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Take More Action and Crush Perfectionism by Following this Principle

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take more action and crush perfectionism by following this principleI’ve been rather busy for the past few months.

I know what you’re thinking.

But Ludvig, being busy is no indicator of productivity. It’s about working smarter, not harder. I think you’re confusing this.

No I’m not.

When I use the word busy I really mean it.

I like being busy because it means I’m getting shit done.

I’m not busy if I have time to piss away on Facebook or Skype chatting to old-time friends.

I’m not busy if I have time to check my phone for calls, text messages, or other notifications.

I’m not busy if I have time to engage in meaningless small talk with uninteresting people.

It’s a semantic difference, but it matters a lot to me because I see many people saying they’re sooo busy and yet they seem to find time to waste on doing these kinds of things.

So, how did I become this busy?

That’s what I’m going to tell you about in this post – how I’ve been using a great strategy for the past six months to become more action-oriented.

By consistently using this strategy I’ve also become less of a “perfectionist” – meaning that I’m more focused on the process of execution than I am about getting everything to be “just right”.

Perfectionism

For the most part, being a perfectionist is a huge time-waster and is therefore a foolish thing to pride yourself on. But knowing that doesn’t make it easier to stop…

6+ months ago, when I decided on buying my video camera, I struggled in making that decision. Mainly because I knew absolutely nothing about video equipment. I had to read quite a bit before I understood what it was that I was looking for in a video camera.

I probably spent 10 hours in total, just researching the topic.

I ended up purchasing a cheap video camera for around 1500 SEK – which is a about $230.

The main reason I wanted the video camera was to shoot video logs, but I wasn’t sure about what I needed because I’d never had a video camera before.

The point here is this:

I wasted a lot of time on such an unimportant decision. You can get money back, but not time.

I did the same stupid thing when I first transferred this blog from WordPress.com. I spent way more time than I’d like to admit on getting the right theme – it had to be just perfect.

Like I wouldn’t get another shot at it…

Pathetic.

A theme costs between 20-80 dollars, and I almost wasn’t willing to invest that money in myself.

What does that say about me?

Two things:

  1. That I didn’t fully believe in myself.
  2. That I was pissing away time at non-80/20 activities.

It’s like my web designer friend told me the other day:

 I don’t waste time customizing my clients theme so that it can look like another theme. I buy that theme and bill my client for it, if I don’t already own it.

It would take my friend hours to fix some of these theme-specific customizations.  In that time he can solve many more problems and earn more money by just buying the theme – and he knows this so he has no hesitation in doing so. People pay for his know-how, not for his grunt work.

Time is money, and he knows that – because he’s a busy dude.

The 40 < P < 70 Principle

I could have solved both of those two problems much quicker had I stuck to the 40 < P< 70 principle.

It would’ve shattered my pathetic illusion of perfection and kept me on track – it would’ve kept me in momentum by just going with it and trusting myself to think on my feet.

So, what is the 40 < P < 70 principle?

I’ll let Colin Powell, who came up with the concept, explain what it means:

Don’t take action if you only have enough information to give you less than 40 % percent chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100% sure, because by then it is almost always too late. Today, excessive delays in the name of information-gathering breeds “analysis paralysis.” Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.

– COLIN POWELL –

(If you have a whiteboard go write this on it immediately and start considering it when you’re making your daily decisions.)

After reading the quote, you’re probably wondering:

How do I know when I’ve achieved 40 to 70 % certainty?

And,

How do I know if I go overboard, above 70 %?

The short answer is, you don’t.

Drop your desire for absolute certainty in taking the right action. It’s better to make 10 decent moves than it is to make 1-3 good moves while missing opportunities.

Drop your wanting to find the perfect answer – it doesn’t exist. Deal with it.

Drop that shit like a rock and learn to just go with it.

