[Quick Note: I was recently asked to do an interview on blogging and on how to use the Law of Attraction to create a great blog. Although I don't consider myself an expert on blogging, it was a really fun exercise. The questions made me realize just how many fears and limiting thoughts I've overcome on my journey to my one year blogoversary. If you're interested, you can find the interview here. ]
In his guest post on BalanceInMe.com, Kristoph Matthews explores the idea of plugging time and energy leaks. This led me to remember how, back in my über-workaholic corporate days, I was able to successfully reduce my working days from 18 hours down to 8, while becoming MORE effective. A big part of this transition had to do with me finally figuring out that I didn’t need to do everything perfectly. In short, I had to kick my perfectionism in order to kick my workaholism.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Being a perfectionist had served me well, for the most part. It caused me to become extraordinarily successful in several careers, always rising to the top quickly. No “t” was left uncrossed, no “i” left undotted, no stone left unturned. If you asked me to do something, I’d get it done. In Technicolor. And flashing lights. No errors, no excuses, no mistakes, no exceptions. I developed a reputation for stellar work and that paid off. So, why would I ever want to give up my perfectionism?
Delivering perfect results takes time and effort. It takes immense concentration and often necessitates working well into the night, especially if one doesn’t enjoy much uninterrupted time during the day. And this is where the problem arose: I didn’t just put in that time and effort when it was absolutely necessary, but EVERY TIME. That’s right, even the smallest assignment was delivered with all the bells and whistles. GREAT for my bosses but HORRIBLE for me.
I was intense, driven, competitive and stressed beyond belief. I couldn’t let anything go, not the tiniest detail. I worked more hours in a day than humans should be awake, sacrificing weekends, any kind of social life, my health and my sanity. I was married to my job and it felt like an abusive marriage. Something had to break eventually, and it was nearly me.
Kicking perfectionism essentially comes down to setting priorities. Not every project needs to be done to perfection. Not every assignment deserves 150% of your attention. We all know this logically, but when it comes to implementing it, the perfectionist finds himself slaving away at 5 a.m., tweaking the last of the details. For these kinds of individuals, it’s impossible to de-prioritize ANYTHING in practice. Ok, not impossible, but freaking hard.
The root cause
You may think that what’s at the heart of perfectionism is a need to please people or an irrational ambition, and those factors can certainly play a part. But what’s really driving this need to be perfect is fear. Perfectionists are often incredibly insecure people who are deeply afraid of failing. They’re terrified of letting the ball drop even once, for fear that they’ll be “found out” as incompetent or simply not good enough. Note that this is also why perfectionists don’t necessarily hold other people to the same standard. My employees were allowed to make mistakes. I wasn’t.
Without addressing this underlying insecurity, it’s impossible to kick perfectionism. Try and ask a perfectionist to do a “good” job instead of a “great” one. They may even try to comply, only their “good” will be indistinguishable from their “great”. When you question them about what they dropped, where the deficits in this version are, they’ll begin to justify to you why this and that detail couldn’t be eliminated or done to anything less than a stellar standard. Try to actually force them to hand in something that’s just “good enough” and chances are that they’ll have a full blown panic attack. Asking a perfectionist to let some details go is like asking a star opera singer to yodel in front of a million people.
It’s all or nothing
Perfectionists tend to see their work and sometimes that of others in terms of black and white – all or nothing. You’ve either done it RIGHT or WRONG. And anything less than perfect is wrong. 99.9% is considered a failure. Only 100% will do, and if you can do more, even better.
And failure is not an option. The perfectionist feels, deep down, that he’s not good enough. An act of failure, no matter how small, would mean being exposed for the fraud he thinks he is. Even the tiniest detail can come back to bite him in the ass, so every base must be covered. The actual urgency or importance of the task at hand isn’t important. A perfectionist will approach a client proposal with the same intensity as if he was diffusing a bomb in a room full of orphans. And what’s worse, he’ll feel the same level of stress should something, anything go wrong. What’s at stake is not the client proposal but his entire identity. The perfectionist wants to think of himself as good at what he does, but deep down, he’s afraid that he’s not and therefore feels the need to keep proving himself in every action, no matter how small. Again, it’s all or nothing.
Getting over perfectionism
While shifting deep rooted insecurities is beyond the scope of a little blog post (I know, mine aren’t so little. Shaddap), perhaps we can get the ball rolling a little.
If you’re a perfectionist, consider the following:
- Choose a task, something that isn’t that important (from a logical point of view), something that you know could break and not cause a lot of damage. Start small.
- Honestly (and take some time to think about this), what do you think will happen if you don’t give 100% on this task, or just don’t do it at all? Be aware that your answer doesn’t have to be and may well not be rational. Are you afraid that you’ll get fired? That your career will be over? That you’ll lose clients or are letting people down?
- When you think of not doing this task or finishing it to a level of “just good enough”, what emotions come up (most likely a form of intense fear). Do not push this away or belittle it. Perfectionists who go unchecked often suffer from anxiety disorders. Do you feel this emotion viscerally (in your body)? Where? What does it feel like? It might take you a while to find it. You’ve likely been ignoring this feeling for a while now.
- Have you always felt this way, or was there a time in your life when you felt competent and secure? Is there any activity that you do, just for fun, where you have no problems letting something go? Can you relax about anything? Are there any circumstances (for example, when a certain person is around) that allow you to relax?
Perfectionism is a much more deeply rooted issue than most people realize. The perfectionist is driven by intense fear and simply telling him to stop isn’t going to work. But once we soothe this fear and release it, his behavior will change automatically. I still work a lot. I’m still driven and focused and competitive (Play pool with me some time. I kind of suck but I can talk smack like nobody’s business!) I still get a hell of a lot done. I’m a perfectionist when comes to things that are really important to me (I’ll never post a blog post I’m not happy with), and I’m relaxed about the rest of it (I’m taking my time putting in the membership site. It’s a lot to learn and sometimes I just don’t feel like working on it. I don’t think anyone is losing sleep because of this.) I spot clean my house when I don’t feel like doing a full cleaning (it’s good enough). I skip going to the gym when I feel lazy. I don’t force myself to do anything I don’t want to do.
Interestingly, I don’t feel pressured to be a perfectionist when it comes to my writing. I’m so passionate about it that it’s a joy. When something becomes “work”, I know that I have to drop it. All of these changes only came about when I finally figured out that I was actually really good at what I did and that no mistake or missed deadline was ever going to negate that. Once I did, changing my behavior was no longer scary. It just kind of happened. And I never looked back.
Are you or is someone you know suffering from perfectionism? Share your experience in the comments!