How to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism in learning with the 80% rule

One of the most important realizations I made during teacher’s college was that I used my time better, achieved much more, and felt better about myself when I stopped trying to give my 100 percent. I wasn’t going to slack off, but it was more the idea that there has to be a point where you call off what you’re working on recognizing that what you have already finished is good enough.

I shared this observation with the classroom teacher I was paired with, and he recognized the principled behind it. He called it the “80% rule”. Perhaps a lot of people know it, but I didn’t and his term has stuck with me.

This rule is not an excuse to slack off. Nor does it apply to everyone. The 80% rule benefits people who have a perfectionist streak. They are the ones that find it hard to start tasks and frequently have high and sometimes unreasonable expectations of themselves.

Perfectionism is not the only contributor to procrastination, but it’s often lurking there. To make matters worse, perfectionists will delay starting some task until the pressure has increased so much that they are forced to start and eventually complete work they know is sub-par. They can then justify the sub-par work by telling themselves they did not have enough time to complete it. It’s a vicious circle.

There are situations in life when you need to give it your all, but as I get older I suspect that these situations are fewer and farther between than I believe. And in the long run, it’s the accumulation of privilege, resilient attitudes, or smart decisions that likely has a greater impact for the majority of people. Even the legendary investor Warren Buffet said, “I’m a product of this country, of this education system…There’s all kinds of people who have contributed to my well being that I can’t repay specifically.”

The great anti-perfectionist principle is Carol Dweck’s wonderfully applicable Growth Mindset. When we relentlessly adopt an open-minded attitude about how we can improve ourselves, we’re much more likely to succeed in the long run.

The 80% rule asks that you try hard but give yourself permission in advance to tolerate anything less than a self-imposed conception of perfection. And the rule can be useful for language teachers trying to help our students for whom perfectionism might be a problem. I’ll outline a few examples of how perfectionism has hurt me from my own experience of language learning and teaching and then show how the application of the 80% rule may work in the classroom.

Something is always better than nothing

I moved to China after university to teach English and to experience a bit of travel and life overseas before figuring out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I had some ambitions to learn Chinese, and, all things considered, I did fairly well during my first two years. But I do remember thinking at that time, that I could be doing more, which is always true for the perfectionist.

I remember thinking that I should be focusing more on my pronunciation because otherwise I might get stuck in a rut later on. That I needed to increase the number of characters I was reviewing each day or the amount of time I was spending speaking Chinese. That I may not have been that good a student because I spent so much time (but not enough of course) and I still was making mistakes.

And after those first two years, I stopped studying. There were several reasons. First, I had acquired a basic communicative competence that met my needs. Second, I met my future wife, and it was more interesting spending time with her than it was studying Chinese. Third, because her English was very good, and following the general principle of bilingualism that you use whichever language works best for the context, my Chinese input declined. Fourth, I was always reminded how poor my Chinese was whenever she opened her mouth and spoke Chinese.

Many years later, I can only imagine the progress that I would have made if I had been less of a perfectionist and given myself more credit for the considerable progress I had already made. I mean if I had just learned a single new character every day from that time until now, man, I’d be doing alright now.

I’d like to think that the Anglophone curse, that is due to the dominance of English in the world, Anglophones have necessarily had less incentive to acquire another language. That being said, two anglophone friends of mine who came to China at a similar time to me, have done very well with their language improvement, and both were self-taught, like I was. I don’t think they were any more or less intelligent than me, but they certainly had fewer qualms about making mistakes and were much more persistent in tracking down the sources of their errors than worrying about why they made them.

The 80% rule in the classroom

I already wrote about the challenges of balancing accuracy and fluency when communicating. The 80% rule might even be a little heavy on the accuracy side, but the principle behind it is still helpful. I find that successful students are the ones who use their time well and break down the task into more manageable steps. Even if each of those steps is far from perfect, the final product is often closer to perfect than if they had insisted on making each step perfect along the way.


Successful students are often the ones that have been practicing the most. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the work of Swedish research Anders Ericcson with the 10,000 hour rule, which suggests that anyone can become an expert at something if they put in that amount of time to practice.* Everything takes practice, but practice entails error. Practice only reveals to a perfectionist their lack of mastery. So an activity like journal writing can be an example of a paralyzing activity for some students.

With speaking, it’s important to create a safe environment where students are free to make mistakes and receive strategic feedback over their mistakes. Too much correction can be crippling and worsen perfectionist tendencies. Too little can be disadvantageous as well, especially in contexts where students are not exposed to English. The solution is to maximize opportunities to speak without fear of making mistakes. This by itself will lead to both greater fluency and accuracy.


