When good enough IS good enough

Are you finding it difficult to make progress on your research? Are you dissatisfied with your work? Is it taking too long to check your written work?

Do you notice that despite working hard it feels as if what you are producing is not good enough for what you expect of yourself? If so, you are not alone. It can happen to all of us as we care about doing good work.

This is an understandable reaction when living in a culture that encourages and rewards very high standards. In a competitive world the last thing we want is to produce work of a poor standard.

In academia the increasing professional competition and the pervasive influence of social media can encourage harmful comparisons and fuel perfectionism. However, there is a big difference between striving to work well and aiming for perfection.

The relentless pursuit of a flawless piece of work can prevent us from producing good work. The efforts made hoping to meet an impossible standard can lead to experiencing frustration, disappointment, stress and low mood. It can also undermine confidence and the ability to problem-solve difficult situations.

Factors such as what we pay attention to, the way we interpret information and how we make sense of things have a role in maintaining perfectionism. We tend to interpret things depending on what we expect. For example, if we expect failure, we are more likely to look for the mistakes and where we are going wrong, than pay attention to the progress we are making. These self-critical thoughts may have a negative impact on mood and confidence.

Managing self-critical thoughts

  • Identify unhelpful thinking patterns. Here are a few patterns:
    Black or white: that is viewing only one extreme or the other.

Catastrophising: when we see things way out of proportion.

Jumping to conclusions: when we think we know what
others are thinking, or we anticipate future outcomes.

Shoulds” and “musts”: having unreasonable demands.

  • Develop self-compassion:
    This refers to treating yourself with kindness, having the awareness that you are human and sometimes mistakes can happen.
    It also about acknowledging your wish to do well and your efforts to meet your goal (Gilbert, 2010).

When you become aware of the thinking patterns (as mentioned above), take a moment to acknowledge them and then challenge these thoughts.
Ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful?” “What would I say to my best friend in this situation?” We are more understanding of our friends and want to help them make progress, so to apply the same to ourselves.

  • Re-evaluate achievement:
    Aspiring to do well is important to motivate ourselves to make progress and reach our goals. However, when achieving becomes an all-consuming goal that we view as a measure of our self-worth it is harmful to our sense of self, productivity and even can have a negative impact on our health.

Instead, stimulate your curiosity and focus on learning about your subject. Make learning the goal and notice how you get a sense of achievement as you increase your understanding and make progress in developing your skills. This in turn, will boost your motivation to persevere and complete your tasks at a good standard.

 “Perfect is the enemy of good” (Voltaire).

Fear of failure
Perfectionistic tendencies manifest in the belief that we should not make mistakes and viewing these as a sign of lack of ability. This rigid view can lead to anticipating failure which can trigger significant distress, and it can lead to feeling unable to continue with the task (Ben-Shahar, 2012).

In academic work we look for high standards as it is a way of motivating ourselves to get good results. However, the danger is that we may focus so much on avoiding making mistakes that we can feel stuck and lose confidence in our ability to do the work.

Ways to overcome fear of failure

View mistakes as part of the learning process. Be curious about what went wrong. Identify what you could do different next time so that you can use the information to improve your work.

Don’t expect immediate results. It is likely that several trial and errors will be necessary to understand a concept or get a result in an experiment. Just because it did not work once it does not mean you cannot get a positive result later.

Acknowledge “small wins”. Give yourself credit for the efforts you make daily. These will accumulate and you will notice progress which is rewarding and motivating.

Visualise the process. As you plan your task visualise the steps needed to complete it. Then, focus on what you need to do for each step and imagine following through with each.

Ask yourself: “What do I need to make progress here?” What could be the possible obstacles to work on this?” “What other options could I consider?”

When focussing on the process visualise a realistic outcome. By identifying the possible obstacles, we are more likely to persevere with our efforts when we meet challenges (Oettingen, 2015).

Think in terms of “good enough IS good enough”. Doing well is not about perfection, instead focus on learning and making progress. Keep in mind that we are very subjective when evaluating our work and may find it difficult to acknowledge progress.

View your research as work in progress, and when you submit your work to your supervisor think about it as a draft. And when you receive feedback use it as information to help you improve your work. This way you will make progress and get better results.

If you are feeling stuck or are finding it difficult to start writing you can
use “Free writing” as a strategy to develop your thinking and to make progress with your writing.

Free writing is a strategy that is like brainstorming where you write sentences without stopping, and without focusing on correct grammar or spelling (Elbow, 2000). The key is to keep your hand moving, and if you can’t think of anything to write then make a note of these thoughts.

For example, “I am not sure what to write next” “I am waiting for an idea to emerge.” If you are writing in a second language and you cannot think of the word in English, use the word in your native language.

Once you have written a draft, review it to develop your ideas and then edit it to correct the grammar and spelling.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The pursuit of perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Elbow, P. (2000) Writing with power. Techniques for mastering the writing process. New York: Oxfor University Press.

Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. How to use compassion to develop happiness, self-acceptance and wellbeing. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.

Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Penguin.