The last 5%

Long time readers may have noticed that for the first time in 5 years the Thesis Whisperer 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.

procrastinationOf 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.

Related posts

Have I got ‘advice’ for you (Patter blog)

The top 5 PhD Emotions

The ‘it’s time’ talk

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53 thoughts on “The last 5%

  1. Tseen Khoo says:

    I’m holding on like grim death to the concept of being a 100-percenter rather than someone who cannot find direction and finds it hard to commit to a line of inquiry… 😛

    Seriously, though, thank you, Inger, for this. I think I tend towards 100-percenting but I have imbibed the kool-aid about ‘perfect is the enemy of done’ – there are very good reasons for things to take a while to produce. The lemming-like approach to outputs places the value of research processes and projects in the wrong place overall, but it is the context we’re stuck with (for now).

    I’ve just started a new ‘habit’ (which I’ll report on in 2 weeks to see if it does indeed become one). Keeping up 5 yrs of (at least) weekly publishing is a Big Thing, but the missed post is a brilliant segue to the topic!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks Tseen 🙂 Although I am a ‘perfect is the enemy of done’ person myself, I’m trying really hard to understand and respect other ways of doing things. I’ll be interested to hear your report back.

  2. Ruth Ann Herd says:

    95% here, I feel so much better now. I was starting to get anxious that my plodding way of working was really unproductive, and then I look at all the notebooks, papers and drafted peices that I now have the onerous job of sorting, shifting, referencing and putting into a coherent document.

  3. Tori Wade says:

    By inclination I am a 95%er too, and in my PhD, I kept saying “this is good enough” and my supervisors kept pushing me. Some of this was very useful, but other things they suggested just ended up wasting several months of my time, with a completion in 3.75 FTE years instead of about 3.25 which I think I could have managed.
    But now I’m post PhD, I always seem to end up working with 75%ers who are fabulous at having the ideas and short on finishing the work, so I end up having to take on the 100%er role and I’m really sick of it. Holding their feet to the fire doesn’t work. If I want it finished, I have to do it.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Being a 100-percenter can be such a burden. I try desperately to keep this in mind when I am tempted to rush. It’s just not cool to treat research collaborators that way.

  4. Susan says:

    I’m a very organised worker. I was taught in the workplace to start writing the final report the day the project started. I always check the journal formatting and reference standards before I write and I keep notes and reminders embedded in my document such as “##abstract 250 words” “##tables in a separate document” so that I don’t have to remember the formatting requirements or look them up multiple times. But . . . I’m 95% done on my thesis and I just can’t get that final 5% done. For example 3 weeks ago my supervisor and I were invited to write a paper for a good journal, so now my thesis is held up waiting for that paper (because it’s a great fit with my topic and will enhance and round out the thesis.) Once the paper is complete I have to go back and update the introduction sections, conclusion, add another appendix and so on. That final 5% is going to take me an extra month or two, whereas I should have submitted a month ago. This is most unlike me.

  5. Anna says:

    Thank you, Inger, for this post. It made me teary – in a good way – to learn that I am not a perfectionist, just a 100-percenter. I forever compare myself to my PhD student colleagues: word count, journal articles, conferences, piles of PDFs printed, and stacked on their desks; you name it, wherever it is, I manage to feel I’m either doing it wrong, or not enough. But, you know what? You showed me that, I’m alright.

    I’m not the thinking/writing – writing/thinking type, and I’m okay. I immerse myself in literature, make notes like a maniac (I have a matrix, inspired by you, that has 22, 800-something words in it, from notes alone), think about it, talk to myself about it, have conversations with an imaginary audience (true, promise) about it, wonder how something I read may shift some aspect of my question, cut and paste, and shift chunks of notes into an order that makes sense, think about it again, and then, only after I start feeling there is clarity in my head, or I start to see how the literatures do or don’t support each other, then I begin the for-real writing, where I can pull from my copious amount of notes and diagrams, and the conversations in my head that I had with an imaginary audience.

    And, yes…I can bore Australia about my topic. Yep, I’m a 100-percenter, and I’m awright.

