The last 5%


Long time readers may have noticed that for the first time in 5 years I did not publish a post first thing on Wednesday morning.

I just… well – I forgot.

I felt terrible about this until @deblsda just pointed out on Twitter, a habit interrupted is not a habit broken. Five years is a long time to keep something like a blog going, believe me. There’s no small amount of effort involved and I have a busy academic life with lots of responsibilities. But it’s ironic that I forgot to set the blog up to publish on this particular Wednesday because this week’s post was meant to be about my habit of being a 95-percenter. Typically I had it ‘mostly written’ in my blog queue for months – it just needed the last 5% done.

That last 5% always kicks my ass.

I am great at starting projects and getting the majority of the hard work done, but finishing – really finishing something properly – is not my forte. I think the problem is the last 5% of any project is the kind of work that just bores the hell out of me. The last 5% is the really detailed work. With journal articles the last 5% involves reference lists, formatting, checking for spelling mistakes and so on. I find this kind of work tedious and impossibly difficult. I’m bad at it, which in turn makes me irritated, so I avoid or delay it as long as possible.


Of course, this attitude causes lots of problems. The tendency to declare ‘good enough’ too quickly sometimes means I will probably have to go back later and fix something when I really don’t have time for it – or worse, risk making a mistake.

My 95-percenter tendencies are the reason I am no longer an architect. If you are bad at details in that profession your buildings might kill people. It’s much safer for the world that I’m an academic and it means I can compensate for my 95-percenter tendencies by collaborating. I really like collaborating for many reasons, but the safety in numbers part of it is particularly appealing.

I don’t expect my collaborators to pick up the last 5% (although some of them do, bless their hearts). No – I seek out research collaborators because they keep me honest. Much in the same way I do housework because I don’t want my friends to think I am a slob, I need outside motivation to do push through and do the last 5%, no matter how bored and irritated it makes me feel.

Without doubt my best work is done with people who are not 95-percenters; people like my friend Dr Rachael Pitt (who coined the famous ‘circle of niceness’ term). Whenever I work with a 100-percenter like Rachael I feel inadequate. I suspect my 95-percenter ways irritate her, but she’s far too kind to say so. When I want to give up and say ‘good enough’ she holds my feet to the fire and makes me finish it. Properly. Rachael’s diligence makes me realise I just don’t care enough about that last 5% to be truly brilliant at research. I just hope I am creative and interesting enough that she’ll continue to forgive me for getting the commas in the wrong place.

The internet abounds with articles warning of the perils of perfectionist thinking. PhD students are often warned that being a perfectionist is the very kiss of death for a timely completion. As Pat Thomson pointed out the other week, there’s a lot of poor ‘advice’ out there for research students these days. Like Pat I get annoyed at shallow articles that mislead students into thinking they have problems they don’t really have. I particularly dislike articles that criticise PhD students without thinking about why the behaviour might be happening in the first place.

There’s a difference between being a perfectionist and being thorough, details focussed and concerned with the quality of the work you are doing. So why does a 100-percenter get confused with a perfectionist? Here are two initial thoughts, but I’d be interested to hear what you think too.

You take a long time to get going with your writing

There’s an epic amount of literature out there on just about every topic you can imagine. While a perfectionist will sift through this literature endlessly, without making decisions, your 100-percenter is just taking their sweet time to digest it properly. While personally I’m a student of the ‘writing is thinking / thinking is writing’ school of thought, I recognise not all people work that way. Some people just like to think and don’t necessarily need to write a lot to do this.

If you haven’t produced a single word towards your thesis in 6 months, you might have a problem, but if you have been reading, scribbling notes and feel like you are understanding some stuff, then there’s probably no cause for concern. Here’s a little test: talk to someone other than your supervisor about your topic. Can you talk for more than 15 minutes straight about your ideas? If you could bore for Australia on your topic at a party, you are a 100-percenter. Tell people who label you as a perfectionist that you are a Thinker – and then tell them to go away.

You care about getting it ‘right’, not getting it done

While your 95-percenter friend has done four conference papers this year, you have been toiling away with no visible results yet. Despite your diligent application of bottom to seat, your lack of publications makes you feel … inadequate. You are starting to get worried that you aren’t ‘productive’ and will be falling behind the expectations, even though no one has actually told you what these expectations are.

There’s a very good reason that universities often don’t set word counts or publication expectations for most research students – it’s because every project is different. If you are anxious because you are comparing yourself to other people, just stop. What progress looks like for you will be different than what it looks like for others. Here’s another test: write down a list of things that count as ‘progress’ in the last month or two. This might be insights, ideas you’ve had, some data you’ve collected, analysis started – whatever counts as moving the project along.

Do you have at least three items on the list? Then relax.

Finally – remember that ‘perfectionism’ is an anxiety problem, not an approach to work. Don’t rush into diagnosing yourself after reading a blog post that seems to describe you. If the anxiety you are feeling about your work is getting out of control, visit your university counselling centre – they have helped thousands of students through this very problem.

My word count just went over 1000, so I got this post finished after all. It’s lucky I had 95% of it done! So are you a 95-percenter like me? Or a glorious 100-percenter? Do you get annoyed with people diagnosing you as a perfectionist, when you are just trying to get it right? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.