James is perfectionistic in doing nearly everything: His office is always extraordinarily neat. It takes him hours to draft an email that others might do in ten minutes. It takes him seven minutes to shave: soaking his beard in hot water for two minutes, carefully going over every spot two or three times, etc. He kicks himself every time he makes even a small mistake, and terribly fears someone criticizing his work, both of which which make him even more perfectionistic. He’s embarrassed at how little he gets done but can’t make himself stop his excessive perfectionism.
His wife Cathy is the opposite. She shaves her legs in one minute, often nicking herself. She’s a corporate salesperson and zings-off each sales call with no preparation. Her desk is a tornado. As a result, she’s often trying to clean up her messes.
Jessica is more variable. She treats perfectionism like the way we drive: faster when speed yields more benefit than risk, slower when it doesn’t. She controls her perfectionism pedal; It doesn’t control her. Unconsciously she asks herself these questions. After you try this a few times, you'll probably do it automatically:
1. How would I do this task if I were to try to do it perfectly? For example, if you have a presentation to make, you might interview ten people, review hard-to-get databases, spend hours creating an awesome Powerpoint, scripting and memorizing it.
1a. What benefits to me, the employer, and society would accrue from doing it perfectionistically? Don’t forget about the pleasure and pain you’d feel. For example, some people find it fun to strive for perfection and enjoy the increased confidence that they won’t screw up. Other people hate being so thorough. They love getting it done just well enough to hopefully avoid getting in trouble.
2. How would I do this task if I were to try to do it slapdash? For that presentation, you might just, off the top of your head, list a few talking points and wing it.
2a. What benefits to me, the employer, and society would accrue from doing it slapdash. Don’t forget about the pleasure you’d get from getting the task done quickly, with little effort and getting to move on to something new.
3. So, in light of your answers to those questions, how do you want to tackle this task?
What if your perfectionism feels beyond your control?
Some people feel they can’t control their decision to be perfectionistic. They’re so afraid of failing and of being viewed as inadequate that they’ll do tasks to a clearly unnecessary level of perfectionism. For example, a carpenter built a deck with the screws aligned to within 1/64 inch of parallel, which almost no one would care about compared with the typical 1/8 inch. It thus took three times as long as it needed to.
If that sounds like you, might one or more of these help?
What if your slapdashness feels beyond your control?
If only unconsciously, such people feel driven to do slapdash work because of one or more of these:
If one or more of those resonate with you, might one or more of these help?
Think gas pedal: Depending on the situation, you want to press harder or softer on your perfectionism pedal. And beyond yourself, are you imposing your too-great or too little perfectionism on your romantic partner? On your child? On your coworkers or supervisees?