Taming Perfectionism

They say the “perfect” is the enemy of the “good.” Get-It-Done Guy has 6 tips on how to keep perfectionism from killing your productivity. (The episode is, of course, perfect.)

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #219

It's hard being perfect. Trust me. But even harder than being perfect is trying to be perfect. Trying to make things perfect can destroy your sanity. I know. I need a perfectionism treatment! I used to be a happy, chipper young boy, whose idea of a good time was playing with my toy dinosaurs. Then I began to try to do things perfectly, leading me to grow into a bitter adult, who realizes my toy dinosaurs were made from plastic, which is made from oil. Which is made from…real dinosaurs, crushed beneath tons of rock for a hundred million years. My cynical heart laughs maniacally at the irony of it all.

What caused this wretched transformation from doe-eyed innocent to jaded cynic? Simple. We're told as kids that doing a good job will lead to some kind of reward. But only to a point. When we pursue too much perfection, it actually becomes counterproductive. Here are 6 tips to avoid this sad fate:

Tip #1: Know What "Perfect" Is and Who Decides

First of all, if you're going to be perfect, identify who sets the standards. Take Bernice for example. She’s designing the perfect wedding dress for her special day with Melvin. In her world, "perfect" involves rhinestones. Many, many rhinestones. And since she's the one wearing the dress, perfection makes sense.

If only that were true of Melvin! He creates TPS reports every week for headquarters. He prides himself on producing the perfect report, with beautiful fonts, every data source footnoted, and tables and tables of numbers, breaking down every sales region by square foot. It's truly a masterpiece.

The person at headquarters has severe vision problems, however. He's afraid to tell anyone he can't actually read the reports. A perfect report for him would have brightly colored graphs, which would be easy for him to use in his decision-making.

When you're striving for perfection, find the person or people who will be using what you're creating, and ask them how it could be better. If you're going to be perfect, use the standards of the person who will be using your work.

Measure how far you've come, not how far you have left to go!

Tip #2: Factor "Time to Create" Into Your Perfection Definition

The trouble with perfection is that it's never done. It's not enough that you choose a good-looking font. No, once you have your document beautifully formatted, you notice that even in the best-rendered font, the character spacing might be off a little bit. So you start adjusting the exact spacing between pairs of letters, so it's a little more perfect. And when that's done, you start on the line height … or perhaps I'm just projecting?

In any event, when you start a project that you want to be perfect, define perfection to include the amount of time you want to put into the project. Don't just write the perfect report, write the perfect report that can be written in 4 hours. Then at 3 hours and 45 minutes, you can stop playing with fonts and actually start writing the report itself.

Tip #3: Perfection Means "Good Enough"

Perfect means meeting the needs of those around you … perfectly. My favorite boss in the whole wide world once told me, "Stever, you spend about half your work time getting work from 85% quality to 95% quality level. Unfortunately, no one but you can tell the difference. And by the way, the customers are happy with anything over 70%."

I was spending half my time working for a quality level that people didn't want, and couldn't appreciate. Perfect means aiming for what other people want. Unless you're as narcissistic as me and like to bring your work home, frame it, and admire it in the evenings and on weekends. Golly, I'm good.

Tip #4: Resist Social Pressure

If you're doing a group project, watch out! It's bad enough trying to be perfect on your own. When you're part of a group, you feel social pressure. "Am I letting them down?" "Will they think it's good enough?" "Will they hate me for not being as good as they are?" Or, if you're a sociopath, "Will they notice I'm not doing any work and just piggybacking on their efforts?"

Either way, go check with the external world. Ask your teammates how they perceive your effort and the quality of your work. If you're overloaded, tell them, and ask them where you can safely scale back. Don't let your social insecurities drive perfectionism.

Tip #5: Measure Your Quality Using Distance Traveled

When you're shooting for perfect, you have a mental image of perfection. If your progress so far doesn't match that image, you feel compelled to keep working. Yeah, right. My mental image of perfection at the gym combines the abs of Brad Pitt, the bone structure of Tom Cruise, the youth of Zac Ephron, with the earnest trying-not-to-be-too-geeky of Zachary Quinto. Is it any wonder I feel so inadequate?

Instead of that sort of self-defeatist attitude, measure how far you've come, not how far you have left to go! I'm never going to be as awesome as BradTomZacZachary. Ever. But when I remember what I looked like before I started working out, I've come very, very far. If your perfectionism comes from the tension between you and Brad Pitt, compare yourself to PeeWee Herman instead. You'll feel great.

Tip #6: Take Workload Into Account

Perfect also depends on your workload. A few weeks ago I had a week in which I was designing a customized all-day client offsite in Texas, memorizing the script to Work Less and Do More: The (Zombie) Musical, working with my regular coaching clients, perfecting a talk for TEDx (see? there's that word again), and entering the final week of rehearsals for Urinetown. My client work was top priority, and given that, there were sheer limits on how much I could rehearse Urinetown or my own musical. I was so stressed that smoke was seeping out of my ears, constantly.

Once you've reached "good enough," consider your workload. In that case, perfect may mean as good-enough as possible, given your time and mental workload.

On my theatrical projects, I finally admitted I had to shoot for "as perfect as I can get, given my client work."

I'd been holding myself up to the standards I'd use if each individual project were the only thing on my plate. The sane approach is to take workload into account when evaluating your standards.

There's no magic bullet to turn perfectionists into sane, rational, happy, balanced people. Instead, make sure you know who defines "perfect" and use that definition. Factor your workload and available time to devote into your definition of "perfect." Shoot for "good enough," and measure how far you've come, not how far you have left to go.

This is Stever Robbins. I mentor successful people in building exceptional careers, lives, and businesses by finding how they get in their own way (for example, by being fanatical perfectionists) and developing strategies to help them surpass their limitations. If you want to know more, visit www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.