There’s something you should know about me: I’m a recovering perfectionist. And it almost derailed my career.
In a way, that was lucky because it forced me to take action to change. But how about you? Do you (or anyone you know) suffer from perfectionism?
The thing is, being a perfectionist can kill your career. And it’s easy to get sucked into the cult of the perfect.
It’s a helpful trait when you’re just starting out. In fact, you get praised for it. It’s often called attention to detail, diligence, work ethic, or being highly organized. So you double down on it and pursue perfection even harder.
But gradually, this becomes a bad thing. When people start referring to you as being a perfectionist, that’s when it becomes a show stopper.
Perfectionism is a career limiting behavior
Perfectionism becomes a career limiting behavior as you move up through the ranks.
As an individual contributor
Trying to get everything “perfect” can mean you take longer to produce results. And I’m speaking from personal experience.
First of all, I would put off getting started because I didn’t feel I had enough time to do it properly. That’s called procrastinating.
Once I got started, the perfectionist in me meant I spent way too much time researching, improving and polishing. That took time away from other important projects as well as time to prepare how I would present my material powerfully in the meeting.
Most importantly, my health and well-being suffered. For most people, the saying “there’s plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead” is used to justify staying longer at a party or something fun. For me, it gave permission to work more and forget about sleep.
As a manager
Being a perfectionist when you’re a manager can hold you back even more. Frankly, applying ultra high standards to everything you do is usually a sign of insecurity. That will lead you to burn through a lot of resources, and gain the negative reputation that goes along with it.
In my case, perfectionism meant preparing for every possibility ahead of a client meeting. This led me to demand extra analysis and material from my team, most of which ended up not mattering at all.
Juniors complained, I gained a reputation for wasting resources, and people didn’t want to work for me. It took me four years to overcome this. If I hadn’t, it would have derailed my career.
Perfectionism puts you under greater stress and is just plain bad for your health. All of which makes you less efficient and effective. It’s a downward spiral, and not a sustainable way to do business or live your life.
On the flip side, imagine how liberating it will feel once you let go of “perfect” for everything you do. What would it feel like to have that weight lifted off your chest?
However you look at it, it’s worth letting go of perfectionism.
But the question is how?
8 Ways to Stop Being a Perfectionist
Here are eight ways that helped me let go of my perfectionism. I’m still a work in progress. In fact, it’s taken me longer than usual to write this blog post because I wanted to make it, well, perfect! I guess this topic hits a little too close to home.
So, before you get excited that there’s a “cure”, know that this is something you have to keep working on consciously and consistently. But you can definitely improve. A lot.
The first step to letting go of perfectionism is to acknowledge that you’re doing it in the first place.
I didn’t say “admit you’re a perfectionist” because I hate labels. Labels are an invitation to buy into an idea about yourself that doesn’t serve you well, and makes it harder to change.
By seeing it as a behavior, you can change it. It’s easier to change a behavior than something that's imprinted on your identity.
As you acknowledge, think through what situations bring out your perfectionist behavior most strongly. For me it was anything I had to hand in to someone else or otherwise share publicly. Just like being back in school. That’s why it used to take me weeks and even months to publish my first blog posts.
2. What does it feed?
Understanding why you challenge yourself with ultra high standards is also helpful. Like any other habit, perfectionism must be serving some part of you, even if it doesn't serve your higher self.
For me, it’s a potent cocktail of fears (like “what if I get it wrong?… it’s got to be perfect or else…”) and glory (“if I nail this, then…”). And of course, there’s the insecurity or lack of confidence aspect that we talked about earlier.
Simply identifying the underlying beliefs that drive your perfectionist habit is a good step toward changing them. You can choose the beliefs you want to hold, and the ones you want to feed.
3. Face the worst case
Perfectionism is often a way to make sure you don’t fail. But a prevention mindset is hardly the best one for creativity and innovative thinking.
To get over this, I’ve found it useful to look at the worst case scenario, and how (un)likely it is to occur. And to realize that there’s probably something you can do in that remote situation anyway.
If you’re a champion catastrophizer too, then it’s helpful to list out all the worst things that can happen versus the most likely scenario. Then talking them through with someone you trust is even better (preferably not a fellow perfectionist!). Getting those dark thoughts out in the fresh air takes away their potency.
4. Identify standards needed
Challenge your assumption of “perfect” as the standard for everything you do.
This is where it helps to ask what the standard is that’s needed for the job at hand. Do they need “quick and dirty”, client ready, or something in between?