Some students need permission to be messy and less than perfect right from the start. They might even need to be taught how to do this or even pressed to step outside their perfectionist cage. One of my students is like this. He can stare at a blank piece of paper for an entire class and show nothing for his work. The goal is not for him to show me work to prove he’s doing something, but to make sure that he’s not stalling in his mind.

Teachers also need to be mindful of the artificiality of many graphic organizers and brainstorming expectations. “Okay class, when you have found three ideas, write them in this organizer here. Then think of one reason to support each of those ideas.” Perfectionists hate this. “I only have three ideas. Mmm. I have to be so careful how I use those ideas.” A perfectionist needs to be given permission up front to be messy and not judged for it, or validated when their perfectionist mindset discovers valid flaws. Perfectionists that can problem solve the interpretation of messy data can have an enormous positive impact on society.

Teacher pleasing

I have found that some students are afraid of making the teacher unhappy. They think that if they don’t brainstorm correctly, then the teacher might not approve. Or, if they don’t understand how to do the task, what does it say about themselves if they have to go and ask the teacher for clarification? Perfectionists are perfect. Weakness is indicative of inadequacy, they tell themselves.

I have gotten frustrated with my students and observed the frustration of other teachers with certain students, when it seems that the student just doesn’t care. Often it’s the case that the student has developed what Martin Seligman has called a kind of learned helplessness, which may in fact be perfectionism induced. The student assumes the task is to difficult to do, so they don’t bother trying. This annoys the teacher and can further erode the confidence of the student when the only problem to being with was the student wrongly thinking the intermediate steps of the assignment had to be completed perfectly.

Crawling before walking

As I shared with my own language learning experiences, sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves and not aware of the progress we have been making, or we are making unrealistic comparisons. It’s as if perfectionists are born with the desire to walk, not realizing that there are a bunch of intermediate steps that are important, if not essential before they’ll be able to do that.

It’s really hard for ELLs, especially at the beginning. They can feel like they’re trapped, their intelligence and identity is not recognized, and they don’t have any easy way to communicate those feelings in English. Teachers can also have unrealistic expectations of their students, or teachers may lack the experience to accommodate for the needs of the ELL in the classroom.

Students need to be encouraged in their progress. Ells especially. Record regular videos via Flipgrid to see improvement over time. Compare early journal entries with later ones. Look at the types of books being read at the start of the time at the school with the current ones. These suggestions benefit all students, but they can help give perfectionists a sense of perspective. Good things take time. Nothing is accomplished without set-backs. It’s not natural to feel like you’re getting there.

My own journey as a perfectionist

I finally got my act together and started this blog a little over one month ago. It took me much too long to start it. For too long I was afraid of not quite getting the message write. Not knowing what to say. Not sure how often I should publish. Wondering if it’s worth it if no one reads it.

Not all of those issues are related to perfectionism, but they have been a part of it. I am applying the 80% rule as I write this entry. If you are a perfectionist yourself, you’ll fully understand the list of concerns that run through your mind and that you have to set aside in order to just be able to hit the publish button. If you’re not, then you can get a glimpse of a species of human for whom this is a very real struggle:

This Blog Post Worries

  • My word count is pretty high.
  • It ended up being more personal than I had initially planned. Did I fail because I didn’t do what I set out to do.
  • I think I wrote more about perfectionism than I did about the 80% rule.
  • I should have brainstormed more, just like I tell my students.
  • I didn’t hyperlink each of those statements, though I’m certain each are true: “And in the long run, it’s the accumulation of privilege, resilient attitudes, or smart decisions that likely has a greater impact for the majority of people.” Does that make me a less reputable blogger?
  • Should I just hyperlink the name Warren Buffet, or should I also hyperlink the words around that speech tag.
  • I haven’t hyperlinked enough to outside sources.
  • Everyone knows Gladwell and Deck!
  • This would never hack it as a serious piece of writing.
  • I don’t have a specific audience.
  • What if a serious writer reads this and, and, and, and quietly….scoffs.
  • I should have outlined the article better ahead of time.
  • Maybe I should save this article and write another shorter article to publish for my self-imposed Monday deadline.
  • This is not professional enough. People are going to pry apart my simplistic conception of perfectionism. I mean, I never even did any any research on the concept. Is it even a valid concept?
  • Am I confusing perfectionism with insecurity?
  • Who knows how many clunky sentences are in there.

But I can apply the 80% rule here. I will revise the post. And then I will publish it, imperfections and all.

* There has been controversy about the 10,000 hour rule, but the importance it places on practice is relevant to this post.

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