💡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?

“It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.” -Vance Havner

You’ve procrastinated all morning.  You keep checking your inbox or Instagram feed and haven’t touched that project you’ve been meaning to work on.  One more cup of coffee.  One more like on Facebook.  You’re staring at the staircase and then looking down at your phone to see if there is one more thing that you can use to distract yourself from actually, finally taking that step.

Spiral Staircase

 

This has been me this morning.  I have set this time aside to write and all I want to do is putz around.  I keep opening my inbox thinking, “What are you doing here again? Get to work!”  I am never going to get to the top of the stairs unless I at least start.

 

So here are some things to keep in mind to get you going:

 

  • Time blocks. What really got me writing this morning was knowing that this was my time block to write.  I have a commitment to myself that I will get a post done by noon on the weekends.  It’s now 10:39 AM and I have to start.  I have to spend at least 30 minutes on it even if I have no idea what I am going to write.  So I write.  I know some of my clients have set up time blocks for returning phone calls, responding to emails, exercising and being with their families.  Set up time blocks and make a commitment to your work.

 

  • Have a vision.  What does the top of the stairs look like to you?  My vision is “Make a difference in people’s lives”.  Writing these posts aligns with that vision.  Even if one person reads this post and changes one thing in their life because of it, then it’s worth 45 minutes of my time to make that happen.  Know why you are doing what you are doing and align your efforts with it. How will that production report affect your organization?  How will that conversation with your co-worker move you forward in attaining your vision?  Line up your actions with your vision.

 

 

  • Frequently the steps aren’t easy.  I have struggled with this.  When I was in Paris earlier this year, I ended up having to take a spiral staircase to many of my destinations.  I’m really tall and have large feet, so trudging up a small spiral staircase is not only difficult but I can’t see the top.  When we were visiting Sainte-Chapelle (a cathedral built in 1248), my friend and Francophile, Susannah, pointed to a very narrow stone spiral staircase to travel up.  I figured there is no way this building (built 8 centuries ago) is worth being claustrophobic or on my tip toes for.  I was wrong.  Against my better judgment, I followed Susannah up the staircase.  The top of the stairs revealed one of the most heart-stopping, breathtaking, stained glass-encrusted spaces I have ever been in. Take the steps–the view may surprise you.

 

 

  • Step into fear.  My friend Janine and I went to the Eiffel Tower the day after the Brussel airport bombing.  We had tickets to what I thought would be the 1st landing of the tower.  I’m not crazy about heights and I figured that would work just fine.  It turns out we had tickets to the top.  When we got to the top, there was another staircase to go up. Janine was game to go up and I was fine where I was.  She ran up the stairs and came back down to get me. “Cath, you gotta come!”  I stepped into my fear, took the steps and saw a Paris I will never forget.  If I reframed it as a challenge rather than a fear, it became much easier to conquer.

 

 

  • Have support.  I’ve already shown you two examples where my friends have supported me in venturing up staircases with terrific results.  These same friends are in “Cathy’s Brain Trust” and they give me weekly feedback on my posts.  I feel accountable to them to continue to write.  Who is depending on you?  Who are you supported by?  When pushing through to your highest aspirations, you need to make sure you have support.  My daughter is part of that group and she knows me well. Writing is definitely a challenge and I know she’s always cheering me on.

 

 

  • Be open to the unknown.  Frequently we don’t know exactly where we are headed.  We have a vision but there is so much that is unseen from the bottom of the staircase.  My friend Susannah and I were hiking in Haystack State Park.  At the end of the hike was Haystack Tower…with a spiral staircase no less.  It was a hot, humid day and I think the last thing I  wanted to do was go up the tower’s two flights of stairs.  Susannah assured me that the views were at the top of the tower.  So-you guessed it-I went up the two flights and the payoff was a view of three states at once: MA, CT and NY.  Stick it out and it will pay off.

