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For years, I was a real perfectionist. Not just a weekend perfectionist mind you, a full-blown “I won’t do it unless it can be perfect” kind of perfectionist. In fact, with a number of things I still exhibit some pretty nasty perfectionist tendencies which I’m working on eradicating.
The reason I started this project (Refocuser) in 2009 instead of 1999 when I first had the idea is because I spent 10 years fighting with myself about how to make it perfect, all the way down to how I’d organize the site’s content on my hard drive. Ugh!
Naturally, striving for your best work isn’t a bad thing… most people would never want to swing to the other extreme where quality and pride in the work are void, because that’s a real slippery slope to mediocrity. But I’ve found that for me, that’s pretty much a non-option given my personality. Keeping my perfectionist tendencies in check doesn’t have to mean that the quality of my output is going to suffer.
What I focus on instead of perfection is doing enough to get the most out of my efforts. The second I start trending towards the familiar “over-focusing”, I force myself to stop in my tracks and self-evaluate. More time spent on an activity very rarely equals higher quality in the kinds of projects I do – in fact, many times, it ends up being counter-productive – so not being a perfectionist can actually improve my work.
More is lost through indecision than wrong decision – Carmela Soprano
In his great book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz describes research as it relates to consumerism – and the findings indicate that people with perfectionist tendencies often have higher stress levels and are at greater risk for depression. Schwartz describes two types of people with respect to buying behavior: Maximizers and Satisficers and how their approaches differ.
Maximizers go to extreme lengths to make a purchase decision – they research for days, they compare all the models, and then get second and third opinions from friends before making what they believe to be the perfect decision. They’re caught up with unrealistically high expectations resulting from their output. Satisficers know what they need in order to be content, and once they feel those needs can be met, they take action. This can sometimes be the very first option that meets their criteria. But the key is that they make a decision and they don’t second guess it.
What’s interesting is that Satisficers rate their overall happiness with life significantly higher than Maximizers.
Schwartz makes it clear that a Maximizer isn’t a true perfectionist. In his view, a true perfectionist is always looking to get better but realizes that perfection is unattainable. The example he gives is Tiger Woods. Tiger is continually striving to up his game, but doesn’t put off playing in a big tournament because he isn’t getting holes in one consistently. These “perfectionists” strive for good enough. Unfortunately, this isn’t the same definition everyone else has of a perfectionist, which is generally looked at as a bad thing to be. To me, a Maximizer as it’s described is the same as a perfectionist as we all understand it to be.
Dr. Paul Hewitt, a researcher who has spent 20+ years researching perfectionism at York University, agrees that there’s a difference between “the desire to excel and the desire to be perfect.” The former can be healthy so long as it’s mapped to life goals (the Tiger Woods example) while the latter is a “vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia and suicide”. The research backs this overwhelmingly.
Now, tips for perfectionism is a broad topic, but here are 11 things I’ve learned about it recently:
- Perfectionism doesn’t have to conflict with “sweating the details”. It’s natural to assume that just giving up on perfectionism means you’ll no longer have any attention to detail. But that’s absurd. There’s a difference between awareness of detail and expecting perfection in order to finish something. It’s still possible – in fact desirable – to stay on top of things to the level in which you need to in order to ensure a high-quality output, but this doesn’t mean you get to be unreasonable with respect to the overall outcome.
- Striving for perfection means you’ll only do 10% of the things you want to do. When you focus on finishing one thing before you can start another, you’re bounding your creativity and productivity. If you spend too much time “perfecting” something, you’re likely doing it at the expense of moving on to the next thing.
- Perfectionists have higher blood pressure, anxiety, and mental health problems. This almost goes without saying and has been backed up in numerous studies, but if you expect perfection, you’re going to have higher stress levels which will affect your overall mental and physical health. Relaxation, meditation, and “slow days” are hard to come by for people who are always pushing to make everything perfect.
- Just doing something over nothing puts you in an elite group of people. In so many cases, just doing something is enough. Signing up for a class even if it’s not the perfect time, turning in an assignment even though you know you could have done more, etc. There are hundreds of examples where the majority of people will agonize until things are perfect and never do anything at all, while you can get something “good enough” out for the world to see.
- Perfect is the enemy of good. I love this Voltaire quote and use it in software development all the time. It’s too easy to strive for perfection and lose sight of the fact that you’re, in many cases, doing this at a huge overall cost.
- Failing fast can shorten your learning cycle. Sometimes it’s best to take an iterative approach and ignore perfection as a means to learn. “Fail fast” is a famous Silicon Valley maxim when it comes to new businesses, because if you’re going to fail, it’s best to do it early at a time when you have the resources to turn it around. If you’re striving to be perfect, you could fail when it’s too late to anything.
- Focusing on perfectionism takes your focus away from the things that really matter. If you’re doing anything you can to perfection, you could be missing out on your top three focus areas completely. Balance is a good thing.
- Just doing something will start to expose shallow fears. Similar to failing fast, you may not know what you fear until you give something a shot. You thought you were afraid to fail, but maybe you’re really afraid to succeed. The sooner you can identify your fears you can put measures in place to work through them.
- Collaboration and perfection don’t mix. Have you ever tried to work with other people on something but first demanded your contribution to be “perfect”? That’s a sure-fire way to a failed partnership. Collaboration requires iteration and being open to feedback in both directions – if you’re shooting to be perfect, or if you believe you are, you’re not going to play well with others.
- It isn’t what you do all or some of the time, it’s what you do most of the time. Something I live by which I first read in Body for Life by Bill Phillips. There’s never a “perfect time”, and you can never execute something “perfectly”. But if you’re able to perform well most of the time, it can make up for the times when you’re not “perfect”. Perfection isn’t possible, but spending more of your time doing something well is.
- Perfection is impossible. Every physical thing is in a constant state of change, so even if you think something’s perfect, it won’t be perfect for long. Give it up.
Are you a perfectionist? Do you have any other tips or tricks on perfectionism?