I have periodic bouts of perfectionism. I can get angry with myself when a recipe doesn’t work out to my standards, a road trip doesn’t go as planned or a facilitation lands flat. Perfectionism is constantly brought up on coaching calls with my clients. Whether it’s having exacting standards for direct reports, being incapable of delegating for fear of mistakes or working in excess of twelve hours a day to triple check the data or power through quarter end. Perfectionism is running amuck in organizations and families everywhere. I’ve seen clients literally paralyzed by perfection into procrastination. They knew they had to start the project or the annual review or the strategic plan but the time ticked away as they froze into immobility. They just couldn’t start because of fear that it would not be perfect. As May Busch writes for her blog, “Perfectionism puts you under greater stress and is just plain bad for your health. All of which makes you less efficient and effective. It’s a downward spiral, and not a sustainable way to do business or live your life.” Get out of the spiral.
Here are 5 ways to let go of perfection:
- Be honest with yourself. I have found that most folks who tend towards perfectionism typically already know that they are. There are three types of perfectionism. Socially prescribed perfectionism is striving to live up to external standards like family or the organization and the fear of rejection. Other-oriented perfectionism is focused on having unattainable standards for others like direct reports or children and those demands hurt their relationships. Self-oriented perfectionism is focused on self with very high standards for one’s self with highly organized and conscientious expectations. Everyone has parts of all of these to differing degrees. I took an assessment and found that my highest area was socially prescribed although the population in general skews towards self-oriented perfectionism. This is good information to have as now I understand why I focus more on being accepted by others while I have lower standards for myself. Find out where you stand on perfectionism.
- Acknowledge limitations. There is a point of diminishing returns. As Erin Rupp wrote for Freedom, “Typically, productivity quickly grows at the start of a work session then reaches a point where it begins to wane. This is the point of diminishing returns. At this point, the output starts slowing and then declines, so continuing doesn’t make sense because the gains will be negligible.” I can remember cramming for an exam in college. At a certain point, I knew that sleep was more important than studying. As we age, it’s more difficult to work into the wee hours of the night and expect to be at our best the next day and for the quality of the work to be as good after a certain period of time. I also think that looking at 90-minute cycles to work is better than powering through for multiple hours. “Working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and consolidation” says Robert Pozen of MIT. Self-imposed limitations help get to good enough.
- Confront procrastination. As Rupp wrote, “The key to breaking the loop of perfectionism and procrastination is taking your attention off your fears. When we overthink our tasks, they become more overwhelming.” Blocking distractions can be very effective. Put your phone in another room, turn it off or get an app that blocks distractions. Thinking through “what if” scenarios can be effective as well. What if my facilitation falls flat? “It’s OK because my self-worth isn’t wrapped up in whether or not it goes well.” What if it they love it? “Great, I’ve been able to have an impact and I’ve learned what works for the next time.” What is most likely to happen? “Probably something in between and I’ll learn something regardless.” I also like breaking things down. If you put it on your to-do list “Read Gone with the Wind” or “Read one paragraph of Gone with the Wind” or “Move book to my bedside”. The first is daunting and the other two are doable. As BJ Fogg suggests making it easier to achieve means you are more likely to follow through instead of procrastination.
- Set reasonable attainable goals. This can be for ourselves and others. As Oliver Burkeman wrote for Four Thousand Weeks, “The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will. The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or supplied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel ‘on top of things,’ or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done.” The more you chase being on top of things, the more overwhelmed you feel. Cut out the less important and focus on what is attainable.
- Practice self-compassion. As Busch wrote, “As you retrain yourself, one of the most powerful obstacles in your way will be your self-talk. When the voice in your head says things like, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” or “Don’t be lazy” or “Everything is riding on this”, it’s hard to stop yourself from going for perfect.” Good enough is good enough. Would you call a friend “lazy” or “stupid”, heck would you say it to an enemy? Try some of these positive affirmations instead:
- My health is more important than my performance/accomplishments.
- I will give myself grace when I make a mistake.
- Mistakes are growth opportunities.
- I value learning more than being right.
- Everyone makes mistakes.
- My worth isn’t based on my achievements.
Self-compassion is critical to reduce the anxiety associated with perfectionism.
Perfectionism seems more rampant to me as folks cope with hybrid return to the office or full time working remotely. We don’t seem to get the same reassurance from personal interactions that we are enough through a computer screen, it’s easier to get wrapped up in the “real message” in that email or slack message from my boss. Acceptance and grace start with ourselves. How do you get past perfectionism?