I must balance my perfectionism against freeing up my energy for the things that matter.
The story of “Paint the corners” begins on an online dating site. Members answered multiple-choice questions (some stupid, some thought-provoking) about everything: values, religion, interests, priorities, family, personality traits.
One question was along the lines of, “You’re painting a room and there’s a corner that’s practically impossible to reach. No one will ever see it. No one but you will ever know whether or not it’s painted. Do you paint it?”
Yes, of course I’d paint the corner! Duh!!!!!
It would drive me absolutely insane to know that corner wasn’t painted. If someone had built the room that way, and painted it in the first place, then I can paint it too. If I can see the unpainted corner, so can someone else. And if I leave it unpainted, they absolutely will!
When I painted my own bathroom, a very narrow strip of corner needed paint, about ¾ of an inch on either side of the drywall join. The builder should have just butted the closet molding up against the door molding. I kinda had to admire the builder for being such a stickler about precision, even if it made extra work for me. I had to paint that corner using a small artist’s paintbrush. But I did. (God help me if I ever try to replace or paint the baseboard in that corner. I’m gonna light candles and say prayers before I reach for my screwdriver.)
Sometimes it’s hard to decide when enough is enough. (See “Close enough for government work.”) Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop and call it good. But for those certain tasks that will drive me crazy if I don’t do them at 100%, I’d rather spend my energy reaching 100% completion, than remember over and over that I’ve only reached 80%. Too often, this takes a LOT of extra time and effort, but much of the time it’s worth it. I feel satisfied. Righteous. Soothed. Closure.
Ironically, “Paint the corners” also reminds me to at least ask the questions: Is someone going to see the corner? And if they do, are they going to care? Does it make a difference? Sometimes, the answer is No. Then I have to face up to being a “completionist,” someone who just has to finish something or complete a collection. I fight this compulsive tendency by not finishing books that aren’t very good, or by not continuing a streaming series that doesn’t hold my interest. I’m getting better at that.
“Paint the corners” simultaneously reminds me to honor my desire to perform quality work, and also to close open loops and free up my energy for the things that matter. It reminds me to let go of things that don’t fulfill or satisfy me, or tasks that are impossible to complete flawlessly. It makes me think about the true value of time and effort, and reminds me I need to prioritize, and to make decisions for the right reasons. It makes me ask whether I am doing something for private satisfaction or public approval.
Private satisfaction is the right reason. Any other reason can get stuffed right back in that corner with the unpainted drywall!