On the surface, perfectionism can seem like a noble pursuit. But in reality, perfectionist tendencies will have you working harder with relatively little payoff. You can pour hours into a project, tinkering with inane details until it’s perfect, but when you look up, you may find the prime window for unveiling the new product or strategy has passed you by.
In short, pursuing perfect is often painful and unproductive.
“Perfection is a deceptive goal, because it’s kind of like trying to climb a mountain that has no top,” said Matt Plummer, founder of Zarvana, a company based in Redding, California, that offers coaching services and an online platform that helps professionals experience and operate at their full potential by identifying research-backed behaviours to incorporate into their lives.
The goal is not to deliver something that is perfect, he explained, but to deliver something that has impact. If you’re a salesperson, impact is winning a sale. If you’re a product designer, impact is developing a product that’s loved by users. While quality influences impact, they’re not one and the same.
Here are tips from experts on how to move past perfectionism to achieve the greater goal of getting things done:
Be clear about the goal of your work. To avoid falling into a spiral of perfectionist tweaking, you should be clear about the impact-related goal of your work from the start. With the goal clear in your mind, it should be easier to filter out unnecessary tasks from the overarching priorities.
If you’re writing an email to a supervisor, for example, you should focus on including the right content, framing it correctly, and using the right arguments, rather than on whether commas are in the right place, according to Plummer.
“Ultimately, you want to get to the point where you ask, ‘What’s the minimum amount of work I can do in order to get that impact?’” Plummer said. “That’s when you’re getting the greatest impact per hour.”
Create checklists for amorphous tasks. Important work emails are one of those tasks that can easily suck up unnecessary amounts of time, because it’s difficult to know when to press send. Plummer recommends creating checklists for these sorts of tasks in order to stifle the nagging anxiety that it’s not perfect.
“What you want to do is ignore the amorphous goal of getting it 100% right and make it more concrete by creating a checklist,” he said.
For an email, your checklist might include checking for spelling errors, making sure you have the most important point at the top, and checking to see if it’s addressed to the right person. Rather than asking yourself whether the email is perfect, you can simply go through the checklist, and once you do that, you’re done. As long as you trust in the process, you should be able to allay some of that fear of imperfection, according to Plummer.
Run the best friend test. One way to tackle the underlying source of perfectionism is to use what psychologist Linda Blair, a clinician and writer based in the UK, calls the “best friend test”.
She suggests comparing what you would tell a friend who achieved a 90% success rate on a project to what you would tell yourself for achieving the same. People with perfectionist tendencies are likely to beat themselves up for not achieving 100%, even though they would praise a friend for doing so well, she said.
“Why are you treating yourself so differently?” Blair asked. “[Often] perfectionists are trying too hard to please everyone else, when the ultimate goal is to do a little better than you did last time, never mind what anybody else does or what the ideal 100% is.”
By rephrasing your inner dialogue into the kind of language you would use while speaking with a friend, you can help shift your mindset away from perfectionism, she said.
Run mini experiments to test your perfectionist mindset. Perfectionists often hold the unconscious belief that the more time they spend on something, the better it will be. But there are countless real-world examples that disprove that notion. Plummer suggests running mini experiments that push back against the idea that increasing your speed will automatically reduce the quality of your work. Try learning a faster way of doing something, such as using keyboard shortcuts, and see whether it affects the quality, he said.
“We know from research that shortcuts are about twice as fast as using your mouse, and they also improve the quality of your keystrokes,” he said. “That [result] pushes back on the belief that if you do something faster, the quality of the work will go down.”
Share earlier versions of your work. Perfectionists are likely to be reluctant to share early versions of their work because they know it’s not yet polished, but Plummer argues that getting into this habit can help debunk the belief that spending less time on something will decrease its impact.
“The reason most people don’t do this is they worry that if they share work early in process, whoever that stakeholder is will say, ‘This is garbage,’” he said. “So the important thing is to be very explicit about where you are in the process and what feedback you’re looking for.”
Tell your supervisor that it’s a rough draft and you’re just trying to get the main ideas down to make sure you’re hitting the key points. By getting feedback earlier in the process, you’re likely to find your work is good enough even before you put in all that extra time tweaking. On the flip side, if you are going in the wrong direction, your supervisor can let you know before you pour your time into a polished draft.
Zoom out to see the big picture. Plummer comes from a consulting background, which means he knows that when you’re working on financial calculations that require a lot of assumptions, you tend to zoom in so much that you miss the big picture.
Perfectionists can spend hours getting one assumption, when there could be 20 important assumptions in a financial model, he pointed out.
“All of them can seem right on their own, but then, when you put them into the model, and you see what it spits out, you realise that, from a common-sense standpoint, it makes zero sense for it to be true,” he said.
Plummer encourages people to fluctuate between zooming in and out. Try tossing in a number to see the impact it has for the output, and then refine that once you know you’re in the right ballpark.
“Sometimes we get so caught up in small, intricate details that we lose sight of the big picture,” he said. “Although it seems perfect at the atomic level, when you put all those atomic perfections together, it doesn't make sense anymore.”
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.