Stop When You’ve Done Enough

American culture often pushes us to do more. We think if we spend more time on a project, we can make it even better. If we put in more hours at work, we’ll get that promotion.

Just this morning, a neighbor encouraged me to add more laps to my morning swim. He thought if I’m not doing more, then I’m going backward.

While striving to do more can inspire many of us to do great things, it also risks eroding our resilience. Too often, the compulsion to do more sucks up the time and energy we should spend on self-care and fostering social networks, two critical resilience factors.

Attempting to be the best at everything often makes us unhappy and unfulfilled. We risk not being good at anything. This constant need to do more is also one reason we have an epidemic of burnout, and too many employees report they are overworked and exhausted.

Research provides some insights into how to break out of a do more cycle. It turns out that satisficers, people who stop at good enough, are happier than maximizers, people who feel they must always choose the best option.

Psychologist Barry Smith, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, found that people who are satisficers are generally more optimistic, happier, and less regretful than people who are maximizers. He did a study of college seniors looking for jobs and found that maximizers got better jobs but felt worse about the jobs they got than satisficers did.

Stopping when you’ve done enough does not mean submitting mediocre work, shirking responsibilities, or not aspiring to excellence. Instead, it’s determining what excellence looks like ahead of time and stopping once you’ve reached it.

As a supervisor, I regularly saw better performance from staff who knew when to stop than those who tried to be perfect. And, the employees who knew when to stop were able to complete more work because they weren’t bogged down with a single project.

Here are some tips on how you can stop when you’ve done enough:

Define enough

Sit down with people close to you and talk about your personal, professional, and financial goals. What does enough feel and look like for you? When you get a new work project, discuss with your supervisor what level of effort is required and what result is enough to achieve the project goals.

Write down your goals

After you decide what enough looks like, write it down. Written goals will help you resist the temptation to shift the goal post once you’ve accomplished enough. Revisit these written goals regularly.

Resist social pressure

Recognize that there is a lot of social pressure to do more and use your written goals to help resist this pressure. If people push you to do more, let them know that you are satisfied and happy where you are.

Calculate the opportunity costs

Many of us focus only on the positive results of doing more and forget to calculate the costs. If you spend two more hours on a project, what won’t you do instead, and is it worth it?

It’s ok to change your mind

It’s perfectly fine to change your mind and set new goals but do so with intention and input from people who know and care about you as a person. Make sure you’re setting new goals because of what you want, not what society is pressuring you to do.

Don’t be a perfectionist

Remind yourself that the need for perfection is rare. Most of us are not brain surgeons or rocket scientists where anything less than perfect can cause death or significant financial loss. Ask yourself whether 80% or 90% is good enough. Evaluate the worst-case scenario if you do 80% and decide whether you can live with that outcome.

Do you stop when you’ve done enough? What helps you be a satisficer instead of a maximizer?

I help individuals and teams thrive in adversity by providing practical skills and tools I developed over several decades as a U.S. diplomat in challenging environments. Visit my website to learn more about how I can help you and your team avoid burnout and become more innovative, collaborative, and productive despite overwhelming challenges, constant change, and chronic stress. Follow me on Twitter at @payneresilience.

Beth Payne is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is an experienced resilience trainer and consultant. In 2016, she created the U.S. Department of State’s Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience, where she designed resilience tools and resources for foreign affairs professionals. She served as a U.S. diplomat from 1993 until 2016 with assignments at the U.S. Embassies in Senegal, Rwanda, Israel, and Kuwait and as the U.S. Consul General in Kolkata, India. In 2003, she opened the Office of the U.S. Consul in Baghdad, Iraq, where she received the State Department’s award for heroism. You can read her posts here.

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Jacob Hege

This is such a good reminder! It’s easy to get stuck in the cycle of striving for perfection – especially when you love what you do!