“Persistence. Perfection. Patience. Power. Prioritize your passion. It keeps you sane.”
― Criss Jami, Killosophy
The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism
There’s something you should know about me: I’m a recovering perfectionist. I used to be someone whose motto was “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. This allowed me to give myself permission to burn the candle at both ends and forget about sleep. Now, after suffering burnout, I am 100% committed to putting my health first and recognise the dangers of perfectionism, because that was definitely one of underlying drivers that caused my burnout.
As high achieving, goal-oriented, people-pleasing individuals, we often feel the pressure of perfectionism. In this blog, I will explain why progress is better than perfection and how striving for perfection often stifles creative minds. We will also explore how perfectionism has a negative impact on your time management. We will look how perfectionism and the law of diminishing returns will result in you being unproductive & wasting your valuable time.
Did you know that perfectionism is not good for your health and can lead to burnout? We will examine why perfectionism and burnout go hand-in-hand. Finally, I will share with you four valuable top tips you can you use to keep your perfectionism in check.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines perfect as “being entirely without fault or defect”. However, according to Dr. Gordon Flett of York University, who has specialised in studying perfectionism and anxiety, “Perfectionism is the need to be, or to appear to be, perfect.”
Unfortunately, many people who strive for perfectionism set themselves standards that are extremely high, rigid or impossible to achieve. This ideal sets a person up for failure, disappointment, and negative self-belief. Perfectionists are often very self-critical, and may have a negative view of the performance of others when it doesn’t live up to their unrealistic standards.
Unfortunately, procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism. This is because perfectionists fear being unable to complete a task perfectly, so they put it off as long as possible or avoid starting it in the first place.
People who are perfectionistic have unrealistically high expectations of their performance and sometimes take little joy in their accomplishments because they fear that their results are never quite good enough. This means that often they avoid starting challenging tasks because they are afraid that they cannot achieve it perfectly. After all, you can’t fail at something if you don’t do it!
Successful, happy and efficient achievers identify their strongest skills, openly accept a challenge, and do the best they can with the time and energy they have. However, perfectionists focus only on the result and find the hard work and long hours exhausting and the result imperfect.
To find out more about how procrastination negatively impacts on your precious time and also creates enormous mental anguish and stress, read my recent blog Procrastination: A Brief Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating. In the article, I explore practical solutions to stop you procrastinating so you can improve your time management and productivity.
Striving for perfection may sound admirable but is often unproductive and wastes valuable time. Perfectionism can easily turn into tinkering. If you always aim for perfection in everything you do, then you will often spend too much time perfecting one tiny thing instead of stepping back, taking stock of the situation, accepting you have done your best and moving on to other important projects that require your time and attention.
The Law of diminishing returns is an economic law that says that after some optimal level of capacity is reached, adding an additional factor of production will actually result in smaller increases in output. The Law of diminishing returns can be applied to every goal we have, including those at work, perfecting our business, improving our health, enjoying our hobbies and planning our future. There comes a point when we have to stop tinkering.
How often have you worked on a project, sat back and been 99% satisfied with the result, then thought “let’s spend time perfecting it?” and suddenly you’ve lost hours to fiddling with a PowerPoint slide deck that really didn’t need it. I know I have! However, the Law of diminishing returns teaches us that investing more time in that project simply to try and perfect, it might not be a worthwhile investment. After all, it says that once you have invested a certain amount of time on achieving your goal, then spending more time and effort on that project will see a smaller and smaller increase or return in what you can achieve.
Successful people know that progress is better than perfection. They know when they have achieved their best they can and identify when further investment in the project will have minimal benefit and their time would be better spent making progress in another area. They know when it is time to move on.
It was Voltaire who said: “perfect is the enemy of the good” – and he should know. A strident critic of existential perfection, Voltaire spent much of his working life attacking the notion of a world imbued by flawless divinity.
Unfortunately, many people who strive for perfectionism often succumb to a downside of this trait. They set up standards that are extremely high, rigid or impossible to achieve. This ideal sets a person up for failure, disappointment, and negative self-evaluations. Perfectionists are often very self-critical and may even scrutinize the performance of others when it doesn’t live up to their unrealistic standards.
Social and personality psychologist Dr. Thomas Curran is a member of the Centre for Motivation and Health Behavior Change in Bath in England. In his ground-breaking report, Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: a meta-analysis, Dr. Thomas Curran’s research found that the self-conscious thoughts and feelings central to perfectionism, such as those associated with a fear of imperfection and making mistakes, had an impact on levels of burnout. What was even more interesting was this relationship was particularly strong in work settings.
As I discuss with Dr. Eleanor Akaho in my blog article, Burnout – What it is, What the Warning Signs Are and How to Prevent it, burnout can result in physical and mental exhaustion, insomnia, and physical symptoms, like headaches, stomach-aches or intestinal issues.
Perfectionism and burn-out are close friend so it is essential to avoid them.
So how can you harness the positives of your perfectionism while mitigating the negatives? What measures or practices can you use to keep your perfectionism in check?
Here are my top tips
The first step to letting go of perfectionism is to acknowledge that you’re doing it in the first place. Know that it is a behaviour and habit that you can change. Once you have taken time to acknowledge why and how you are a perfectionist, it will be easier to see what action you need to take to develop new habits to change your behaviour. My blog 4 Insanely easy ways to create good habits explains four easy ways to start creating the good habits you require in order to overcome your perfectionism.
Getting an accountability buddy or life coach to help you will improve your perspective and give you support that will help you reinforce your new habits and mindset.
The first question you should ask yourself is, “am I using my time wisely and am I being productive?” Learn to recognise the point of diminishing returns when you’re aiming to complete a task perfectly, and your extra input isn’t brining about significant output. Sometimes just getting it done is a worthy goal.
Alice Boyes, is a former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit. Alice Boyes says, “Shift your mindset. You’re going to be less perfect about some things, so you can concentrate on what’s important. If you’re continuing to tinker on an assignment that most others would consider complete, try to “recognize that just getting it done” is a decent goal. There’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to sweating the small stuff and nitpicking niggling details.”
I like checklists! The pursuit of perfection is a bit like wandering on an aimless journey, says Plummer. “You keep walking and walking, but you’re not sure that you’re getting any closer to your destination,” he says.
Always identify the standard needed to achieve the task and create a checklist of what your task or goal requires. That way, once you’ve ticked off all the items on your list then that’s it, you know that the task has been done.
I use a checklist when I create my newsletters. The checklist contains everything that needs to be done to make sure that the newsletter looks good, contains all the relevant information, the font is correct, the text has been proof-read and that the links work. Okay, sometimes they might not be perfect, but I am told they are very interesting and easy to read!
When you are working towards moderating your perfectionist tendencies it is important to take time to have a weekly review of progress. Ask yourself, “Was there anything I avoided this week due to fear of making mistakes? Were there any instances where my perfectionism was not worth it?”
Your objective is to identify where your perfectionism has a positive impact and also where it does not. It is all about becoming aware of your actions and developing new positive habits and improving your mindset.
Habits are what gets you success. If you are interested, my blog 4 Insanely easy ways to create good habits explains four easy ways to start creating the good habits you require in order to overcome your perfectionism.
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This article is written by Alice Dartnell, life and success coach of Alice Dartnell Limited. Alice empowers busy professionals to be successful, transform their lives and achieve more by improving their confidence, mindset and time management.
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Copyright 2021 Alice Dartnell Limited
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