achieves a lot – say 98% of the task – in a few hours
  • lawyer then spends the next few hours checking, re-checking, tweaking and amending the task

In effect, they’ve doubled their time commitment to finish the last 2%.

The question of the day is this: is it worth it?

One of those pencils is over-sharpened…

Approaching Zero

In maths (every lawyer’s favourite subject) there is a concept of “approaching zero”.

Start with a number (any number). Divide that number by 2.

Then again.

Then again.

Keep on going, and you’ll notice something very quickly – you get closer and closer to zero, but you’re never going to get there. You’ll also notice that you progress more towards to your goal (in this case, zero) at the start with less steps then you do at the end.

50 becomes 25 in a single step – we’re half way there already. But then, 25 becomes 12.5 – we’ve achieved less that time compared to the first step. 12.5 becomes 6.25.

And so on – you get the point. We’re doing the same thing each time, but achieving less with it.

Quality vs Perfectionism

It’s a fine line to dance along sometimes.

We want to commit to excellence in our work product. Most lawyers are conscious that the amounts they charge their clients are significant, and the consequences of getting things wrong can be fairly drastic.

But then comes the pesky law of diminishing returns – we hit a point where we are fairly confident that we’ve completed the task, but we keep working – often for just as long as it took to get us to that point in the first place. The danger here is that we’ll overwork the task. When that happens, we get tempted to desktop discount our time, or perhaps our time needs to get written off. It can also distract us from achieving higher value tasks that we should be working on.

The question is always this: when is it “good enough”?

Let’s start to explore a few ways you can answer that question, and how to avoid sinking time into things that isn’t really needed.

Quality Starts with a Plan

One big reason that lawyers continue working on things unnecessarily is that they haven’t thought in advance about what “finished” actually looks like.

If I started to build a house, but didn’t have an architect do some drawings for me, how would I know when I was done? I probably wouldn’t. I’d add a room here, a door there, a granny flat back there – I could keep going forever if I wanted, because I never decided what I was working towards in the first place.

So before you pick up a pen, type a word or copy a page, ask yourself this important question: what is my finished product going to look like?

Once you’ve done that, you can move on.

Perfectionism is Unending – Quality has a Deadline

Perfectionism is Unending - Quality has a DeadlineClick To Tweet

Imagine for a moment that you were a chef, with customers waiting for their food just on the other side of your kitchen door.

If those customers had to wait 6 days for their food while you tweaked, twiddled and fiddled your way towards unattainable perfection of your first course – would they be happy?

You could, however, deliver to them an excellent dish of superior quality that they thoroughly enjoyed – in 15 minutes. It may be slightly less than you desired it to be, but everything always is.

And the next day, you might aspire to do even more in that 15 minutes than you did the day before – that is the nature of striving for constant improvement.

But perfectionism is different – you change something, then change it back. You tweak your words, your layout, your structure. You have a good product, but you wonder: is it good enough?

In doing this, how much actual difference are you making to the quality of your work? Rarely more than a little.

If you want to avoid the perfectionism trap, one thing to do is this: give yourself a hard deadline.

Of course this involves making an estimate about how long producing a quality piece of work will take – but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough. Give yourself a deadline, work towards it. Aim to be finished 30 minutes prior, and then once the deadline arrives – be finished. Make the call – and back yourself.

Quality is Strategic, Perfectionism is a Flibbertigibbet

It’s surprisingly uncommon for lawyers to make simple errors about the actual law. We often know the law (or have researched it) and have a good understanding of the legal response to the issue. That’s usually not the area where perfectionism starts to kick in.

Perfectionism for lawyers starts to come in about strategic and communication issues. Should I use this word or that word? What should I put first? Have I expressed this the best way? Should I tell the client that thing or not? Have I read everything I needed to read from the client about this?

It’s those secondary questions that make our heads spin as we try to finalise our tasks. And secondary doesn’t mean unimportant – but there’s a limit to how much spinning should be involved at that stage.

Why? Because you should know the answers at the start.

For any complex task, take 5 minutes and map out the important secondary elements of what you’re doing. You might want to think about this:

  1. Who’s it for, and what do you know about them? (this will inform your language and your tone)
  2. What’s the primary point of the task (advice, persuasion, information, demand)?
  3. How are you going to lay it out, taking into account your answers to (1) and (2)?
  4. What’s your system for minimising errors (legal, typos, structure)?

This way you’ll be most of the way there once you produce your work, rather than trying to think about all of this stuff on the fly (or worse – at the end when you’ve taken a bog standard approach to your work without considering the context).

Anxiety Causes Perfectionism

Lawyers are an interesting crowd. On the one hand we seem wildly confident – but at the same time as being confident, we’re also terrified and anxious about our work.

It stems from a good place – we want to do good work for our clients and our firms.

But that desire can present itself as fear or anxiety, which in turn means we spend 5 hours on a task that we didn’t really need to.

So let me ask you this question: should your client pay $1,500 more for your advice because of your anxiety?

Should your client pay $1,500 more for your advice because of your anxiety?Click To Tweet

It’s not a leading question: some people are going to say “yes!”. Some people believe that it’s their job to worry so their clients don’t have to.

I just don’t agree with them.

So How can we Get High Quality without Perfectionism?

So it’s time to get to work. How are you going to produce high quality work next time you approach a task, without sinking into perfectionism and anxiety? Here are my top tips:

  1. Know what you’re aiming to produce;
  2. Give yourself a hard deadline – know when you MUST be done;
  3. Take a few minutes to strategise your task – shape up the secondary elements before you start;
  4. Identify when you’re only working due to anxiety, rather than common sense.

What are you tips for avoiding perfectionism? Let me know in the comments.

Happy Lawyering!

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