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Mental spring clean, step 3: Lost in the details

Written by Katariina Keinonen (7 Mar 2016)

"If you just focus on the smallest of the details, you'll never get the big picture right."

This is the third part of our mental spring clean. Check out the first part here.

When we are passionate about our work, we often need to work on finding a balance between doing our best and making sure we are well enough to do our best. While it can be exciting to have a say in a lot of the projects and tasks at hand in the workplace, it can also turn on you. You may start to feel like you need to comment or approve more than you can actually handle.

Whereas it is important to be thorough and careful, it is not advisable to aim for the best possible option with each detail. Prioritising is often urged – for a reason. Have you been spending excessive time with choices of words, deciding on the right order of doing things or possibly even redoing other people's work? Have you felt it leads to exhaustion? Is it making you a better employee or employer? Are you well enough to do your best?

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Again, Kirsikka can recite her own experiences in getting lost in the details.

Back when I was a student, I used to deliver newspapers and work as a cleaner. Those jobs were important and had an impact in many people's daily lives – if I did them well nobody would notice anything out of the ordinary and they could go on with their day as usual. They involved many details, but it was easy to see what was crucial to do right. For example, in newspaper delivery the main thing was just to put the right paper in the right mailbox. It didn't matter so much if the paper wasn't perfectly folded. In cleaning, it wasn't necessary to clear every speck of dust behind the cabinets every day, as long as the room looked and felt clean (and was clean enough, of course) for its occupant.

Research work and entrepreneurship have been more challenging: the details are numerous and ever-changing, and getting involved in new projects and initiatives all the time can easily tear the focus apart. I knew I was in trouble when I started having not just one long todo list, but several for different activities. And still I wanted to do them all perfectly. At one point it got so bad that I spent all morning just switching from one task to another, not being able to decide what was the most important to do first. And forming the big picture was also hard: What am I doing this for? Who will benefit? This feels interesting and fun to me but is it important enough to do? Should I put some extra effort in this now to ensure that it won't have to be refined later on, possibly wasting my and other people's time?

Over time, I have managed to curb my perfectionism and learned to settle for "good enough" most of the time. Being close to exhaustion and having to drop some things and noticing that the world still keeps turning taught me a lot. Nevertheless, I wouldn't want everyone to have to go so far down that road, so if you recognize a little perfectionist in yourself, practise letting go sometimes. Remind yourself of the big picture, also in areas that are not related to your work. I have learned that I need to keep myself mentally and physically well to be able to continue working with full capacity, and live a full life outside work too.

– Kirsikka