What does “good enough” mean?
“Good Enough” means different things to different people. For some, it means you put your best effort in, and you’re ready to call that task done. For some, it’s the benchmark where you’re off the hook for trying any harder. For some, it’s when you give up and walk away. Regardless, it’s a really loaded term. Even these descriptions can be interpreted multiple ways. Good enough could mean you put in your very best effort, or it could mean you put in the very best of what you had that day, or it could mean you put in the very best effort of what you had to spare on that task.
For some, good enough is very freeing. It gives them a sense of satisfaction and the ability to move on, focusing their energy on different projects. For others, good enough is not freeing at all; good enough is a cop-out, a flimsy standard that excuses not putting your best effort into something.
I think we need to be better at embracing the idea of good enough. In order to do this, we need to redefine our understanding and standard of good enough. There are a few reasons we need to redefine this. Good enough can feel like it’s lowering our standards. It’s not. It means you met the mark and can move on.
If good enough means we put in our best effort, that’s great, only “best effort” is hard to measure. My best effort on a task is probably different than your best effort. But even within myself, my best effort on a task might change based on time, energy, competing priorities, etc. Is my best effort my all-out best effort? Is it the best effort of what I have to give that day? Is it my best effort of what I have to give that day if I ignore everything else? How can I use best effort as a benchmark for good enough if best effort isn’t constant?
Another reason to redefine our standard for good enough is Parkinson's Law. Parkinson's law states that work expands to fill the time allotted. At my old job, if I only had an hour to prepare for a training, I could spend that whole hour preparing, organizing my notes and reviewing timing. If I had a full day to prepare for a training, I could spend the whole day preparing, organizing my notes, rehearsing, reviewing the timing needed for activities, etc. I had a core set of things I did to prepare, beyond that, I could spend a little or a lot of time preparing, but beyond those core things, the rest was just busywork. If you have weeks to spend writing a paper, you could spend weeks writing that paper. If you only have tonight to write that same paper, you could write it tonight. It should be noted, that shrinking the time window for a task can result in rushed and sloppy work, but the point I want to make with Parkinson's Law is that while chasing “good enough,” I could spend a little time or a lot of time. Based on how much time I have, my standard for good enough might need to change. But If I allow it, chasing good enough can take way more time than is appropriate for the task.
Finally, and this is what I try to focus on the most when defining what good enough means to me, is diminishing returns. There’s a point in my productivity where suddenly it’s a lot harder to get the same results. For example, in school, I knew about how much effort I needed to put into a class to get the grade I wanted. I could put more effort in to get a higher grade, but it would have been an extraordinary amount more time and effort to get the extra few points. Proportionally, it was a substantial amount more effort for only a slightly higher grade. This turning point, where it suddenly takes way more effort to yield the same increase in outcome, is the point of diminishing returns. This is the point where I try to place the good enough mark. I could do better, but it’s not worth the extra hustle to get to that mark.
I like working hard on things I care about. The more I reflect, the less I like hustling. To me, hustling is running around busily spending energy that doesn’t necessarily yield a better result. It’s spending energy to prove my worth instead of knowing I am enough, regardless of how I do, what gets done, and what doesn’t get finished.
If you find yourself hustling for the extra results, ask yourself two questions:
“Is this where my energy needs to be? Would it better serve me on something else?”
If this is where your energy needs to be, keep going and be awesome
If you don’t need to be spending the extra effort on this, accept good enough and move on
“What’s driving my need to put in extra effort here?”
If joy, fulfillment or knowing this is a time to rally is driving the extra effort, keep going and be awesome
If the need to please, prove yourself, or show your worth by being perfect, shame or fear is driving the extra effort, accept good enough and move on
When evaluating the big things in your life, it’s important to remember there’s a time to rally, and there’s a time to move on to the next gig. There are things in your life that are worth the extra effort to strive for your best. But there are things in your life that aren’t worth your extra effort. It’s important to determine what these are ahead of time before you get stuck hustling on the hedonic treadmill.
Basco, M. R. (2000). Never good enough: How to use perfectionism to your advantage without letting it ruin your life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Malone, K., Gonzalez, S., Horowitz-Ghazi, A., & Goldmark, A. (2018, November 21). Episode 877: The Laws Of The Office. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/11/19/669395064/episode-877-the-laws-of-the-office
Parkinson, C. N. (1958). Parkinson's law: Or, The pursuit of progress. London: John Murray.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Perennial.