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A Perfectionist's Dilemma: How to Balance More Is Better vs Diminishing Returns?

Challenging Perfectionistic Strategies that Don't Work

A core principle that many individuals with perfectionism share is that if a little of something is good, then more of it must be better. Think of the cases in which your belief in "more is better" has held true: the more time you spent on a document or presentation, the better it was; the more time you spent learning that new software program, the more efficient you were in the long run; the more time you spent with a client, the better the relationship was and the happier the client was with your work.

When "more is better" pays off, it typically does so in a big way and has a lot to do with hard work and persistence. It is also one of the reasons that you excel - and your desire to excel does not have to change.

In fact, research shows us that the amount of time you put into doing something isn't as important as how you spend that time. When we investigate how people become expert at a skill, we find that the time they spend learning the skill has to be paired with actively focusing on one's weaknesses in order to improve overall performance.

This process is called "deliberate practice." Most people who practice something typically focus on what they already know how to do and repeat it. But research shows that this kind of pure repetition - even done for 20 years - won't help you become more skillful. More isn't better; approaching a skill strategically is better.

Another issue to consider is that task input and task outcomes appear to have a curvilinear relationship where the principle of "more is better" is replaced by "diminishing returns". The following example illustrates this point:

You are working on a final report for a project that both your boss and his boss are going to review. In other words, it is important that you do this task well. After completing an initial draft, you spend an hour editing it. During that hour, you make about 20 changes. To see how the report reads through with the new changes, you spend another hour editing and make only eight changes this time. Since you missed some of these changes during the first round of editing, you can't help but wonder if you missed any more. So you spend another hour editing and make three changes this time. Phone calls, e-mails, and other project deadlines are looming as the day is getting late. But you decide that you need to devote another hour to the report, because it's essential that this turn out well and that be completely free of mistakes. In your fourth hour of editing, you find a spelling error! You are finding fewer errors and making fewer changes each time you go through the report, but at what point can you trust that you have put in ample time and decide that the report is good enough? How many more hours do you need to spend? And what happens to your other job responsibilities and deadlines in the meantime?

What to do instead: Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do your goal-setting strategies encourage you to push yourself harder and achieve more?
  • Do you feel accomplished and satisfied when you achieve those goals? Or, do you get bogged down in the belief that "nothing is ever good enough" - and continue to raise the stakes even higher until you inevitably fail?
  • What did you set out to do, and what did you actually accomplish? Are you attempting to do something well and achieve a personally set standard to feel good, accomplished, or satisfied? To impress someone? To get a promotion at work? If so, do you realize those outcomes?
  • Are you following Pareto's Principle? Do you devote 80% of your energy to where 80% of someone else's attention is drawn. Most of the time, your boss really isn't going to read every word of every report you write. What has he or she been talking about as the key points or concepts? Focus your time and energy on those sections of the report rather than agonizing over everything.

More is better sometimes is the better option. Just be sure to track when that is the case and when it has been replace by diminishing returns. In that case, the antidote is to flex up your approach.