I used to joke with my team at YellowPages, “if you can’t make it great, make it just good enough”. It kept being a joke until I started my own company, when I realized that it was a reasonable approach to running a startup.

Starting a company is very different than working in a larger organization. When you have a specific role, you can focus all of your attention on a limited set of tasks [1]. But in a startup, there’s too much to do and too few people to do it. It’s the amount of work and also the variety of tasks. There’s a lot to do outside of your areas of expertise so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and under qualified.

What didn’t work:

  • Working myself to exhaustion. This obviously was not sustainable and it took an unreasonably long time to recover. It also didn’t increase the quality of my output.

  • Focusing on just a couple things. I wrote some great code that I couldn’t build a service around. It was fun and I became a better programmer but again, it wasn’t sustainable.

  • Doing nothing. This turned out to be the worst solution of the three. It sounded like a great idea and I got some rest but it’s no way to earn a living.

I’ll be honest: I’m not Bo Jackson. I realized that if I was going to feel good about my work and remain motivated over the long haul I’d need to redefine what it meant to be done something.

Just good enough (for now)

Every endeavour has an ideal outcome and an actual outcome. My mistake was comparing the actual outcome with the ideal one in my head and feeling bad that I wasn’t living up to my own expectations. So I started evaluating my performance against 70% of the ideal – not in order to legitimize mediocre work but to be realistic.

When you’re working on any sufficiently ambitious project, you need to find time somewhere. You can pretend you can do everything all the time and be exhausted. Or you can be honest with yourself and feel good about your work. You can always follow up with a second effort later on.

So try the 70% solution. It’s surprising how much you can accomplish by consistently achieving modest goals.

[1] Depending on the culture of the organization that can change. I call it “responsibility creep”. It feels a lot like working at a startup without any of the benefits.