Having high standards can be a fantastic and performance-enhancing thing. It can motivate us to produce inspiring works of art, incredible athletic achievements, dazzling new products and world-beating improvements in every area. Taken to it’s extreme, however it can be a massive issue, and that’s what I’m talking about here.
Here’s the audio of my talk this morning with Richard Green on Christchurch’s Newstalk ZB:
What’s the problem with perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a problem because it causes anxiousness and can impede our performance. It prevents us getting started with tasks, particularly big picture, long-term or challenging tasks. It creates a sense of never arriving, which means a life of little satisfaction, along with being harshly critical of ourselves and others for our (or their) “poor results”. Additionally, because things are never “perfect”, constant striving can become a way of life – how incredibly exhausting, not just for you, but also for others in your orbit.
It blocks our creativity because we are afraid to do something new (experiment) which means we get stuck with the same results, missed opportunities, less sense of mastery, reduced perception of choices available to us and less momentum towards what we want. It makes us less effective because we tend to get set in our ways, unwilling to do new things that we might “fail” at. In this way it creates inertia and hinders motivation because we don’t want to get started for fear of getting it “wrong”.
Perfectionism can also be overwhelming and may give us a sense of being swamped. Everything is perceived to be incredibly important, when in reality this is simply not true. This is often illustrated when an actual crisis or drama comes along and you suddenly realise the handful of things that are truly important, such as your health, safety and key relationships.
Perfectionism can be associated with:
- Overwhelm – an inability to prioritise or “I can’t see the wood for the trees”
- Procrastination – I don’t want to get started because my effort will never be good enough and I’ll never get to enjoy the satisfaction that comes with completion
- Low productivity – obsessing over and getting stuck on irrelevant details rather than working towards the bigger picture goal
- Fear of failure
- Inflexibility and a fixed mindset. Here’s a link to a previous blog about this subject: http://www.clearchange.co.nz/growing-a-growth-mindset/
- Reduced creativity or ability to “think outside the box”
- Black and white “all or nothing” thinking style
- Control – no-one or nothing is good enough so I need to do it all myself to give things the best chance of being perfect
- Fault-finding in self and others
- Poor self-esteem – being overly critical of yourself
- In it’s more extreme “maladaptive” forms – mental health issues and even suicide
Perfection versus excellence
A desire or willingness to strive for perfection is not all bad. Perfectionism is really about standards. However, I think it is more helpful for people to think of standards in terms of EXCELLENCE rather than PERFECTION.
By looking at things in this light, there’s a realisation that something can be excellent without it needing to be perfect, and when it’s excellent, it really is good enough. Good enough to launch, good enough to call it complete and be satisfied about it, good enough to share.
The great news about this, is that you can get something started, free from the expectation of it ever being perfect and therefore you can allow the ability to improve as you go or in a different iteration. You also give yourself permission to try new things, to learn and apply new ideas and information.
Let’s use a simple and hopefully relatable example from my own working life.
Say I want to create a power point presentation. In the past I would have not thought too hard about how it needed to be in order for me to know when it would be ready to launch. I wouldn’t have been clear about the outcome or objectives – instead I would have focused on wanting it to be perfect, I’d know it would never be good enough to be properly or satisfyingly finished so I’d keep working on it until time ran out. And even then I wouldn’t be completely satisfied, I’d be agonising about all the things I could/should have done.
Now, I’m much clearer about what an excellent result would be. I get started anywhere in the task and expand and improve it as I go, accepting that it can never be perfect – I don’t even know how it would be perfect (how would you measure the perfection of a power point presentation?) In the past I would have delayed starting and wasted precious time fretting about it never being good enough and faffed around making minute adjustments rather than focusing on the big picture outcome. I’d never look squarely at my creation and ascertain that it is good enough, or “fit for purpose”. Nowadays I’ve become comfortable to launch things, knowing they could always be better (or different). So far the sky hasn’t fallen on my head.
Adopting this approach means I can take on a lot more and achieve better results in less time. It creates movement and enables me to feel satisfied with my results far more frequently, giving me a sense of completion.
How to reduce perfectionism’s grip
Decide that this idea of excellence versus perfection has merit. If you’re busy defending perfectionism under the illusion that it means that you have superiorly lofty standards, then it will be hard to embrace excellence as good enough. And if you’re secretly proud to call yourself a perfectionist, it might also pose a challenge to adopt excellence in its place, since being a perfectionist will be tied into your identity.
Next, think about what you want to achieve. Get specific. Get clear about why you want to achieve it. If this doesn’t entice you, then consider working towards a different goal that does. Once the goal, objective or standards of excellence are defined, think about some steps you could take towards achieving it. This creates lightness around your possible actions. You’ll always take what you think are the best actions (why wouldn’t you?) so trust this to create some forward motion towards your objective. …and if your actions aren’t effective, you can always adjust along the way.
If taking action frightens you, consider what it is specifically that you’re afraid of. Is it getting something “wrong”? Is it failure? Is this “failure” really that serious or indeed even real? Or is it harsh self-judgment?
You could launch a blueprint or testbed knowing it’s just that and then pay attention to the feedback you receive. Expect it to be obsolete the day it’s printed/launched – because it could always be better… or different. Get comfortable with this concept and watch your achievements skyrocket and create momentum.