Know this:

  • If you’re slightly uncomfortable about doing a thing it’s usually a good indicator that you need do that thing now. Do NOT wait to do the thing until it’s become fully comfortable – that means you’re wasting time and productivity by prioritizing your sense of comfort over your personal development.
  • People who succeed do so because they’re willing to go through more trial and error than those who don’t want to succeed as badly.

If you’re willing to do 10 decent moves you’ll likely fail with a few of those.

But that’s a good thing. That comes with being an executor.

That’s a good thing because in failure you learn things. Your blind spots become visible. You notice the things you tend to screw up with after a while as the pattern emerges – and that means that you can fix it faster than you would’ve been able to otherwise.

It’s better to fix your errors now – as early as you can in life – than it is to wait until you reach the breaking point.

It’s the people who don’t fix these things that wind up with midlife crises.

Shatter Uncertainty

When you start thinking in terms of the 40 < P < 70 principle you will eventually condition yourself into becoming more comfortable  coping with uncertain situations.  After you’ve lived in alignment with the principle for some time you’ll soon find relief in the knowledge that:

Yes, I might not have taken the best possible action here. But I executed to the best of my knowledge and that’s all I can do.

Alright.

Now that I’ve acknowledged this, I can more quickly move on to doing the next thing as a result of having dropped unnecessary thoughts that stem from being uncertain whether or not I took the right action.

That means I’m becoming more secure in myself continually taking action.

That means I stop pissing away time trying to find enough information to make me 100% certain of my choice.

Conclusion

The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.

– SETH GODIN –

Don’t strive for perfectionism or total security in your actions.

Don’t waste time trying to find a magic pill or a fool-proof solution – trust that you will eventually find the answers by taking a ton of action and learning through trial and error.

Ship before the product is finished.

Pull the trigger before having a perfect aim.

Act while you’re still feeling slightly uncertain or uncomfortable about a thing.

Use the 40 < P < 70 principle as a strategy to govern your decisions and as a guideline for when to take action.

Resources:

Seth Godin: Ship it.

This is a  free 26 page text that will take you about 5 minutes to read and maybe 30-60 minutes if you really think about it and do the exercises. I recommend it. Start by reading the final page.

Colin Powell: Leadership Slides.

This is a Slideshare presentation of 20 pages. It will take you 10 minutes to read. It contains some of the best lessons from Colin Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey, which is a great book. On page 16 you will find the 40 < P < 70 principle.

 

Question: Do you have any strategies for taking action and avoiding information overload?

 

Photo credit: Stuhillphotography

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Comments

  1. Cool principle/strategy Ludvig. I actually do have a whiteboard and I’ve now written it down to think about for the coming week. :)

    I get the feeling you’re interested in strategies and a tactics. I also saw your little warlord series.

    Have you perchance read The Art of War by Sun Tzu?

    • Great. Try it out for more than a week, habits take longer to form than many people expect. 30 days is often used as the magic number but it’s not set in stone, it can take much longer.

      Yes I’ve read the Art of War, but it was like 2-3 years ago, and that was before I started being serious about “learning stuff”. I don’t remember much from it right now.

      • I was not terribly impressed with Sun Tzu. For every piece of advice he offers, he gives also a contradictory opposite. He was a master of seeming wise but I’m not so sure about warfare. Clausewitz is more valuable.

      • I also recommend Clausewitz. I’ve actually got a bit of a post about taking action inspired by him coming up in a couple of weeks.

      • I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Wan Muhammad Zulfikri says:

    Great stuff, Ludvig.

    I felt as if you are talking to me directly because I’m also a perfectionist too.

    I think that true perfection is when you balance action and certainty exactly what you mention in the post.

    We need to find that balance between sitting on our asses and running blindly to the finish line.

  3. There are times when one /must/ be certain of one’s aim before pulling the trigger. These times are rare and I think they are self-identifying under pressure; the problem (for me at least) is that in the absence of pressure, it’s too easy to hold out for the security of perfection. I’m better at pulling the trigger at work, where I have deadlines, than with my personal affairs, where many things can be postponed indefinitely.

