Lyn Lomasi, CC0
Source: Lyn Lomasi, CC0

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?

  • Recognize that your critical parent helped make you excessively perfectionistic. Is it finally time to answer not to them but to yourself?
  • Picture the worst case. For example, you build the deck to standard tolerances and the customer fires you--unlikely but possible. Could you survive? Even if that were your full-time employer? You might actually be better off—You could search for an employer that would value your perfectionism, perhaps a custom cabinetmaking company.
  • Realize that that extra time you spend trying, perhaps vainly, to make your work perfect can be painful. Think of how you’d enjoy having more expeditiously made progress. Think of how you might enjoy the saved time? 

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:

  • They love the adrenaline that comes when rushing.
  • They want to prove to themselves or to others how much they can get done.
  • Despite their slapdashness having hurt them, they believe that, net, it yields more benefit than being moderate-paced.

If one or more of those resonate with you, might one or more of these help?

  • As with the compulsive perfectionist, recognize that your parent had a role in making you slipshod. Is it finally time to answer not to them but to yourself?
  • Picture the worst case. If, for that presentation, instead of just jotting down a few talking points and winging it, you spent an hour or two fleshing it out, wouldn’t you likely do better? And if success doesn’t appeal to you, are you too afraid of success, for example that if you do a great job on that presentation, you might get promoted and given more responsibility than you want? Remember that you can always say no—You can set boundaries, limits.
  • Think back to the pain versus benefits you’ve derived from being quick-and-dirty. Is it time to change, if only modestly? We all deserve a measure of happiness.

The takeaway

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?

Dr. Nemko is a career and personal coach. His bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko

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