Be a Productive Perfectionist in 5 Easy Steps

Stop torturing yourself and learn how to accomplish realistic goals.

Original post here:

Photo by Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash

I thought it was normal.

Checking everything multiple times, obsessing over every minute detail, getting frustrated with tiny imperfections.

Working on something for so long, and so hard that I could no longer tell if the end product was any good any more. When I am passionate about something its easier for me to keep going until I reach whatever my perception of perfection might be, except I never can because I change it. I would move the goalposts, the original target would become unattainable, and often so would the new ones.

This has meant a life of early starts, late nights, and an overwhelming sense of failure.

My mother is also a detail-driven perfectionist. I grew up striving for absolute excellence (sorry mum).

“Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on — these are all desirable features. But for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is. Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards. Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” Andrew Hill, York St John University.

There were increases in every type of perfectionism between 1989 and 2016 with specialists warning it is fast heading towards a public health crisis.

Perfectionism is very difficult to treat; you can train someone to be more self-compassionate and aware, but if they then go back to their workplace, with the same demanding boss it’s unlikely for it to stick.

I have worked for several such ‘perfectionists’, neurotic, demanding, outrageous and unrealistic. To me, this was pretty normal, just an extreme version of, so there was no reason for me to question this behaviour or think it was that out of the ordinary.

I only began to realise how paralysing this affliction could become when I spent over a year working on the same project for one of the aforementioned bosses. It didn’t matter what I did; he would not sign off or release the work. It must have been through hundreds of iterations and formats at this stage. We have missed every deadline and opportunity, and instead of being ahead of the curve (which we were at the beginning), we are now last to the party, and there is still no end in sight; in fact, I am working on this project now.

The key takeaway from this situation, well at least for me, is that the message that we want to deliver in the presentation has not changed. Maybe it’s in a slightly different order, perhaps the wording has been updated, but the impact, in terms of what it actually explains is the same as the very first iteration. We could have rolled it out a year ago. This year of obsessing over every detail has been wasteful, expensive, frustrating and of no benefit, to anyone, as it is yet to see the light of day.

It’s become the poster child for the worst kind of perfectionism and it has made me address my own flaws so I can manage them better.

“A lot of perfectionistic tendencies are rooted in fear and insecurity, many worry that if they let go, it will hurt their performance and standing.” Matt Plummer, founder of Zarvana, online coaching for productivity.

So what can you do to break the cycle?

The most important, but one of the most difficult is self-awareness. You have to keep yourself in check. The problem with this is you are then relying on yourself to know when you are being neurotic as opposed to diligent, and that is something that takes time to master. But all is not lost, while you are on that path, you can try using these other tools, which have served me well.

1. Make yourself a plan or checklist

If you have an outline of your project and what you are trying to achieve written down from the outset, then you are less likely to stray. For example, if I am working on creating a presentation for a client, I would start like this:

  • Client name: Joe Bloggs
  • Presentation purpose: Explain new corporate identity
  • Internal/External: Both
  • Deadline: 2 weeks to sign off
  • Length (time and/or slides): 10 Minutes max
  • Content (text, imagery, infographics, video etc.): Brand guidelines (already created)
  • Animation required: Yes.
  • Music: Yes
  • Provided: No
  • Presentation Format: Powerpoint
  • Special requirements: N/A

That way, I know I have created the priorities that I must fulfil within the two weeks, I have made a basic set of goals I must accomplish and once they are ticked off I am done. Depending on the project, I might also run my plan past someone else to make sure I am aligned with what they think is important. To me, everything is always important so it can be tricky to highlight actual priorities that are not connected to deadlines.

2. Evaluate your standards

Clear, concise work that’s free from errors is a prerequisite of course.
You should have also highlighted your other primary objectives from your checklist or plan. Diligence and attention to detail are important, but there is a difference between those traits and obsessing.
I have found myself re-writing post-it notes to leave on a colleagues desk several times as I was not happy with what I had written. Post-it notes! I now realise this is actually the behaviour of a nutcase. I don’t suppose they would have even considered a spelling mistake or that the writing wasn’t quite in the centre, because it was a post-it note, not a legally binding contract.
It’s all too easy to become consumed by this affliction and let’s be honest stuff like this, the post-it notes, this stuff doesn’t matter at all.

Don’t revert to this level of detail as a force of habit, check yourself and leave that post-it note with a spelling mistake — it’s fine! Really!

“It’s about rechanneling a strength of yours rather than aiming for a lower goal; if you genuinely want to be a high achiever, you’re bound to do some things imperfectly,” Alice Boyes, former clinical psychologist, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.

3. Use your time wisely

Remember your checklist or plan? What is the end goal?
You don’t need to strive for perfection in every single area; you need to make sure that what you are creating has the desired effect, that it delivers whatever the message is. Get a second opinion if you’re not sure, if they think it’s complete, it probably is. Learning to recognise that is challenging, but remember perfection is objective. Completing a project is how most people would consider it to be finished.

4. Give your project some breathing space

This is something I am yet to master. I have spent the past 2 days sat at my desk, staring at the same 4 presentations completely out of steam and then I remembered. Space, so I gave myself a break to start to write this piece, I am taking my advice because I know when I go back to those presentations I will be recharged and ready to review them with a clear head. It’s also good to do this when you think you might have finished. Leave it, come back to it and see how you feel after a break.

5. Get perspective

Breaking the cycle of perfectionism is hard, it can be almost impossible to identify the difference between what you consider to be detail driven and what others think is neurotic, this is why a fresh pair of eyes can be helpful. It’s fine to tell them you have been working on it for a long time and can no longer tell if you’re nitpicking or have legitimate concerns. It’s also fine to tell them you are a perfectionist and you might get a little defensive. Just take the time to listen to their opinion, you don’t need to act on it immediately. Go away, absorb the information they have given you and come back to your project a bit later on. This can make a huge amount of difference, you will be amazed at what a pair of fresh eyes can spot!

I really hope these simple steps can help you to take a step back, perfectionism is hard to break, but it’s worth the fight. If you don’t address it, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of 1-year presentations and never being good enough.

Remember we are not meant to be perfect, there is nothing wrong with imperfection:

“Imperfection should be celebrated — because it means we’re human” Katie E. Rasmussen

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