“I’m a perfectionist” is one of those phrases that can be bandied around, sometimes inaccurately. Often what we think of as perfectionism is more akin to having a high level of conscientiousness in our work or liking the cushions on the bed laid out in a particular way.
In reality, wrestling with needing everything to be ‘just so’ can be a strong motivator, but it can also have the opposite effect.
So how do you ensure that you harness the productive elements of being a ‘perfectionist’ and avoid those that can cause anxiety and stall your progress?
Author and ‘anti-guru’, Sarah Knight, describes herself as a ‘recovering perfectionist’ in her series of straight-talking books on getting what you want from life, and accepting that it’s pointless to try and be perfect. “Proven fact: You can never finish something you didn't start.”, she points out, and this leads us on to the first tip: stop overthinking.
Overthinking gets in the way of progress
Don’t confuse overthinking with problem-solving. Former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit, Alice Boyes, says that perfectionists have a tendency to prolong decision-making because they’re worried about choosing the wrong option. “It’s related to anxiety”, she says, and states that people who overthink tend to be “less forgiving of themselves”.
Break the habit, make a decision and plough that energy into something positive. As an aspiring ‘recovering perfectionist’ writing this, I know it’s easier said than done, but “if you genuinely want to be a high achiever, you’re bound to do some things imperfectly”, says Boyes.
Does it actually matter?
A question that sends many perfectionists into fits of red-faced frustration, because yes, of course it matters – to them. But, does it matter in the grand scheme of things? Would anyone notice if you had done something the tiniest bit differently?
If you’re near to completing a task and are worried that you could have done more, you should “[…] recognize that just getting it done” is your goal, says Matt Plummer, founder of online coaching service, Zarvana.
Rochelle Ceira, coach at Erickson International, talks about confusing goals with quality in ‘Breaking Through Perfectionism’. “Sometimes, the perfectionism doesn’t directly contribute to the end goal, and is therefore, a complete waste of time”, she says.
“For example, if you missed a spot while cleaning the table, your guests or family members probably won’t notice it. It won’t affect the end goal of having a clean table for people to eat on.” Again, it’s tricky for a perfectionist to agree with this, but recognising that the goal has been met - and is the priority - is a good start.
Recognise and progress
“A lot of perfectionistic tendencies are rooted in fear and insecurity,” continues Plummer. “Many perfectionists worry that if they let go of their [meticulousness and conscientiousness], it will hurt their performance and standing.”
Falling into this vicious cycle of holding on to what feels natural while knowing that it’s becoming a negative can be a hard one to get out of. If this sounds like you, at least recognising that it’s happening is a positive step.
The next stage is to acknowledge that there are circumstances beyond your control – that will never be within your control – and that sometimes, simply completing a task is a win. I’ve had to be told this on several occasions, so I’m attempting to practice what I preach here and not add a new paragraph where one isn’t needed. Or is it?
Anyway, if you want to read about being a perfectionist versus a completist (the plot thickens), Damon Brown shares some thoughts from best-selling author, Peter Sims, here.
Make a list to tick off
A list seems too simple, but if you use it to tick off the things that that you’d usually get hung up about – like checking your spelling in a presentation – then it can be really useful for making sure you’re not creating more work for yourself. “You’re following a process with discrete and measurable goals,” says Plummer. Once everything is ticked off, you’ll know you’ve completed your task, including the little things that would usually cause anxiety.
Monitor your progress
Boyes suggests that a review once a week where you ask yourself some questions such as “Was there anything I avoided this week because I was worried about making a mistake?” and “Did I make a decision despite being worried and have a positive outcome?” will create some “psychological distance”, where you can objectively evaluate your progress.
Plummer agrees and says that by doing this, you’ll “[…] learn where perfectionism has a positive impact and where it does not”. This is not a change of course, but a “[…] redirection of your personality”.
So, there you are – a few tips that’ll hopefully help you to recognise negative ‘perfectionist’ behaviours and instead channel that energy into positive results. From one perfectionist to another: it’s got to be worth trying.
While you're here...
...and are interested in our content, why not sign up to our newsletter? It's just below.