Nine Joys of Being Imperfect

Unhealthy perfectionism is the enemy of productivity and happiness.

Posted Dec 29, 2020

Image by Shirley810, pixabay.
An imperfect flower. Is it still beautiful?
Source: Image by Shirley810, pixabay.

The Power of Imperfection

I accomplished a major personal goal during the 2020 pandemic—I wrote a book!* How did I do it? I had a vision of the book that provided me with willpower. I used standard productivity techniques such as working on a set schedule, taking breaks, setting priorities, and setting flexible daily goals. The pandemic was also helpful in that it removed temptations to do too much socializing, shopping, or eating out with friends. The COVID threat, as well as my advancing age, also provided a push to get things done in the face of an unknown “dead-line.”   

But a major factor in my success was this: I gave up my desire for the book to be perfect and aimed for excellence rather than perfection. Excellence is achievable, perfection is not, as the old saying goes. I found it freeing to tell myself at the end of a chapter, “This is fine. I think I’m done with that part.”

The book is now published, and I’m so happy with the result—the content, the cover art, the format--that I’ve decided to use the mindset of imperfection to cope with other life problems. Here are some of my discoveries about the power and joy of being imperfect that might be helpful for you.

The Courage to Be Imperfect

Even though perfectionists often undermine their own productivity, as PT blogger Alice Boyes points out here, it can be hard for them to stop their self-sabotaging. For example, a perfectionist might spend too much time making small tweaks to a presentation when other priorities matter more.

It takes courage to realize that some decisions and tasks aren’t important enough to fret over endlessly and then to let them be. The courage to be imperfect** starts with the acceptance of the fact that you are a fallible human being who inevitably will make mistakes.

What are the advantages of the “imperfection mindset?”

When you have the courage to be imperfect, you can…

l. Get started on a project instead of procrastinating.

Beginnings can be sloppy and even embarrassing. It’s tempting to give up before you’ve even begun. For example, many writers are humiliated as they read their first draft of an essay or story.

That’s why I love this famous advice about writing from author Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: “Write a shitty first draft.” (Pardon my language, but that IS what she said.) Unless you are having a lucky day or are a complete genius, your first draft will be horrible. That’s the nature of first drafts and beginnings in general. But after you polish it up, eventually your work will begin to shine. I feel a kinship to a fellow writer who once wrote, “I am not so much a writer as a re-writer.”

2. Get things done faster.

For my book project, instead of agonizing over every word, I just kept writing, trusting that I would find the right or almost-right word or phrase eventually. Moving forward rather than hesitating helps build momentum.

I find that the same principle applies to shopping choices. Rather than seek the absolute best pair of sunglasses at the perfect price, for example, find a pair that meets a few important criteria for you: (1) UVB and UVA protection and (2) fits snugly. Saving time on your errands means less decision fatigue and more time for the important stuff. (I learned this lesson from Barry Schwartz's book,The Paradox of Choice.)

3. Get more done.

“Done is better than good.” I once heard author Elizabeth Gilbert say this. I kept that motto in mind as I created a website for my new book (megselig.com).  It took me only a week to create it—practically a miracle. And I was pleased with it, although there is still one annoying correction that I need tech help to make. Still, “done is better than good.”

4. Talk back to your critical inner voice.

Constant self-criticism will prevent you from getting anything done. When you decide, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be excellent,” you can keep your critical inner voice from taking over. Negative self-talk can occasionally be useful, but when you have unrealistically high standards, you just create frustration and anxiety for yourself.

5. Build self-confidence.

When you learn to take self-criticism less seriously, you feel better about yourself. At the end of the day, you will be able to cite numerous accomplishments, large and small, and feel a sense of satisfaction not only at what you did but at how you did it. Genuine self-confidence comes from cultivating a daily awareness of your small victories, as I write here. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.

6. Get more pleasure out of life.

When you stop focusing on tiny imperfections in yourself, you feel freer to accept yourself and even to laugh about your little quirks and faults. The same goes for accepting others. Your work, too, will become more enjoyable as you cultivate realistic standards and priorities.

7. Stop the suffering of all-or-nothing thinking.

“If this report is not perfect, it’s horrible.” This cognitive distortion (thinking error) is a typical thought pattern of many perfectionists. Lapsing into the belief that unless you are perfect, you are no good at all, causes untold mental suffering. This belief, and others akin to it, is a major reason why perfectionism can be a barrier to happiness and inner peace.

Challenge that unhelpful belief. For example, tell yourself, “I’d like to make that report better, but it’s not horrible. In fact, it’s a pretty solid piece of work.”

8. Bounce back from mistakes and lapses.

If you can roll with the ups and downs of your mistakes, accepting them as part of the process instead of as signs that you are incompetent or hopeless, you are more likely to correct them without undue self-criticism or agony. Strange to say, but even changing a habit like stopping smoking, eating less, or creating an exercise program is easier when you are an “imperfectionist.” Successful habit-changers learn to bounce back from lapses and relapses rather than get discouraged by them, as I write here.

9. Save your own life or someone else’s.

Every winter there are stories about older people who try to shovel their snowy walkways and have heart attacks. As a regular exerciser, I never thought this could happen to me.

But recently my city scheduled a leaf pick-up. I had to rake my leaves to the curb where the “leaf-eating truck” would vacuum them up later that week. After about 30 minutes of raking, hauling, and lifting, I noticed that my heart was pounding, and I was gasping for breath. I decided to stop even though my yard, unlike my neighbors’ yards, still had leaf litter on it. “Which is better, a perfectly leafless lawn or being alive?” I asked myself. Although the thought “What will the neighbors think?” did occur to me, I didn’t fall victim to the “spotlight effect”—overestimating the extent to which my actions were noticed by others. (Thank you, psych researchers who have studied this phenomenon!)

Recognizing imperfection could even help “bend the curve” of the COVID pandemic.  Many public health measures—such as masking, washing hands, and social distancing—are not 100% effective. But they do reduce the risk of contracting the virus—and reducing the risk means fewer deaths, illnesses, and long-haul disabilities. Hence, these “imperfect” actions have an outsized positive impact on our society.

Summing Up

Perfectionists often think that they will become sloppy, careless workers unless they maintain high standards. High standards are fine, but unrealistically high standards will only make you miserable. You, like me, may find that the motto, “Aim for excellence, not perfection,” can remind you to do quality work without the anxiety and frustration that accompanies a perfectionist mindset. Become an "excellentist" instead of a perfectionist.

*My new book is: Silver Sparks: Thoughts on Growing Older, Wiser, and Happier.

**”The courage to be imperfect” is a phrase coined by Adlerian psychologists.

© Meg Selig, 2020.