In this post, I'm going to show you a tested strategy to get realistic about what actions really matter, and how to eliminate the ones that don't. This is the second post in a series of four, in which I will share with you one productivity hack that has helped me to bypass all of the distractions and really increase my productivity this summer.
These are not surface tricks, but deep strategies for deep work.
If you haven't already, read my first post in this series, where I share with you how to design your primary workflow to remove friction and stay in a state of flow.
Musicians? Perfectionists? Nah, couldn't be.
You're picking up on my sarcasm.
Musicians are notorious for being perfectionists; professional scholars are also notorious perfectionists. That means I have a double-case.
For a long time I didn't even realize that my perfectionism was severely hampering my productivity. I'm reminded of the story about the old fish who says to the young fish: "How's the water today?" The young fish looks around and replies: "What water?" I was swimming so deeply in a world of perfectionism that I couldn't even see its effects on me.
And no, this is not humble bragging—I'm not saying that I produce perfect articles, lectures, or workshops. Nothing I've ever released has been perfect. What I'm saying is this:
I have failed to produce many potentially valuable services because my invisible scripts of perfectionism have held me back.
Has this ever happened to you as well? You have ideas about performances, products, or recitals, and have even worked dozens or even hundreds of hours on these projects. But do you feel like something is holding you back from sharing them with the world?
You might ask yourself if that voice of doubt is the villain of perfectionism, whispering in your ear.
Realize You're Swimming in Water
Like the fish who wants to notice the water it's swimming in, the first step to getting around the obstacle of perfectionism is noticing it is there.
Before you write this idea off completely, it's crucial that you understand one thing: I am not suggesting that what you produce should not be excellent. You should make every effort to deliver a product, service, or piece of scholarship (in my case) that is world-class.
But even world-class does not mean "perfect."
Instead, you need to identify the parts of your work that will give you and your audience the most value, those few actions that will get you most of the way to the finish line. That's where an 80/20 analysis comes in.
What Is the 80/20 Principle?
The 80/20 principle has been around for a long time, and is already well known in entrepreneurial circles (see here for more on the principle). But few musicians and scholars I've talked to know of it. Here is a brief primer:
The 80/20 analysis is a lens through which to evaluate actions to discover which ones yield the most value to a particular desired outcome. It is based on the principle that not all actions yield the same value. It is sometimes called the "Pareto Principle" for Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist who discovered it over 100 years ago. It says this:
The 80/20 principle says that 80% of your results comes from 20% of your actions.
How to Do an 80/20 Analysis
It's simple: take a set of data and evaluate it, looking for the 20% of items that give 80% of the result. Then work on those in the 20% first, and don't stop until they are completed.
Here's a classic to-do list example: if you write out a list of ten things you want to do tomorrow, about two of them will give you 80% of the potential value of the day's work, and the remaining 80% of tasks will only give you 20% additional value.
Think about that. Two tasks only will give you most of the desired result.
Try it now: look at your to-do list for today and ask yourself which are in the 20%. Have you completed them, or are you working on them now? Or have you been working on the 80%?
Here's the catch: the 20% of actions you need to be doing are also the actions that are the most difficult. They are therefore the ones we avoid.
Let's test this principle against broader criteria (remember that 80/20 is a principle, not a law; your numbers might vary a bit):
- Professional musicians: does 80% of your revenue come from 20% of your gigs?
- Composers: do 80% of your performances come from 20% of your compositions?
- Arts Entrepreneurs: does 80% of your business come from 20% of your products and services?
- Scholars: do 80% of your citations come from 20% of your scholarship?
It may work in the reverse as well: 80% of your hassle probably comes from 20% of your vendors, students, or even band members (!).
Cultivate the 80/20 Habit
What to do in response? Well I can't give you a perfect answer, but I can say that if you start practicing the 80/20 analysis, you just might change your mind about aiming for perfectionism. Instead, aim for the few actions that deliver the most value, and then press for completion. If you've done the 80/20 analysis, you know that the remainder of possible actions will only make the result incrementally better.
It's always better to deliver 80% of value than 0% of perfection.
Now it's your turn: What do you think of the 80/20 analysis? Is it a revelation? Hogwash? Let me know in the comments. Also in the comments, tell me where in your life or career might an 80/20 analysis be useful?