The Perfectionism Paradox

Getting perfectionism to work for you.

Posted Oct 31, 2011

Many people—including me—consider their perfectionism to be one of their most valuable attributes and critical for success in achieving one's life goals. As a perfectionist you likely bring attention to detail, organization, a clear sense of how all of the pieces of the big picture relate to each other, and an insistence on everyone working at their potential.

It seems like having good intentions (wanting to excel) and working hard would result in desired outcomes. However, this doesn't happen as often as we think it should. In fact, you might be frustrated by the fact that your perfectionism might pay off in one area of our life, but backfire in another and it is unclear why.

Even more confusing and frustrating is when we use a strategy in one instance and it works great, but then we use the exact same strategy in another situation, it doesn't work. For example, concern about mistakes can make you detail-oriented and a valuable asset at work—or it can make you controlling, anxious, and a procrastinator.

You share this dilemma with others only to hear "Why do you always set such high standards? Why can't you just take it easy and relax?" In other words, "Why don't you just lower the bar?" While I agree that sometimes perfectionism can increase one's stress and result in disappointments, it never made sense to me to stop trying to be a perfectionist.

Instead, I decided that I wanted to better understand when and under what circumstances perfectionism worked and when it backfired. When it wasn't working I also wanted a better solution than "lower the bar".

I began to think of this dilemma as the five seductions of perfectionism. Strategies that can go one of two ways: pay off big or cost you big.

1. More is always better. Sometimes that extra hour on a project really took it to the next level. However, be care of diminishing returns. Track when your time and effort are no longer paying off.

2. All mistakes are catastrophic. Who likes to make mistakes? On the other hand, research repeatedly shows that keeping your eye on what might go wrong will inhibit and decrease your performance.

3. Everything is equally important. Who doesn't want to be a stand out at everything he or she does? When unchecked, however, less important activities rob you of precious (and limited) time, effort and resources. Learn to prioritize based on values, interests and strengths.

4. If you want something done right...Sometimes others' standards are lower (and unacceptable). On the other hand, if you are always the go-to person the likelihood of burnout increases. Build yourself a "cabinet": different people in your life who excel in different areas. Rely on this group to share the load.

5. "Just one more minute..." Having an empty in box is a great feeling to leave work with. How often does that occur though? Skipping breaks and vacations can actually reduce productivity and creativity. Make sure to actively plan your schedule.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, find a way to make your perfectionism pay off for you.