Do you push too hard for perfection? Perhaps you struggle to get started on tasks, waiting for inspiration to arrive. Or maybe the projects you lead tend to miss their deadlines, while you and your people dissect and debate the details at length.
If so, chances are you’re making perfection your priority – at the expense of progress.
Long ago, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned against that very clearly: “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”
Today, Seth Godin, a successful entrepreneur, author and teacher, preaches that “waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.” The writer and leadership guru, Simon Sinek, agrees: “Progress is more important than perfection,” he says.
The Rise of Perfectionism
It’s easy to get caught up in the cult of perfectionism. A 2017 study by social psychologist Dr Thomas Curran analyzed data from over 40,000 people at colleges in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. It concluded that the drive for perfectionism is increasing.
Another study, by clinical psychologists at Dalhousie University, involved around 25,000 people, aged between 15 and 49. It showed that perfectionism has increased significantly in the last 30 years.
The Problem With Pursuing “Perfect”
In psychology, a perfectionist is defined as someone who maintains excessively high performance standards. They refuse to accept anything less than flawlessness.
But it’s an approach that’s unrealistic and unattainable. It’s a fast track to failure and unhappiness. To make matters even worse, perfectionists are often highly self-critical, and excessively concerned with the opinions of others.
Perfectionism can also lead to procrastination. You put things off because you’re waiting for the perfect idea, or for the timing to be spot-on. But while you’re busy deciding how to achieve your goals, deadlines sail by!
Many perfectionists focus on avoiding failure at all costs. They view mistakes as failures, and that leads to a fear of taking any risks at all. In the most popular TED Talk of all time, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Perfectionism breeds fear of being wrong, and fear kills creativity.
Pushed to its extreme, perfectionism can ultimately affect a person’s sense of self-worth. If nothing we do is good enough, we can easily start thinking that we’re not good enough, too.
What to Do If You’re a Perfectionist
It’s always important to have high standards. But if your pursuit of perfect is getting in the way of progress, here are seven tips that might help:
1. Be clear about your objective.
From the very start, make sure you know what you’re aiming to achieve.
Let’s say you’re preparing a presentation to the C-suite. Do you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time fussing over the fonts for your PowerPoint slides?
If so, ask yourself what your objective is. Is it to dazzle people with your graphic design prowess? Or do you need to get their approval for a major initiative?
Being clear about your ultimate objective from the beginning will boost your success at each stage of a project.
2. Develop a bias for action.
When you’re stuck because you fear your work might not be flawless, or you don’t have the perfect right answer, don’t procrastinate. Perfection can lead to inaction.
Stop looking for the perfect way to do something – and just do it! Start, then improve along the way. This might not come naturally, but it’s achievable if you make it your intention.
3. Stop nitpicking.
Be ruthless about dealing with distractions. Precision is important, but you also need to step back and see the big picture. Ask yourself what other priorities are being missed while you’re busy focusing on insignificant details.
Any strength can easily become a liability if it’s taken too far, and perfectionists tend to obsess over every minor detail. Learn to let go of the small things so that you can focus on what matters most.
4. Refrain from excessive checking.
Be alert to anything that might threaten progress – including excessive caution. Yes, you need to check the key details. But don’t do so at the expense of efficiency and momentum.
Do you delay sending important emails because it takes you too long to find the perfect words? Does your team miss key deadlines because they’re double-checking documents and doing endless rewrites? Behaviors like these can make projects slow down, or stall completely.
Don’t sabotage yourself by “second guessing” every choice you make. After you’ve done a reasonable amount of checking, press “send” and move on.
5. Boost your sense of certainty.
One of my clients – I’ll call her Nadia – got a promotion recently. In her new role, she became progressively more anxious about impressing others. She worked extremely long hours, aiming for perfection in everything she did.
Nadia’s approach started to affect her sleep. She ended up getting only four hours of sleep most nights. “I need to show them that I deserve the promotion,” she confided.
People often seek perfection because they’re insecure. It seemed to me that Nadia had a dangerous mix of perfectionism and Impostor Syndrome!
In her book, “The Anxiety Toolkit,” psychologist Alice Boyes provides a tool for keeping your standards high, but avoiding perfectionism.
She advises that we shift our thinking from a performance focus to a mastery focus. Then, our aim to pursue high standards becomes less about proving ourselves to others, and more about gaining and using new skills. Instead of reinforcing our sense of insecurity, we start boosting our self-confidence.
6. Be vigilant about Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available.
Say you have two weeks to complete a report. You should set yourself an artificial deadline to finish it, and submit it then – rather than waiting until the end of the two weeks. If you try to use all the time you’ve got, you’ll likely continue writing and rewriting your work, to the point where you’re getting “diminishing returns.”
Do your due diligence, set a realistic deadline – and then (to paraphrase Seth Godin), “Ship it already!”
7. Be fair to others.
When you’re leading others, it’s easy to say, “Do as I do.” However, holding others accountable to your own personal standards may not be practical. You can still demand excellence from your team, but don’t confuse excellence with perfectionism.
Excellence is attainable, while perfectionism places an unfair burden on people to achieve impossible standards.
Perfectionism slows down the team, ramps up the stress, and puts overall performance at serious risk.
Cut yourself some slack. Tempering perfectionism for the sake of progress doesn’t mean giving up on excellence.
It’s not about being careless. You’re just setting realistic and achievable standards of performance. The focus is on continuous improvement – not on some distant possibility of perfection.
Focus on knowing when something is good enough, so that you can move on. Ultimately, you need to recognize that progress trumps perfection every time.
How Mind Tools Can Help
Mind Tools has a wide range of resources to help you tackle all the issues raised above.
If you think procrastination is a particular issue for you, why not start with our quiz, Are You a Procrastinator? And, if it turns out that you are… don’t put off doing something about it! We’ve got a great video guide to overcoming procrastination.
Not sure if you’re up to the challenges you face at work? Boost your confidence with our article on beating Impostor Syndrome.
And to maximize progress, we’ve got valuable resources for boosting engagement, increasing motivation, and setting the right level of conscientiousness – to get the best from yourself, and from everyone else on your team.
How do you deal with perfectionism and procrastination? Share your experiences in the Comments, below.