 

 

  • One step at a time.  Many times I have clients who are frozen from being overwhelmed.  They want to take action, but when they decide they want to write a book, it’s paralyzing.  They can’t take any step because a step like “write a book” is not easily done in a morning.  The key is to break it down into chunks.  Bite-size chunks like “write an outline”, “decide what software to use” or “research books on writing non-fiction for one hour”.  Break it down one step at a time so that the step can be accomplished in 90 minutes or less.

 

This isn’t always easy when there are so many distractions in life.  It’s easy to think that skimming through and putting out fires is getting you to where you want to go.  Figure out which staircase you want to go up and start with one small step.  The view from the top is going to be awesome.

6 Steps to Taking Action. Now.

You are bored.  You check your phone for some kind of notification.  It’s a new “like” on Instagram, or Facebook or LinkedIn or some other social media site.  Pretty soon your entire Sunday morning has gone by with scanning aimlessly on various sites.  You meant to start writing that article.  Or mow the grass.  Or call your brother.  But somehow the whole day has seemed to slip away to screen time with nothing productive to show for it.

Take Action

This disengagement from the here and now rolls on.  The constant distraction of “screen” time whether it be web surfing, channel surfing or playing video games is taking us away from the present moment.  And when you are distracted?  You procrastinate.  You put the project off.  It’s too overwhelming to take the first step so you escape into screen time.  Or as Dr. Hallowell says in his book, Crazy Busy, “A modern addiction, screen-sucking is like smoking cigarettes: Once you’re hooked, it is extremely hard to quit.” When you are sucked into a screen, you are caught up there and you are disengaged from everything else.

So here are 6 steps to taking action.  Now:

  1. Cut out the distractions. Full disclosure here – I have been trying to get started on this post for the last two hours on a Sunday morning.  I had my phone next to me.  I kept picking it up and looking for notifications.  So what did I do?  I put it in the kitchen to charge.  All my social media sites are shut now and my email is closed on my computer.  No more distractions.  So now I am finally writing.  I know there are apps out there that will shut down notifications while you are on your phone or laptop.  I try and cut out distractions by eliminating the notifications through the settings on my electronic devices.  You cannot focus on the project in front of you when your mind is distracted.
  1. Work on a computer or laptop instead of something smaller. As Amy Cuddy found in her studies outlines in her book, Presence, “As hypothesized, compared to participants working on larger devices (e.g. a Mac computer), participants who worked on smaller devices (e.g. an iPad) behaved less assertively– waiting longer to interrupt an experimenter who had made them wait, or not interrupting at all.” So you are making yourself small when you are hunched over your phone, less important. They call this “text neck” or “iHunch.”  As the study showed, it makes you less assertive.  This must be part of the reason why I rarely write when I am on the road since I don’t travel with a laptop.  I’m turned off by the feeling of being small and powerless on my phone.
  1. Eat that frog. This is a phrase coined by Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  Brian Tracy advocates starting with the biggest ugliest item on your to-do list first thing.  It helps you have momentum to start taking action on other things. Otherwise, you start filling your day with little items that don’t have an impact or really matter.  Pick the thing with the most significant impact and start doing it first.  You also have more energy first thing in the morning and, for most people, it’s when you do your best work.  First and foremost, Eat that Frog!
  1. Make bite size action items. So instead of Write a book as your action item list Start outline for book or Decide title for book or Research three articles for book. Whew.  Sounds a lot easier than taking on an entire book in a day.   When you are overwhelmed with the whole project, you become immobilized. Frozen.  Anxious.  Take one little bite and take it on.  It’s empowering.   The feedback I get from most of my clients is that through coaching they’ve been able to break things down and realize positive forward progress.   Smash up the project into pieces that will spur action.
  1. Set a timer for thirty minutes. You will think I am crazy but I don’t exactly look forward to writing. I’m fine once I get started.  I get in the zone or flow and it’s a great experience.  But getting started?  I have a hard time getting off the starting block.  So I looked at my clock on my computer and said, “OK.  Give it 30 minutes.  Devote 30 minutes to writing this post.”  So once I get past coming up with a title and direction for the post I am in the zone.  It’s now been an hour and all I need is one more bullet.  I’m long past the 30 minutes but it gets me in the chair and off to a start.  See if setting a timer will get you to start.
  1. Do it now. After teaching several classes of Franklin Covey’s “5 Choices to Extraordinary Results“, I realized that I was procrastinating with little tasks.  I would think, “If I can’t finish it before my next meeting, then forget it.  I’ll move it out until tomorrow.”  Suddenly I realized that I didn’t have to completely finish the task before the next meeting.  There is a perfectionism tied up in the attempt to get items finished before the meeting.  So now if I have 5 minutes to spare before a meeting, I will knock out paying some bills or draft an email to a client.  I no longer wait for the perfect window to complete the task.  What I have found is that I can complete a lot more than I thought by not waiting for the perfect moment.  It’s amazing what I can get done in 5 minutes.  Do it now.

