💡5 Ways to Let Go of Perfection

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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. 
  1. 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.
  1. 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?

5 Reasons Coaching Works

You don’t need any help. In fact, help is a four letter word. You’re an adult. You have it all together. You might be a bit overwhelmed and distracted but you still get your stuff done. Maybe not all the stuff and maybe you don’t know why you do some of the stuff you do. And you might be exhausted trying to be all things to all people but…you certainly don’t need a coach.

Yep. I thought the same thing. Needing a coach is like accepting that you can’t handle your own stuff. What I found, surprisingly, is that if you are working with a trained coach (not some charlatan without credentials) you get to actually work on your own stuff. I remember about 4 months ago; I was going through an enormous transition. I couldn’t sleep. I was on a cycle of constant rumination and worry. Yes, a complete stress case. I was stressing out my entire immediate family.


I phoned a friend. A coach friend. She asked me some thought provoking questions. I finally started having some insights into my situation. The clouds started to part. Blue skies started peeking through. Luckily I had a session scheduled with my coach the next day. She asked me to visualize my perfect outcome. I saw butterflies raising me up from my shoulders. I let go of the worry. I let go of the dread. I was free and the storm had passed. The reason I’m telling you this is that; I could not have done that on my own. As I said to my friend, “you just can work on your own $%&@!” I have coached hundreds of people through their stuff, but I can’t work on my own stuff.

These are the reasons why coaching works:

1. Reflection back. When a coach notes and mentions that you’ve said the word “Money” eight times in the last fifteen minutes, it can be surprising. The coach didn’t say the word “money” eight times, you did. Wow. Really? Hmmm. I wonder if I might be hung up on money. Ya think? Or when a coach says, ” I don’t hear a lot of energy in your voice. Why is that?” A good coach reflects back your own thinking. Even if you stand in front of a mirror and talk to yourself, you will not hear the nuances that a coach hears.

2. Being deeply heard. Everyone runs around with a basic need of being deeply heard. Your partner might be a good listener but they’ve also heard you tell that story about not being picked for the kickball team fifty times. A coach is not tied to your outcome. When I was going through that crisis several months back, my husband couldn’t handle the stress of me talking about my stress. He’s vested in my future and our futures are intertwined; a coach is just vested in me and my thinking. They are there to listen. To find themes. To bring out the metaphors. My coach coaxed out the butterfly metaphor and it still resonates with me. She heard me. Deeply.

3. They don’t have an agenda. This is the main caveat of an ICF certified coach. Coaches do not control the agenda. They’re not worried about me making the mortgage payment or if I should sign up for a marathon or not. Without an agenda, a coach lets you call the shots. I think this is the single biggest distinction between a coach and a mentor or consultant. I have clients ask me frequently, “Cathy what should I do?” My answer is, “What are your thoughts about it?” It’s freeing to make your own decisions. If you make the decisions; you are going to follow through on them.

4. No attachment to the outcome. I can remember when I first started coaching. Let’s say the client wanted to quit smoking. When we met for our next session, they hadn’t taken any of steps they said they would take to quit. I would feel let down. Now, I’ve learned to let go. If it’s not important to the client, then it’s not important to me as a coach. I’m just helping them sort out what’s important and what’s not. Whatever outcome they want is what I want. They are driving the train, not me.

5. You cannot have insights on your own. Good coaching creates new pathways in your brain. Coaches are able to make connections between the thoughts you are having. I remember bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t being compensated enough for a gig I was doing. My coach said, “So you’re saying that the only thing you are getting out of it is money?” I suddenly realized that the gig had all kinds of upside besides the money like connection, camaraderie, and the opportunity to share. That was an insight for me that I know I wouldn’t have had on my own.

Coaching is all about you doing your best thinking; setting the space and time aside to really look at what direction you are headed. In the busyness of life, it’s so easy to lose track of what you value, where you are headed and, most importantly, how you want to get there. Coaching is a very viable answer.