    I think risk avoidance is more a learned behavior than instinctual. Modern Western society has largely adopted the principle that any risk at all is unacceptable, and this is constantly reinforced by the schools, by the courts, and above all by the media. I am awed at the audacity of ancient explorers like Ibn Batuta who sailed across uncharted seas to unknown countries, in an age when seagoing vessels were little more than leaky rowboats, navigation consisted of “look at the stars and guess your hemisphere”, and most countries were quite hostile to foreigners. Today we are so obsessed with “safety” that we have a whole industry devoted to searching people who get on airplanes. We suck.

    • Well, if you think about it, the first large scale “letting go” of risk was when humans started settling down. It’s not only in Modern Western civilization (although they did take it to a whole new extreme) it’s in Civilization itself! And during the development of modern society, a growing belief in the power of statistics and mathematical determinism applied to the UNSTABLE beings that we are, has become unconsciously and quasi-unanimously accepted.

    • ” I’m better at pulling the trigger at work, where I have deadlines, than with my personal affairs, where many things can be postponed indefinitely”

      Great example Abgrund. It’s “easy” to make decisions when you’re forced to. It’s a lot harder when there is no deadline or person to hold you accountable. Yet those times are just as important in the long run.

      For me it’s really about maximizing efficient use of time as well as learning.

    • western societies are also reinforced by there parents and in almost every work place these days, so it comes as no surprise that we are well trained to avoid risk.

  4. Great advice, Ludwig.

    There is a pretty popular business book that talks about the same thing:

    The Lean Startup

    Basically, it is better to create a prototype that someone wants than a finished product that no one wants.

    Your 40 > P < 70 principle (although I would rather call it the 40/70 principle … because it is easier to say) is good for people who like to gather information all day. But they never act on what they learned.

    • I’ve heard about the Lean Startup (and watched a few videos), but I’ve yet to apply it since I’m not yet an entrepreneur trying out viable business ideas.

      Would you say it’s a good read?

      And yes, that’s exactly how I meant it. It’s not about how much information you can hoard, it’s about how well you can use it to get closer to your goals as well as make the information stick to your long-term memory.

  5. To your credit, the theme looks awesome lol

    This was a really helpful post for me, man. Thank you. I’m adding your site to my reader and blogroll – thanks for the kick in the ass!

    PS – found you through Vic’s site – good shit there, too.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with the thought of abandoning perfectionism, especially in work- or academia-related tasks. I’m not saying that we must lower our standards, but rather dismiss overdoing certain things. Indeed a lot of one’s effort could go to waste due to others’ incapacity to perceive the countless hidden seams that the so-called perfectionist in us would implant behind the finished work.
     I think we all have a problem with closure in our lives, but to each their own power of curbing its effects, of knowing how and when to control it. Overwhelming oneself with constant concern is never good I suppose. It’s the wrong kind of pressure in certain situations. 
    All of this reminds me of an essay by French philosopher Alain entitled “L’éloquence des Passion” : he argues that our passions and desires portray each one of us as a sort of ideal hero in a fictional storyline based on our lives. They convince us that we can achieve certain things that are in reality far from our current reach, and thus drain our time and energy. He goes on to give the example of students who study frantically, and fret about their work, but to no avail. 

    But before I digress more on the subject, I’d like to ask this: on the long term, doesn’t abandoning perfectionism lead to complacency in a way? Isn’t perfectionism, in itself, risky, but worthwhile? Or do we both have different understandings of perfectionism?

    • “L’élonquence des Passions”* (forgot the “s” :p)

    • “I’m not saying that we must lower our standards, but rather dismiss overdoing certain things. ”

      Exactly. It’s about being mindful about WHICH things you’ll allow lower quality in. You can’t be the best at everything, if you try you’ll instead be mediocre at a lot of things and waste a lot of time. It comes down to teaching the brain to think in terms of strict hierarchies/priorities of importance so that you know:

      “Ok, I’m fine with getting a B on this paper so I’m not going to do more than 2 hours of studying”

      Of course, this example would only be valid if you actually had something more important to do. Personally I’ve got above average grades, but I really don’t care. I know it’s not my grades that will get me hired. My resume will not matter, not even for my first job. It’s all about the network for me.