  6. Saartje says:

    Thanks for this post! I’m sending this to my supervisor.
    I think I go from being a 100-percenter, to being a 95-percenter, to being a perfectionist – if that is even possible. Or: I can’t write until I have a very clear idea of what it is exactly that I want to do, i.e. I need to read A LOT and have time to mentally process ideas. Once I make it to that point, I can start writing, but not a moment earlier, or I freak out. But as soon as the ideas are on the page in a somewhat acceptable form, I can’t be bothered anymore. Then, as the deadline approaches, I go into overdrive and nothing is ever and can ever be good enough.

  7. Thesis Whisperer says:

    Saartje – you might want to see someone about that. It’s possible that you can oscilate between these states, but ‘freaking out’ when you start to write is a definite sign of anxiety, which might need some better management. University counsellors could give you a more accurate diagnosis however.

  8. Deb says:

    Love this Inger. I’m an 80%-er, which means I get bored/frustrated with projects long before they’re ready to be kicked out. Probably why it’s taking me such an age to finish. Holding on to that last oomph is such a life skill – I’m off to practise! –

  9. yet another 100%er says:

    Neatly done and well drafted post. As you have rightly pointed out each journey is unique. Problem begins when you start to compare your research and achievements with the others,

  10. Portia says:

    Oh what a lovely post! As a 100% who will not submit anything for peer review until I am sure it is right, an ex architect student who moved arch engineering because it was more precise, a fractional permanent member of staff leading school eL&T because no one was doing it right, this resonates perhaps a bit too much. However a note of caution for me – my Head of School threatened to remove my funding and post if I didn’t submit my first draft 8 months early, and I therefore got destroyed at viva – I think he thought I was a perfectionist. So R&R is my newest running companion, along with galloping impostor syndrome. 100% is fine if it is understood. If not it is a miserable place.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I’m sorry to hear that. I couldn’t agree more that being misunderstood is deeply problematic. The inspiration for this post came from counselling thesis Bootcamp students, many of whom have been given the label perfectionist, when they were just slower to get there. Unfortunately our time pressured system doesn’t cope well with this style of working.

  11. Kerstine says:

    Thanks for this encouraging post. I think I’m a 95%-er but upside-down. I love to do the last 5% (to perfection) but struggle the most with getting the first 5% done properly. Then I often have to go back during the rest 95% and mend what I missed during the first 5%.

  12. Carol Mills says:

    Umm think I am 100%- er, but used to be a 95% -er. I used to panic a lot when I was younger. If I start to panic I write a list and make myself just do one thing off it and then set a time to do the other things. But this rarely happens now. I plan and organise and set achievable tasks for the day, but that is mostly a mental change that has come with confidence. I know what I want to do and set cut-off points and dead-lines for myself.

  13. Jayne Meyer Tucker says:

    See even in your so called failing you are an inspiration!
    (Should have been a cult leader)

  14. loquaciousrobii says:

    I have just submitted my thesis a few days ago and I am so relieved finally! It was a hard task. I had loads of writing to do as the deadline was approaching cause I had a number of problems with regards to the machines I was using to carry out the tests. So I ended up using most of my time trying to figure out the problems and then when I got back home I used to be drained after a long day working at the lab!

  15. PhDMum says:

    I think I’ve spent most of my life as a 75%-er. Sometimes I wonder if the ‘bigger picture’ reason I’m doing a PhD is to teach me how to push myself to the next level.

    And what % does sleep deprivation from young children deduct? Does it affect your ability & drive to dig deep & get a paper over the line?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      you know, I think the PhD did teach me that I can do it, so maybe you’re right. I think sleep deprivation makes everything harder, so that sounds like a legit excuse to me 🙂

  16. kaskamaryna says:

    Oh Inger, again after reading your posts I find myself wishing you and The Thesis Whisperer were around when I was studying and not finishing architecture studies, then studying for and finally lapsing a PhD thesis in history… sigh

  17. sciencesonneteer says:

    This came into my life exactly when I needed to read it. Thank you Thesis Whisperer for keeping me sane, giving me relatable posts that make feel like I’m definitely NOT alone in thinking and feeling what I do, and for generally being awesome.

  18. Carla Jardim (@CarlaJardim89) says:

    Thank you for sharing this concept of the 95%-er. What you said rang so true: I never turned in an assessed piece of work that didn’t get a little bit marked down for the lack of work at the last 5% stage. I just find it so difficult, it’s almost like ability to percieve (or care) runs out by that stage.