I remember a coach of mine, Michele Woodward, told me some time ago that what I get done on my worst day is more that most folks get done on their best day.  Acknowledge that you are more productive than the average worker.  Envision that you are productive and action oriented and you will be.  But first?  Put away your phone.

Carrot or Stick?

How do we get people to fall in line?  Is it best to use a carrot (incentive plan, appreciation or chocolate cake) or a stick (“you’re grounded”, late payment fees or speeding tickets).  As Daniel Pink outlined in his book “Drive”, it can be a puzzling question.  There is a study outlined in a book done by Dan Ariely where three different groups in India were given tasks to do in a same period of time but they were compensated at three different rates.  The equivalent of $.50 (a day’s pay), $5 (two weeks pay), or $50 (five months pay).  The group at $.50 and $5 were comparable in results but the $50 group underperformed! More compensation had the opposite affect.  Those who receive the larger amount of incentive actually perform slower.  This really doesn’t seem to make sense.  Wouldn’t more money mean more output? Wouldn’t 5 months pay drive performance in an underdeveloped  country?  It didn’t. Carrot or Stick

I was in training at a “Telling Ain’t Training” workshop taught by Harold Stolovich.  In one of the sections of the training, we all did a Boggle challenge with 16 letters to use to make as many 3 letter+ words as possible.  On my page, it stated that “You have 3 minutes to make at least 20 words of 3 letters or more.  People at your level usually obtain this result.” Half the group had this instruction, the other half did not have it.  I was in the group that had the expectation that I would be able to make at least 20 words.  My brain locked up!  The expectation for performance shut my brain down.  The group that didn’t have the expectation of 20 words out-performed my group. So how do we go about motivating people?  How do we get them to perform in a maximum way?

Here are some tips to drive performance:

1. Simple.  If the job is simple, the carrot will work.  If it doesn’t take creativity, imagination or analysis, then use the carrot.  I have a very weak stomach.  If someone says their kid is throwing up at home, I immediately feel queasy.  I inform you of this because once my beloved dog got sick in the middle of our living room.  I went to my purse and took out a twenty dollar bill, gave it to my son and said “Take care of it.”  Simple and straight forward.  Telling him to clean it or be grounded, would not have worked. There are times when a carrot will work.

2. Pain.  There are some things that require pain to drive performance.  Pain generally will work if the result is immediate and is obvious.  If there is going to be a painful result, such as a late fee, or loss of use of a cell phone (oh no!) and the person knows that will be the result of paying the bill late or staying out past midnight; it will drive performance.  I implemented a wellness program some 4 years ago in which the penalty was up to $200 more per month additional for health insurance premiums.  We had 100% participation.  Most other wellness programs with a reward attached were considered successful with 30% participation.  Pain works in the right situations.

3. Autonomy.  Most of us want to decide for ourselves what we are going to do today.  Micro managers who dictate every “dot of an i and cross of a t”, in the long run actually diminish performance.  I can assure you that if I come in the house and tell my son to clean his room “right this instant”, I am not likely to have a great outcome.  But, if I say, “I’d like your room cleaned.  Can you get it done by 6PM when your grandparents arrive?” the outcome will likely be better.  Now my son understands the rationale and is given the latitude to decide when and how he will get it done.  Autonomy sparks performance.