How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about perfectionism. In the post, I brought up Hedonic Adaptation which involves a happiness “set point”, whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment. So whether it’s buying a new Mercedes or crashing your new Mercedes, your level of happiness resets to the same pre-event level. A reader asked that I expound on how I have tried to reset my happiness set point. Reset Your Happiness Set Point

So I’ve tried to reset my “set point” and it turns out there is some science behind it. I think I first became aware of this by reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, she chronicles twelve months of changing her approach and raising her happiness set point. By the end of the year she felt like she had a sustained increase in her happiness. In another article called “Making Happiness Last” by Katherine Jacobs Bao and Sonja Lyubomirsky, they posit it is possible to reverse the effects of the hedonic adaptation. So here is some advice:

  •      Gratitude. Start a gratitude journal. All the authors recommended this and studies have shown that this has a positive effect. I have had a gratitude journal for over 5 years. I have varied it from writing actual paragraphs, to four bullets to my current style which is just to list events and names that had a positive impact on me or I had a positive impact on them. I don’t have a limited number but generally it’s somewhere between 4 and 12. I’m not a big fan of rules, so I just go with what works for me. Count your blessings.
  •      Kindness. Perform random acts of kindness. Apparently it matters if the acts of kindness are varied. It makes sense. If I always buy my team a dozen donuts every Friday, after a while, it has diminishing returns. So you need to shake it up. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee, offer to help the mother with the toddler and infant at the airport, compliment the cashier on her earrings, volunteer at the local triathlon, or bring the mail to your elderly neighbor. I have done all of these. If it becomes rote, it’s not the same impact. Spread kindness.
  •      Intrinsic. The things you do for intrinsic reasons have a much greater impact than those for extrinsic reasons. So I write this blog to inspire others. It brings me joy. If I was writing this blog just to make money, it would not bring me joy. It would be drudgery. Find things that line up with your soul. Paint, sing, play the banjo, run a half marathon, write, cook, bake, raise chickens. Find something that feeds your soul and do it.
  •      Friend. If you can find some way to make your activities social, it will add to your happiness. I have to say that when I walk my dog instead of walking alone, I feel much better. Cooking with my son is more fun than cooking solo. Finding or making a friend while volunteering at a triathlon will multiply the results and the impact is tremendous. All these measures stave off the hedonic adaptation and keep your set point higher.
  •      Perspective. It’s important to remember where you started. Gretchen Rubin had a checklist where she kept track of what she did and didn’t do every day. I tried this but I just couldn’t work it into my routine. But I do remember where I started. Three years ago when I started this blog, I felt self-conscious, overwhelmed and resentful. Working on resetting my set point has made me happier and, I think, helped me live in the present. If you just look back a week, there may not be a big difference but when you look back to where you started, you will be able to see that your set point has changed and is much higher. So start now. Record or journal where you are today. A year from now, look back and see how far you have come.
  •      Self. It’s important that you are doing this for yourself. So don’t go pick up some paint and an easel because I or anyone else told you to. It won’t have the same effect. What is missing in your life? What’s not there right now that you want to have there? Only you can answer that. Maybe you want to raise goldfish or have always wanted to make homemade gnocchi or want to write a book or play the oboe. Whatever it is. Go do it. For you and you alone.
  •     Aware. You need to be aware of the strides you have made. I have the evidence of 154 blog posts (wow that’s a lot!). Studies have shown that if you can appreciate the changes you’ve made, you are keeping Hedonic adaptation at bay or keeping your set point higher. I know that in general, I have a more optimistic view of life. I know that stress and conflict roll off me more easily. I appreciate that my happiness set point is higher. Acknowledge the changes you have made.
  •     Help. Sometimes this is a great opportunity to get help. I think the biggest advantage a coach or therapist brings is the space to reflect and create insight. To see where you have come from and all that is possible. We get so caught up in striving that having someone give you the space to just stop and think is such a relief. You may be able to find this in a friend or partner but having an outside, unattached, viewpoint can be life changing.

Happiness can seem elusive if you have had a recent catastrophic event. But even these downward resets in happiness can be overcome with time. Hedonic adaptation eventually will buoy you up. The secret is to keep moving it up or at least maintaining at a new set point