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Image of neatly aligned noodles showing perfectionist tendencies

Taking pride in your work is an important part of professional success. When you are passionate about the types of projects you take on, and the results or products you produce, it’s natural to strive for that extra bit that will distinguish your work and help it rise above the competition.

While this attitude can be useful, it can also open you up for new anxieties and unforeseen consequences. You may find yourself so focused on perfecting the task at hand, your work and the work of your team, actually suffers as a result. The stress that comes with obsessing over small details might even bleed over into other parts of your life!

Producing good work is, ultimately, about finding a process that allows you to channel your productive energy in a constructive way. If you find yourself stuck striking this balance, I have some strategies that might help:

1. “Perfect” Is Not Always the Solution

No matter how ‘finished’ a project may seem, there are almost always ways in which it can be tweaked or improved. Graphics can be stylized and made to include different sets of information. Speeches can be reworded a hundred different ways. Striving to achieve perfection in specific areas run the risk of distracting you from the actual concrete demands of a given project. Take a step back and focus on the general architecture of the message you’re trying to convey, or the product you’re trying to present. Is the information succinct? Does it engage the audience in an approachable way? These basic considerations don’t explicitly require a perfect solution, and there may be more than one viable option available. Don’t limit yourself.  

2. Get Eyes, Get Feedback

Run ideas and rough drafts by team members and other colleagues. An external pair of eyes is an invaluable tool in separating the wheat of your ideas from the chaff. You don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility of making a project great yourself. Even the most talented professionals in their field rely on the input and knowledge of others. If something is missing, trust in your associates to help point you toward it. Their reaction will most likely mirror that of your audience.

3. Work in a Rhythm

We all work most effectively in different environments and rhythms. Regardless of the space or schedule of your efforts, practice holding yourself to consistent windows in which you work. Take breaks, and enjoy your leisure time outside of the project. Creating great work is not isolated to what you produce but holistically how you produce it. If you’re short on sleep or distracted, it will only make the worrying and obsessing worse.

4. Know When to Put Down the Pen

Sometimes, you just have to know when to say “when.” If your biggest issue is finding the point to cut yourself off from a given project, set hard deadlines or dates where drafts can no longer be touched. Having a firm idea of when something must be finished can provide clarity and drive in producing the best work you can. These small degrees of structure provide the bounds for your creativity to flourish. It is not always easy to put ideas like these into practice. The emotional regard you have for your work is important, but it is equally important not to abuse yourself with it. As with all things, balance is key. Hopefully these reflective tools will help you achieve that balance. They may just be the ‘perfect’ solution.

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Our society greatly emphasizes perfection, or striving toward perfection, so it’s very common for people to feel that they need to do everything without flaw. This way of thinking is taught to us right away as children when we are told things like:

“Color inside the lines.”

“Don’t wear your pants inside out.”

“Ride your bike in a straight line.”

From there, we go to school where we are not only expected to strive for perfection in academics, but also keep up with our peer group in music, sports, and the latest trends. So much pressure to appear perfect, according to others’ measurements!

Many people rebel against the pressure to be perfect, but some of us never shake it. Not that it’s inherently bad to strive for perfection—it’s just that, you have to know when to let go and let the little things slide.

The true perfectionist thinks in all-or-nothings. If something they do doesn’t live up to perfect standards (which translates to impossible standards), then they believe they are a failure and their efforts were a complete waste. This becomes a vicious cycle: the perfectionist sets unrealistic goals, fails to achieve them, feels that they failed utterly, and becomes discouraged and less confident in their ability to succeed in future endeavors.

Even when a perfectionist does great work, they have trouble seeing it as success, because their work will always appear subpar alongside the unrealistic expectations they set for themselves.

In fact, perfectionism hinders productivity as a result of this mental cycle. Those who set realistic goals are better able to perform because their goals are strategic, manageable, incremental. On the flip side, perfectionists are often so overwhelmed with their need to get everything perfect that they have trouble getting started. Perfectionist paralysis.

A few ways to get past this paralysis are to:

  1. Break down your task into bite-size chunks. Even breaking it up into one component per day works well. If you make a list to coincide with your breakdown, you’ll also have the pleasure of being able to check off accomplishments as you go.
  2. Give yourself some space from your work. This helps you keep the task in perspective. It is only a task, whatever it may be, however important, and you are not the task. Your value as a person is not tied to how well you perform.
  3. Provide ample time to nitpick. If you know that you fuss over the details, break your work into two general categories: the “just getting it done and not thinking” work, and the “going back over and obsessively getting it right” work. This way, you’ll be able to move forward without worrying about how perfect it is, since you know you’ll have time to get it great after it’s all thrown together.
  4. Know when to let it go. At some point, you’re going to need to stop your task and turn it in if it’s an assignment, deliver it if it’s a speech or presentation, or finish it in whichever other way you finish it. It will never be perfect, since nothing is perfect. You must learn to let go and trust you’ve done your best.

If perfectionist traits apply to you, remember: you simply cannot be good at everything. Some people will always be better-suited for particular skills than you. And this is okay! This is okay because your value is not determined by doing things perfectly, and if you tend to think this way, you’ll only continue to disappoint yourself. This is also okay because once you accept your weaknesses, you’ll be able to know your limits, set more reasonable goals, and hone in on the areas in which you thrive.

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS®DISCOVERY LICENSED PRACTITIONER, FOUNDER OF UXL, AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE TAG TEAM. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. YOU CAN VISIT HER WEBSITE AT WWW.YOUEXCELNOW.COM

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