As a writer, I want readers to get the most possible out of my stories. I want them to be entertained, informed, or persuaded, and honestly just feel like it was a good story. As a runner, I would rather cut a run two miles shorter than planned rather than force an arbitrary number. My training has to be quality miles and workouts rather than “fluff.”
Sometimes, however, it’s more important to be done than good. I say that not as a universal rule for everything because clearly there are many tasks like writing and teaching I like to take time to do as well as possible. However, I have to remind myself that it’s important something is not done well if the task is especially low priority.
Here are cases when, unfortunately, completion supersedes quality.
A Case Study: My Graduate School Experience
This semester completing my Master’s for graduate school, I am getting all A’s or borderline A/A- grades in all of my classes. One class just ended and I made an A. I took five credits last semester and was barely scraping by in my first semester in the fall with B’s. I was very happy with B’s then and was just happy to get by — after all, I fell into the trap of thinking “grades don’t matter in graduate school” (I would have panicked in undergrad if I had a B) and had pretty low expectations for myself. This semester, I am taking nine credits, all the while managing my full-time job as a special ed teacher, which is a brutal commitment.
But I am doing better than ever academically.
The only difference is not the quality of my work. In fact, I think my submissions are not very high quality. Instead, I am submitting all my assignments on time and not getting penalized for late submissions. I communicate much better with my instructors whenever I need an extension. Of course, I have a better grasp of APA formatting and am much better at using references and deeply incorporating them into my academic writing. So my submissions might be much better than they were as a new graduate student.
The biggest difference is that all my submissions are turned in and on time. Even if they’re not the best, they’re submitted and on time. If they’re not on time, then I had an agreed-upon extension with a professor. I am no longer getting penalized for late work or completely blanking and missing necessary submissions. It is absolutely crazy how much of a difference making sure everything is done and on time does for your grades.
As serious as graduate school is, I consider it a low priority task compared to the actual act of teaching. I consider it lower on my bar of priorities than writing and editing. I again want to give the disclaimer that not everything is better off done than good — I don’t want to advertise complete mediocrity for something you care deeply about. I don’t aim for complete mediocrity as a teacher or writer either. Wherever I perform, I try the hardest to my capacity. And it’s not like I aim to be a crappy graduate school student either — I try on all my assignments, but I set boundaries on the actual amount of time I spend on an assignment and prioritize being done over being good.
But human beings only have so much capacity to strive for perfection.
For tedious, menial tasks, it’s also more important to be done than good.
As a special education teacher, there is a lot to do, all the time. And for those copious amounts of tasks, not everything is a high priority. In my experience, only about half of my time spent working as a special ed teacher is teaching. The other half is all administrative paperwork — writing IEPs, billing, calling parents, and documenting interventions. It includes many tedious and menial tasks. I frequently have to submit progress reports for my students as well.
For these tasks, it is much better to be done than good. They do not require significant creative thought or emotional investment. Anyone can put in calls on a spreadsheet — these are tasks where the end goal is completion, completion, completion.
I tell teachers all the time it’s better a report is in rather than good because we can get in trouble if our ducks are not in a row. It’s a problem if a draft or a report is not on time. These are tedious, menial tasks like washing dishes. But like dishes, it’s important they’re done.
Sacrificing quality for completion is too often seen as a bad compromise. But the truth is we’re not superhuman and can’t put 100% of an emphasis on quality in everything. And putting completion about quality for the not important things in life is a means of focusing on quality for the actually important things.
I put in quality time with my work as a teacher and writing and editing. And it’s a lesson that I’m human too, that I won’t be good at everything. Sometimes, for the non-important and menial tasks in our lives, it’s more important to be done than good. I wish I learned that lesson much sooner in my life.
Originally published on The Ascent on April 14, 2021.