Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can motivate you to perform at a high level and deliver top-quality work.
On the other hand, it can cause you unnecessary anxiety and slow you down. How can you harness the positives of your perfectionism while mitigating the negatives? In this article I’ll reveal how Perfectionism works and what measures or practices you can use to keep your perfectionism in check and what external support could help.
lot of perfectionistic tendencies are rooted in fear and insecurity. Many perfectionists that I’ve worked with worry that if they let go of their meticulousness and conscientiousness, it will hurt their performance and standing. But at this point it’s worth noting the real problem with perfectionism. And that is that perfect does not exist. There is nothing perfect in this universe, because the fundamental laws of physics do not allow it.
Take something that you consider to be perfect, like a diamond, and look at it under a microscope, and you will see the flaws that come from its development, and the microscopic scratch marks made by the jeweller cutting it to shape.
The universe is so imperfect that there is even a physical law of imperfection called entropy which says that everything over time moves from ordered to disordered. That’s right, everything in the universe is getting more and more untidy. And in fact the harder you try to maintain order or perfection in one area, the more disordered things become in another place. So the more you try to perfect that which cannot be perfect, the more energy you end up pumping in to frustration and anxiety, which is exhausting.
But having said that, perfectionism is a skill. In fact in the right place it’s a superpower; as long as you don’t apply it to everything you do. It’s about using this skill when and where it is most useful and applicable. If you’re building a nuclear reactor then I would like you to do that as perfectly as possible, but if you’re building a cardboard fort then a few boxes thrown together will be enough to keep the kids happy.
Perfectionism works like a software program with the wrong finishing conditions. Take a dishwasher for example. You put dirty dishes in, add some detergent and hit the start button. The dishwasher program will run through a cycle of hot water that is designed to get the vast majority of the dishes very clean, based on the engineer’s calculations on optimal use of time, water, heat and detergent. Now occasionally a plate or a fork comes out of the dishwasher still dirty. If the program said keep going until everything inside is spotlessly clean, the dishwasher would cost three times as much and probably use up ten times as much energy for that errant fork. It’s not worth the extra cost or effort. So my recommendation is to shift your perfection from the doing to the experiencing. That is, focus on the perfect outcome not the perfect activity. Here’s an example. Your boss asks you to write a report. Instead of making the report absolutely perfect based on your own conditions, ask your boss what would make him or her perfectly happy with the report. A perfect report for him or her might be a draft version available in a day rather than a perfect one in a week.
Make an imperfect list
A good way to start this approach is to make a list… not an exhaustive list mind you, of the situations that trigger your old perfectionist habit. It’s worth asking your partner, friends and colleagues to tell you the top triggers that they notice, and which ones have the worst “effort to outcome” ratio. That is, the activities that you used to perfect that have the least possible benefit. Such as trimming your lawn borders with a ruler and scissors, or the seventeenth layer of paint just to make your walls flawless. When you’ve got this imperfect list, just give yourself 60 seconds to pick 3 off the list that are most likely to occur in the next week and ask someone to tell you when that activity is 90% done. Just get some external feedback on what good enough is, to help you rewrite your old habit to have an earlier check. Once you’ve done this a few times, your software program will start to change and give you earlier checks on when something is done. Remember to keep checking in with people to get feedback, and you’ll soon find that you have more energy to apply your perfecting superpower to the places that really need it. And if you find that there’s some old habits that are really difficult to shift, that’s where some focused coaching is the perfect answer.