Perfectionistic thinking is a paradox.
At first, how bad could it be to try to be perfect? Most perfectionists think that to strive to anything less is to create subpar work.
But - if we can accept the truth that "perfection" doesn't really exist among us humans (or at least none of us can be 100% perfect, 100% of the time) - then you will have to agree that that striving for the unattainable is, well, unattainable.
A constant pursuit of something unattainable can only end up being exhausting. And when you are exhausted, you create results that are far less than perfect.
“As one’s perfectionism increases, they are most likely to feel frustrated and upset rather than fulfilled,” researchers at the University of Michigan say. “Setting high expectations can be motivating and quite healthy. However, when taken to the extreme, our productivity can actually decrease.”
Signs you’re a perfectionist:
- You fear failure
- You fear making mistakes
- Your to-do list is never done
- You procrastinate
- You overcompensate
- You avoid conflict or disapproval
So, what do you do about it? Experts say it takes redefining what perfect and success means. By rethinking some habits, you’ll be making progress on redefining what perfect makes while still accomplishing goals in a healthy way.
Become aware of your thoughts
Perfectionism can be a vicious cycle and it can be hard to escape when you’re in it.
“The first step in changing from perfectionistic attitudes to healthy striving is to realize that perfectionism is undesirable,” say experts at Brown University’s counseling office. “Perfection is an illusion that is unattainable. The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel perfectionism.”
Shifting that perspective requires intention, thoughtfulness and being able to slow your thoughts down. As cliche as it sounds, you want to focus on the journey and not the destination. Perfectionism tricks us into thinking only about what it takes to get to the end product, but a lot of growth happens along the way, and recognizing that can lead to a lot of happiness and endless opportunities.
Journaling, talking to a friend or even asking yourself questions about your day-to-day life can be helpful: How do my expectations of myself differ from others? What have I learned today? Where can I ask for help? Is this all my responsibility?
If you’re willing to be honest with yourself, you can start to really dive into the work it takes to break out of perfectionistic habits.
Apply the 80/20 rule
In business, it’s often understood that about 80% of outcomes come from about 20% of causes. The Pareto principle, as it's called, was developed by an Italian economist in the late 1800s who noted two observations in his life: About 20% of the plants in his garden were bearing 80% of the fruit and 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. While not a formal mathematical equation, it is the law of distribution, and it can be explained in everything from business to sports. Recovering perfectionists can apply it to their work too.
Look at your to-do list and apply the rule. Only about 20% of those tasks will result in 80% of your productivity. Perfectionists might look at the tasks they have for the day and apply the same effort across the board. That can result in getting to fewer tasks, unnecessary stress and burnout.
To be most effective, you should focus on 20% of your efforts. As a result, you’ll start prioritizing tasks differently. You’ll start to see that you don’t need to generate so much energy for some things, because they won’t produce the same outcome as others.
It can be difficult to take a step back from even the smallest of tasks, but at the end of the day being a “perfectionist” starts with a kernel of wanting to do your best, and having a strategy for that can be way more effective in the long run.
Assess your goals
Goals can be a perfectionists’ worst nightmare. Aim too high and face failure, but aim too low and you feel like you’re not reaching your potential. When it comes to goals, you have to strike the right balance — and that can be difficult at every stage.
The University of Michigan researchers say that using SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) is a good way to approach work, because the method contains components that are based on realities, not the false perceptions of perfectionism.
SMART goals especially help you think through the process and make a plan — one that isn’t too unattainable, but still ambitious. If you find yourself struggling throughout the process of goal making, you may want to reassess what you want to achieve and it’ll take to get there. It doesn’t mean you’ll have to scrap the entire plan, just that you’ll have to navigate the process knowing the all-or-nothing pitfalls a perfectionist can often fall into.
Lean into constructive criticism
Everybody needs feedback, even the experts. In fact, they seek it out. It’s why consulting exists as an industry and leaders always seem to have an entourage of advisors. The same can be true for you.
Being a perfectionist often means that criticism can be an extra sore point. After all, you put so much of yourself into all of your work, and a critique on any task can feel like a critique on you. It’s not, and there are a few ways you can prevent feelings of inadequacy from bubbling up anytime a boss, client or friend returns some less-than-favorable feedback.
First, listen completely. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re in the midst of receiving criticism. But here it all before you give it some thought. Next, ask questions and make them specific. Good constructive criticism will help you be better. If you’re told something too vague, follow up on it and ask for clarification or for help. It’ll also show you’re serious about improvement.
Finally, decompress from feedback by picking out the positives. It probably wasn’t all bad, and you deserve some credit for the good work you did.