    I also appreciated your suggestion that working with a 100%er might help. My husband is definately a 100%er, and having him look at my work always improves it no end.

    And don’t get me started on the surplus of ‘advice.’ As a new PhD student, I feel completely overwhelmed and dishearted, sometimes.

  19. RF says:

    Great post, I am in the final throes/thesis prison stage and as a 95%-er I am so done with this ‘project’ and ready to move on to the next thing… I also wonder if my “extrovert” qualities in the Myers Brigg sense, have made doing the extra 5% of an isolated PhD harder.

  20. Jonathan Downie says:

    I have spent today on the 5%. Thank you for reminding me that all that drudge work is worth it. I just have to keep reminding myself that formatting references, chasing places of publication, sorting out appendices, chasing old data records for said appendices, and checking cross-references is worth it, or will be.

    Of course, having 2 lovely little 95% projects on the go is nice too. It helps take my mind off. Maybe one day, I should write about the importance of side projects.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for a very timely and appropriate article. I get bored stupid with the last 5% but cringe when I find a typo or error after a written piece has been submitted. Somehow I want to do 95% of the work but achieve a 100% result. Perhaps that’s why I am also no longer a practising architect. I cringe when my 100 percenter primary supervisor (also an architect) finds an error or sloppy phrasing. It has been made very clear that her expectation is for me to be a 100 percenter and by the time I submit, perhaps I’ll be a reformed 95 percenter.

  22. Chris says:

    I’m currently trying to finish off my second PhD paper which I’ve been writing for the last 1.5 yrs. It’s driving me mad and that last 5-10% is draining my energy. It’s also waisting the time I have left for another paper and then writing up.. ~ 6 months. I find it so boring that I get distracted easily by other things and can’t bring myself to finish it. It’s also destroying my self-esteem 🙁 Can you direct me towards someone to help with time management/focus?

  23. Helen says:

    Thank you Inger. You don’t know how much of a relief it is to hear a researcher admit to not being a 100%er. I would say that I am a 95%er, painfully reformed from a much lower percentage and a large dose of perfectionism through the process of doing my 6 year part time PhD which involved a massive literature review.
    I would like to venture that the story is a bit more complicated, however. I am definitely a 100%er in terms of scientific content and need lots of time to think/read my way round something but more like a 80%er when completing the tedious details like spellings etc. However, if I do spot a problem with my writing later, I immediately turn into a 100%er about it!

    I have found it helps a lot to separate the writing and the editing stages as much as possible so that I can get into my ‘editorial’ 100%er frame of mind when I see my work afresh. Oh, and you are completely right about collaborations helping to keep me to the last 5%!

    Maybe, we are all 100%ers in terms of our own understanding, but some struggle more than others with the process of packaging what we have found for everyone else to see?

  24. NQ says:

    I think I’m the opposite of you. I hope that doesn’t make me a 5-percenter! :/ I love the nitty-gritty details and getting all that perfect, right numbers on spectra, assignments (scientist here) – things probably no one will ever read. 🙁 I love checking my reference lists for perfection, and the rest of my work for spelling mistakes. It bothers me throughout writing that I can’t format everything until the end!

    …Am I a perfectionist? D: I know I am in some ways… I find the ‘reporting’ enjoyable and the ‘writing’ much less interesting, even though my supervisor’s told me I’m good at writing. Perhaps I’m just weird!

  25. prepwise says:

    Former Engineer now Logic Teacher and Business Owner

    Appreciate this post. Well done. There is a very big gap between perfection and 100% behavior. Few people understand what 100% means – they simply don’t have the understanding and exposure to grasp the concept. So they’d prefer to see you operate their way.

    I have to coach my adult students through the process of learning things they should have learned as pre-teens. The way many experience K-12 short circuits the opportunity to develop 100%er behavior. It is too weird, foreign to be 100%er. Until there’s a huge project and everyone wants to be your buddy, you may be labelled and cast out.

    I cannot claim 100%er, but I’ve come to appreciate the behavior as I write books and publish sets for my students. Seeing the performance difference in my students because of my 95% versus 100% behavior is usually enough to get me moving and keep me moving.

    Great blog.

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