  7. Ludvig,

    Great post, and so very true.

    I have not heard of Powell’s 40 > P < 70 principle. But it makes so much sense.

    Like you, I think I am a pretty darn productive guy. Two blogs. 1 eBook a month written, plus all the other minutia that comes with all that.

    While I didn't know about Powell's idea specifically, I have had to go with "good enough" or I wouldn't get nearly as much accomplished.

    It is important to put out quality. I do firmly believe that. But like you pointed out very well, it is also important to get the things you are doing out the door.

    After all, you can ALWAYS find another tweak to make whatever you are working on a "little bit better", go down that road too much and the process never ends

  8. Never heard of this principle but I love it. Action is the only way to learn.

    I started my blog 18 months ago thinking that it would be a place where I’d have free mini-documentarties. I’ve come a longggg way since then. You can’t plan out every little detail.

    At the end of the day – you just have to put one foot in front of the other and go forward.

    • Precisely. I”ve got a long way to go also. I’ve got a lot of ideas that’ll come through in the coming 6 months, after that I don’t quite know what’ll happen. But I see a lot of options opening up!

  9. This is an interesting ‘how-to’ approach or guideline to crush perfectionism by taking action. In this sense, this is a plunge primer of sorts that will allow for someone to take action when they have decided enough is enough.

    However, the most important aspect in my opinion is not really how, but why to take ‘premature’ action. The justification to do something is more important because it precedes the ‘how’ that will follow.

    The frame you’ve used is exactly the one I use to remind me ‘why’. Why shouldn’t you buy the template for 80 bucks? It’s not a irreversible transaction, but guess what, your time was, we came into this universe with a one-way ticket but our ‘focusing illusion’ (Kahnemann) plagued present moment robs us of the perspective that December 17, 2013 is never coming back again, ever. So you either do it, or you lose it, but there is no going back, just like a bitcoin transaction. Individual moments that make up our lives are unique and irreversible, but the aggregate or sum total of it, can be directionally useful, meaningful, truthful or whatever. The point is, you can ‘correct’ the pattern or flow or direction your headed, but, you’ve got to decide start moving because you can’t turn the clock back.

    In this sense, the why question is addressed by the Steve Jobs Speech at stanford where you uses death as a tool to remind himself of the priorities when one is already naked.

    This did it for me, in terms of justification to move ahead, but people with ocd tendencies can’t help obsesses over things. So I suggest we give in. That is to say, we give into the perfectionism but turn the definition on it’s head, by making the criteria for what is perfect change from some best possible product in first attempt to something more meaningful and action-friendly like, maximum number of attempts at qualitatively different things stopping instantly at an MVP, then moving on maximize impact/effectiveness by curating what to improve.

    It turns out that if you attempt 10 different things today, you’d instantly realize what you’d want to do with tomorrow’s 24 hour slot, but if you wait on the ten bet moments for the 10 best things.

    The grave is waiting.

    Leave you with a thought, count the seconds it took to read the first and the last sentence in this message, about 1.5 times as many people are already dead. So will we. We should honor our chance and die empty, rather than with a filesystem/cloud full of to-dos.

    • GREAT comment, M87!

      “However, the most important aspect in my opinion is not really how, but why to take ‘premature’ action. The justification to do something is more important because it precedes the ‘how’ that will follow.”

      —> True. But it’s a hell of a lot harder to communicate a “why” than a “how”. Strategies and frameworks can be taught rather easily; the reasoning and emotions behind them not so easily…

      But I got a post coming up about this soon. It’ll probably be called “The Boostrap Process”, about how to bootstrap oneself out of melancholy and indecisiveness.

      You also make some great points about how death puts things in perspective. I’ve had variations of the phrase “YOU WILL DIE!” on my whiteboard for a year now. It makes me think of death daily and forces me to consider how much of a loser I am doing when I am NOT taking action.

