Getting out of my Perfectionist State of Mind

I've been spending a lot of time working on the new website for my web hosting business, ActualWebSpace (formerly known as It’s a project that’s been underway for a lot longer than I’d hoped for and my perfectionist mentality is mostly to blame.

Early on, I decided the new site would run on WordPress and while I’ve spent a good amount of time tweaking WordPress themes, I've never designed one from the ground up. I’m by no means a designer and, being somewhat of a perfectionist, it's rather difficult for me to accept my creations the way they are and just be happy. This often results in designs that never leave the drawing board or, even worse, entire sites that never leave my computer.

Realizing it would be a good opportunity to teach myself to ignore the screaming perfectionist in my head and learn a little about site design along the way, I borrowed ideas and CSS from the theme and began envisioning and planning the custom theme. Because this was a business site, I felt the need to design something custom; I didn't want to use someone else's work and I wasn’t ready to spend money to outsource the work. I figured it would take me a month to get the new site up, two at the most.

Its been almost a full year since I started working on the new site and the perfectionist has been winning so far. I've dragged my feet so many times that I lost count and I've spent way too much time with little adjustments that, in the end, probably won't make a difference.

The past few weeks, however, have been much different. I've been making a hard push to finally get it done and I've made great progress. Focusing on one page at a time and working on it until it was finished has really helped. I keep reminding myself that anything I don't like can be changed later, even after the site goes live. Improvements to the site will always be ongoing and that's expected by everybody.

Here are just a few tips that have helped me as a non-designer get out of my perfectionist state of mind and make real progress on my site. These may not work for you, but they worked great for me. I plan to review this list in the future when I’m working on other sites:

  • Decide what pages are an absolute must-have to launch the site. Whatever pages can be added later, add them later. Only work on the must-have pages until they’re done.
  • Get the color scheme, header, and footer (preferably in that order) done before working on the individual pages. It’s easier to work on individual pages when you can step back and see the finished page in its entirety.
  • Focus on one page (or task) at a time and work on nothing else until it’s finished. You’ve probably heard this before, but real progress is made when you stay focused and consistently chip away at something until it’s done.
  • If you get stuck, work on something else. I know this contradicts the previous tip, but if you’re really feeling stuck try working on another part of the site for awhile. Let working on something else be your release for the thing you’re stuck on. Just don’t get carried away and start jumping all over the place.
  • Don’t let ideas distract you. You will invariably think of stuff you think could be made better or have ideas you want to try that are unrelated to what you’re currently working on. Keep a list of stuff you want to change or try and simply add to the list the moment something comes up. Then get back to work. (This tip also applies to header/footer changes, which you will see a lot of while designing individual pages!) No matter how simple, add it to the list and tackle it later.
  • Remember that sometimes less is more. Don’t try to fill spaces simply for the sake of filling them or to mimic the design/layout/content of other sites. Figure out exactly what information you need to get across and leave out the rest.
  • Get inspiration and ideas from other sites. Look at other sites for design, implementation, content, and topography ideas, but don’t get hung up comparing your site to theirs; they are two different sites.
  • Recycle. Find sites with layout or design elements that you really like and grab the CSS. Analyze how other sites have made stuff work and try them on your own site (I cannot stress how useful the FireFox Firebug extension is for doing this!).
  • Learn from the best. Look at big-name sites and analyze how they laid things out. There are often entire teams dedicated to figuring out the best techniques and many sites are where they are now only after years of trial-and-error. Save yourself an enormous amount of time and money by studying these sites.
  • Stop when it’s both “good enough” and “usable”. Would it kill you to let others see the page right now? Could Grandma figure out how to use it? Then stop. It’s good enough and you can improve on it later!

Finally, I want to give Steve Krug's awesome book on web usability, Don't Make Me Think!, a quick plug. I finished reading it this week and I think it’s a must-read by anyone involved with web design. It’s such a small book and so full of gold nuggets that you have absolutely no excuse not to read it. I’ll be reviewing Don’t Make Me Think! soon, so be sure to subscribe to my blog if you’re interested in reading the review.

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  1. asking other people for advice and suggestions helps a lot too. The site looks pretty good to me but i’m a computer retard.

    • Thank you Jessica! Asking others for their help or opinion definitely helps a lot — you’ve been helpful too! 🙂 In my opinion, there are no “computer retards”; anyone who knows how to browse the web has enough knowledge to be helpful.

  2. I think web workers (both programmers and designers) fall into this trap really easily. When you make your living building sites for people, it’s all too easy to decide that when you’re working on something for yourself, it has to absolutely be perfect – after all, people are going to be looking at and critiquing your work, and when they ask about decisions in the design/functionality of the site, you’ve got no one to fall back on but yourself.

    I’ve got countless unfinished projects that have been laid to rest by my over analysis and perfectionism. I have to force myself to believe that releasing something that sucks is a far superior choice to releasing nothing at all.

    Your advice to “decide which pages are absolute must haves” is perfect – if you don’t determine this early, you’ll spend an eternity waiting for the project ot feel “finished”. Write out your list, set a deadline, and stick to it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Peter! I absolutely agree that writing a list of tasks, setting a deadline, and then hammering away until all those tasks are checked off is the best way to get stuff done. It’s all too easy to get discouraged or overwhelmed by the “things I could do” if all I work on is whatever comes to mind next.


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