Perfectionism is tricky to address, because in today's competitive world, it can seem like a requirement for success. This is especially true for women, who tend to be judged more harshly for their mistakes than men. A desire for perfection isn't just in people's heads, it's also pervasive in our culture.
While there are situations in which being perfectionistic can pay off, you'll want to make a rational assessment of when that's the case and when, conversely, perfectionism isn't serving you and is, in fact, holding you back.
Here are key ways perfectionism can be self-sabotaging.
1. The perfectionist feels compelled to follow through on every task, even those that aren't very important.
Getting important things done often requires ignoring tasks that are urgent, but not especially important. The perfectionist feels compelled to "check off" all their urgent jobs and to do these at a high standard. Consequently, there is very little time left for them to get to important, but non-urgent work. The person ends up constantly feeling like a hamster on a wheel and doesn't get their most meaningful work done.
Solutions: I have a whole article devoted to tips for focusing on the important, not just the urgent, and an explanation of why this is difficult, especially for the perfectionist. In particular, isolating the most critical elements of important tasks can be useful. For example, instead of aiming to create the perfect will (for if you pass away unexpectedly), you might at least get something in place with the most important elements, and you can always revise it.
2. The perfectionist exhausts and frustrates others with their overworking.
Even when it's not intentional, the perfectionist's ultra-high standards can impact others. If they're working late, perhaps they end up sending evening or weekend emails to coworkers, who then feel compelled to respond straight away. Or, they nitpick about details in a way that exhausts their teammates.
- Balance getting everything you want with maintaining relationships. If you work outside business hours, wait to send messages until the next day and be mindful of the number of times you contact colleagues.
- Pay attention to the advantages of others' approaches. For example, notice if other people get more done overall, because they're not as focused on small details, or if other people are more well-liked by their colleagues, because they're not as picky. Channel your perfectionism towards the best overall result, not perfection in every tiny circumstance, which can work against your overall goals.
3. The perfectionist takes the approach of "If I can't do it perfectly, I won't do it at all."
This pattern can cause all sorts of problems. It can manifest as anything from the person putting off housework unless they have at least three hours to devote to it to holding back from leadership roles that they don't feel 110 percent ready for.
- Again, identify the most important parts of your tasks and do those. The more you do this, the easier it will get.
- Recognize that having periods of self-doubt doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong. You may be ready enough to step up to new challenges, even if you don't feel 100 percent prepared. Practice trying things before you feel 100 percent ready, and get accustomed to the emotions that accompany this.
4. The perfectionist refuses help when other people won't do things perfectly enough.
This pattern is fairly self-explanatory. It's cutting off your nose to spite your face. For example, your spouse doesn't do a household task exactly the way you like it done. You're so critical of them, they don't attempt to help anymore.
The perfectionist may find hiring employees or other types of outsourcing very difficult, because no one meets their standards.
This pattern can also get in the way of the perfectionist accessing support and self-care. For example, you'd like a massage to help you relax, but you're really picky about getting a great one, and if that's not guaranteed, you won't do it at all.
- Again, focus on the big picture. Would a 6 out of 10 massage be better than no massage at all? If you outsource a task, and it's done at a 7 out of 10 level, is that still worth it in terms of freeing up your time for other things? Think specifically about how you will be able to use the time and energy you gain. Learn strategies for disrupting rumination for times when small things are bothering you in a way that's out of proportion to the situation.
- If someone else's method gets a task done in 10 minutes rather than your 20, can you see the advantages of their approach?
5. The perfectionist spends far too much time on relatively minor decisions.
It's possible to spend endless hours trying to make absolutely perfect decisions, as in the case of planning a vacation or a wedding. Perfectionists can end up taking so much time making relatively minor decisions that they feel like they're constantly working and exhaust themselves. This can contribute to them failing to focus on objectively more important priorities.
- To the extent possible, maintain a laser focus on doing your most important tasks first. You'll soon realize that this doesn't leave a lot of time for overthinking minor decisions.
- Try using heuristics (aka rules of thumb) to make faster decisions. For example, one heuristic that I personally use (and wrote about in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit) is that I prioritize tasks that are worth $100+ over tasks that are worth less than $100. This helps me spend less time and energy prioritizing and making to-do lists.
- Try putting yourself in situations that force making faster decisions. For example, I'm currently doing a major rehab project on a rental property, and there are so many decisions to make, it's impossible to agonize over each one. I have to make decisions fast enough to keep up with the contractors!
6. The perfectionist sets goals so lofty, they run out of steam and abandon goals.
Some perfectionists have a hard time getting started. Another subset of perfectionists is more prone to not finishing things. These people tend to overcomplicate systems, strategies, and solutions to problems. They develop plans that are more elaborate than they need to be, rather than focusing on just getting the job done. This is the type of perfectionist I am. For example, sometimes I start out trying to write articles that make, say, 15 points, but then I realize that a shorter article is more reasonable for the writer and the reader!
- Whenever you set a goal, also consider a half-size version, and evaluate which is the better goal.
7. Perfectionists are dismissive of small improvements.
One reason perfectionists stay stuck in self-sabotaging patterns is that they devalue solutions that improve a problem, but don't completely solve it.
- Many times, when you focus on how you can improve a problem by a small percentage—10 percent or even 1 percent—you'll start to see easy solutions that require very little energy or willpower.
If you recognize any of these patterns, don't be too hard on yourself. Being excessively self-critical isn't helpful and will impede you from actually making any changes. These are all common patterns and nothing to be ashamed of. Pick one change you'd like to work on from reading this article and make a simple plan to do that. Pay attention to point #7 that your goal should be to improve your patterns, not completely eliminate problems. This is much more achievable and can even be enjoyable!
Boyes, A. (2018). How Perfectionists Can Get Out of Their Own Way, Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/04/how-perfectionists-can-get-out-of-their-own-way