I remember taking extra time to polish the look of a presentation, turning it in to my boss, and then finding out that he just wanted it as background and not for the client presentation. What a waste of time and effort. I could have been working on any number of things that turned out to be more important.
It’s like arranging transportation. Sometimes nothing short of a stretch limo will do, and other times a bicycle would be sufficient.
Make sure you ask first so you know what to deliver.
5. Adjust your standards
Even when others have lower standards, those of us in perfection mode can have a hard time letting go of our own super high standards. We think we must go above and beyond what’s expected. To outperform.
I’ve found it helpful to make two adjustments to my own standards.
First, I’ve adopted my mother’s concept that “good enough is good enough”. That’s about giving myself permission to accept what others have set as the standard and stop there. And while it’s hard to stop at “quick and dirty”, I hear my mother’s voice telling me that “good enough is good enough” and I stop myself from outperforming.
I also had a great boss who told me, “I want you to do things to 100%, not 120 or 150% like you usually do”. He really meant, “just do 80%”, but he knew that I wasn’t able to do less than 100% of anything. So the first step was to get me down from 120 to 100.
Second, I’ve adopted the idea of setting situational standards – that is, I have different standards for different things. For example, for internal meetings I’ll share copies of my hand drawn diagram rather than have someone turn it into a PowerPoint slide. That’s “good enough” for this purpose and saves time. On the other hand, for client meetings I will spring for the branded presentation material.
At the same time you adjust the standards for yourself, make sure you apply these differential standards to your team as well. So don’t delegate and then transfer your perfectionism to others.
6. Watch your self-talk
As you retrain yourself, one of the most powerful obstacles in your way will be your self-talk. When the voice in your head says things like, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” or “Don’t be lazy” or “Everything is riding on this”, it’s hard to stop yourself from going for perfect.
So start noticing your self-talk and how it supports your perfectionist behavior. And when you catch yourself in that self-talk spiral, you can choose to replace it with something else.
And also look out for times when you apply positive self-talk to feed your perfectionist habit. For example, it could be when you keep cheerleading yourself (and your team) past the point of usefulness with, “let’s just do one more [edit/example/run-through/etc.]”.
When you catch yourself in “just a little more” mode, step back and ask yourself whether that’s necessary for the task at hand before you dive in.
7. Give yourself a reason to move on
This one is about doing the very best you can do, but within a specified time limit. That way, you won’t be able to keep re-working something until it’s “perfect”. Sometimes you just have to put a limit on how much you can work on something.
Deadlines are great for this. For example, if you have to turn in your paper by 5pm to make it in time for the FedEx pickup. You'll do so whether or not you've gotten to perfect.
If you have a tendency to strive for perfection in a task, then decide you’ll only spend 30 minutes (or whatever timeframe) on it. Set a timer and make it “pencils down” when it rings, just like those college entrance exams. Or, plan something really fun or that you have to go to when time is up.
8. Do experiments
This is about testing out what works for you, and practicing it regularly. Since every situation is different, it’s useful to try out different techniques and see what happens. Start with low risk situations (so, the regular team update instead of the board briefing) and learn as you go.
Then practice delivering “good enough” instead of “perfect”. Find at least one situation each day when you can practice. After all, perfectionism is a habit and you’re creating a different habit so you have to keep practicing.
Back in the day, I remember spending 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon scripting out and recording the weekly market update voicemail for Monday. It was my first time doing it and, while it was only 2 ½ minutes long, I must have re-recorded it 50 or maybe even a hundred times until I got it perfect.
Sure, it went to hundreds of colleagues around the world and my reputation was on the line, but 3 hours? When my husband and kids were waiting for me to go out bike riding?
Instead, I could have experimented with reframing the weekly voicemail as a lower stakes exercise. After all, it came out every week and I would have a chance to keep improving.
Also, I could have experimented with saying kinder things to myself rather than “that sucked, do it again”. And I could have experimented with setting a limit on how much time I could allot, or setting my standard at 100% instead of 120%.
You always have options, so experiment with them and keep practicing. You’ll get better!
The irony about perfectionism is that none of us adopt it as a way to hurt our careers, yet if we don’t keep it in check, it ultimately will.
So start to recognize it in your own behavior, and experiment to find the ways that work best for you to apply it only in those situations when it’s needed. That way, you can make the tendency toward perfect work for you, not against you.
And once you let go of “perfect” as the standard for all things in life, just think of how great you’ll feel.
If you’re in the habit of perfectionism too, then leave me a comment and let me know how you’ve been working on it and what’s working for you.