      • I look forward to the post, because regardless of where we are in life, what matters is which direction we are facing, and the (un)fortunate thing for human beings is that we spiral. When we ‘succeed’, it’s a success spiral, when we ‘fail’ we enter the downward spiral.

        To be completely honest, whenever I’ve wondered about what could tell myself in the past or remind myself in the future when in a situation where you are facing the wrong direction, then I’ve failed to really find anything that I could say … ‘Yup, this is exactly what I didn’t know that if I did I’d prevent further slipping’

        I could be wrong, but most of us are making the mistake of thinking that the perspectives, tricks, hacks and thoughts that have arisen as a result of already finding positive outcomes (facing the right direction, turning the corner etc. ) are erroneously projected backwards with the hope that it maybe potent while we are still going backwards.

        Personally, each and every cognitive trick, trap I’ve proactively set for the future with the expectation that this time when I start sliding, I’ll make sure this rope gets me hanging tightly, making sure I am looking toward the summit…has failed to deliver, in fact, when one is at the summit and there is no reason to let go off the rope, our state of mind simply rejects all that is asynchronous to the underlying physiological state which births melancholy. This is the case where all the ropes disappear as you stare into the abyss of the greatest fall ever, failing to take notice that there is no reason or scope for that given the circumstances.

        The flipside is as well great because when you know the only way out is up, then no matter the challenge, we innovate. This is crucial moment to optimize and use our tricks hacks to get the maximum leverage to go the furthest.

        But we are greedy, we don’t like to give in to the idea that when you are down, it’s the time to save the resources for uptime, where we utilize that uptime so much better than last time, that the 1 step back is not much of a problem when you are taking leaps forward.

        I look forward to changing the ‘mode’ or ‘state’ of being post, as i’d love to control more of that. Currently, I and a lot of others struggle to understand why we didn’t and why we won’t take the red pill, when it’s clear the blue pill is worthless.

      • I see what you’re saying.

        To me, it’s ALL about consistency. I would attribute most of the success I’ve had over the past year to my increasing consistency in following up on my daily to-do lists DESPITE feeling bad. I force myself to do it anyway, and in doing so I get into much less downward spirals.

        But I definitely know what you mean, I’ve spent a lot of time in downward spirals and I know it well. I hate it. The best way to avoid it is to foresee when it’ll happen, and remain consistent. Going out with buddies to meaningsless parties drinking (when you know it’ll fuck things up) is a good example of things to avoid. The “small” things we do ADD UP massively. And most people don’t see that. They don’t look to the second, third, or fourth order consequences.

        For example:
        – I go out drinking.
        – I have fun. I drink too much and stay up very late.
        – I mess up my sleeping patterns, get hungover, feel horrible the next day and can’t focus well. So maybe I take a bunch of stimulants…
        – The stimulants mess up my sleeping pattern even more…
        –> Enter downward spiral.

  10. Dan Erickson says:

    Great lesson. I’ve learned this one over the years. Although I aim for quality, perfectionism is stupid. It holds us back and keeps us from getting things done. Period.

  11. Hey Ludvig,

    great article – but isn’t the point more that busy-ness and productivity aren’t related at all? i.e. if you are someone who generally invests or takes actions that have an ROI (whether for your health, life, business, wealth or relationships) then being busy is being productive, otherwise it’s not.

    So you could be busy and unproductive, or productive and not at all busy.

    A lot of this stuff also depends on your personality type and values too, but that’s a whole separate conversation ;-)

    It’s a great principle and probably good advice for most people, the good thing about something like this, like the 80/20 rule, the pomodoro technique, the power of 3’s etc is that it’s a model which can be easily understood and used as appropriate.

    The best models (I find) are often really simple ones like this.

    • Busyness and productivity aren’t related? Are you fucking kidding?