4. Time Warp.  I get my best work done early in the morning after I have mediated, eaten and exercised.  My daughter gets her best work done in the afternoon and rarely is well rested.  My son is a night owl.  His peak performance could be from 8PM until 2 AM.  Here is the problem.  Many bosses, teachers and organizations want you to work a certain set of hours….or else! So what are we giving up in creativity and performance by shoe horning folks into certain hours.  Find your (or your employee’s) best time warp.

There is a time and place for all carrots, sticks and autonomy.  They all don’t work for all situations.   If you want to drive the best performance, you might want to try out a few of these ideas to see if you can move the needle on performance.

Fretting. The Energy Drain.

Do you want to procrastinate?  Do you like to procrastinate?  Do want to come to a complete stop?  Start fretting?  Worry about the what ifs? Dwell on all the things that could happen?  Might happen? Could happen?  Should happen?  It sucks the life out of you.

I had a client recently gnashing her teeth because her child was going overseas for a month.  Her biggest issue was the not knowing.  How would they communicate?  What is Skype?  Where would he be living? So my question was, “how is all this worrying working for you?”  Well, it’s not.  It’s paralyzing, sleep depriving…a waste.  Fretting or not fretting will not change the outcome.

I’m not saying I don’t understand.  I have two teenage children who have been more than an 8 hour drive away for the last four weeks (one south and one north).  They are making their own decisions, their own plans and their own mistakes.  My worrying or lack of worrying won’t change the outcome.  But at least I sleep.   This has not always been my M.O. ( modus operandi).  It’s taken me years to back off the Ledge of Worry.

How to get to fret-less in 5 not so easy steps:

1. Decide.  You need to simply get on board or not.  If you really enjoy thinking of endless ways how your child, your parent or your spouse could be in a car accident.  If this is your fuel;  then join the fretters club.  But if you’re ready to do the mental dump and start living in the moment, then you need to make the commitment.  This can’t work unless you do.

2. Optimism. You will need to be optimistic.  This will be difficult for the glass-half-full-people out there.  What if everything is going to be better than expected?  Maybe the plane is getting in early.  Maybe your team will go to the NCAA finals.  Maybe the boss’s office  door is shut because they are working on your raise.  Everything is possible including the windfall, the referral and the next project.  Expect the best.

3. Turn it off.  The news that is.  I was just in Atlanta and my husband had the evening news on.  OMG.  Shootings.  Drownings.  Murder.  Car accidents.  My blood pressure went up.  My mind starts wandering down horrible trails.  What if that was my kid, friend, coworker? Nothing good can come from the news.  98% is sensationalized and depressing.  I’ve taken a clue from my daughter.  She gets caught in rain storms without an umbrella or in freezing temperatures with flip flops on.  She doesn’t watch the news or the weather.  She takes is as it comes. Why ruin the surprise?

4. Moment.  As in, Ya Gotta Live in the Moment.  This is the most difficult.  There is always a certain  amount of reflection and planning in life.  We just need to stop dwelling on embarrassments, back stabbing and finger pointing.  We need to quit anticipating the worst outcome.  So your friend has cancer.  Worrying for them is not going to help them.  Praying for them can.  Assuming they will be cured is a much more positive approach.  Being with them in the moment is a gift.

5. Alert.  Pay attention to your thoughts.  No one else will.  You need to be vigilant.  Pessimism has a way of seeping into our heads.  When you get caught in your fourth red light in a row, chill out.  It’s going to be fine.  Sometimes I fantasize that if I didn’t get caught at the red light I would have been some place three minutes earlier and caused a car accident.  This was meant to be.  Just make sure you’re staying in charge of those fretting thoughts.  You are your own sheriff.  Clean out the riff raff.

So the next time your spouse/partner is late, imagine that they’re picking up your favorite coffee or scoring a new project.  It will send out positive energy and you will sleep so much better.

What would you do?