    • I’m the same way. I am constantly teaching myself to think in terms of new frameworks so that whenever I am encountered by a specific situation I know what to do. That is one of my life goals: complete certainty at all times – to do that one has to pratice 2 things:

      1. Mindfulness/presence/deep concentration.
      2. Frameworks for how to act in specific situations – (preparation & practice). (I call this being system-oriented)
      ——————————————————————
      Whether or not business & productivity are related or not depends on the definition of what being “busy” is. My point in the beginning of the post was that FOR ME, being busy means – in your terms – “to constantly be taking actions that have a high ROI”. I would call this priority 1 activities.

      I see & meet a lot of people who think they are being busy when they are just doing bullshit things, and still they somehow find time to constantly be logged into social networks and do worthless things.

  12. Dude, I am not sure about that 40 > P < 70 principle. Isn't 40 always less than 70? So basically the principle is P < 40 < 70, which is the same as P < 40? Which basically means that if you chance of success is less than 40% don't do anything. That seems simple and common sense, but only seems so. Risk vs reward should be considered.
    Or maybe it is ment like this: 40 < P < 70? So when your chances of success are between 40 and 70% you should go for it. Then again: Risk vs reward…

  13. What a great principle, Ludvig! We never fully know if something will work or not unless we “ship” it. Though it’s important to make sure it has at least a chance of being successful.

    The key (and something I’m learning) is to ship before getting everything perfect. For me, it often means clicking publish on a blog post. Great post!

    • Yes, if I ran a company that was doing a product launch I’d be damned if I didn’t do quality assurance before shipping :)

      But as you know it’s meant for as a guiding principle for how a person should align his or her actions in order to get comfortable with uncertainty.

  14. Oh gosh, this reminds me so much of myself! I spend loads of time analyzing and researching things. I’m still working on it, it’s something that’s been ingrained in me fairly deeply.

    The thing is that you often don’t know that you’re past that certain point while at it, but when it’s a thing of the past, you realise it’s actually taken a toll on your progress.

  15. This is something I’ve had to kick myself out of this year. I’m a really bad perfectionist, and it’s funny because I had the EXACT same thing a month ago, trying to find a camera to do vlogs with and interview some business friends for my blog. And 5 months ago I had, again, the same thing with moving off wordpress and trying to find the right theme and webhost etc. Can’t tell you how many hours I spent and wasted on researching these things. This line for me is the killer – ‘prioritizing your sense of comfort over your personal development.’ This, in my experience, is exactly what perfectionism comes down to. The procrastinating that results is basically to do with subconsciously not believing enough in what I’m doing, and so unwittingly trying to delay or sabotage it. It’s a mindset you have to be violent with, talk to yourself out loud over (yeah, I’ve done this), do whatever it takes to reprogramme the thinking and get the handbrake released from your brain so you can just go and execute. This is a great post, man. Perfectionism is an enemy to productivity and realizing potential.

  16. I love this post. Ludvig i just want to tell you that your blog is beautiful!!!!

  17. Love the post; The common challenge is Instinct and Subconscious mind comes to play and we forget everything;

    • Thanks Nishant.

      I get what you’re saying and I agree. That’s why it’s important to teach oneselft to be ruled by principles and strategies — not just whatever feels good at the whim of the moment.

      We must develop various mindsets and strategies that we’re going to align our actions with to become as competent as possible over the long-term. After we apply these over and over they soon become habitualized — and part of our new instinct & subconscious mind, as you call it.
      At least that’s how it works for me.

  18. Fine way of describing, and nice article to obtain data concerning my presentation topic, which i am going to present in university.

  19. For reducing time spent researching a purchase, I found a good review website. The reviewers are quite thorough, consult experts in the field, update the reveiws as needed, and post when there are good sales on equipment. It’s the first place I’d turn to if I wanted information about buying an item. (I am not affiliated with either website, found it when I needed a good pair of headphones and was very pleased with the recommended Sony pair.)

    thewirecutter.com (technology related reviews)
    thesweethome.com (wirecutter’s partner website that household item reviews)

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