TIB #9: How to deal with crippling perfectionism

Written by Arno Jansen

“I am a perfectionist” is often worn as a badge of honor. Perfectionism as a virtue. But while striving for perfection is admirable, true perfectionism is not. 

Statements like “I am a perfectionist” mean that a person takes pride in doing his/her job as well as possible. But if you employ a “perfection or bust” mentality at everything you do, you will never finish anything. 

The cause of perfectionism is fear of failure. And that fear results in one of two behaviors:

  • “If it is not perfect, it is not finished.”, so you work indefinitely on something.
  • “If I cannot do it perfectly, it is not worth doing it.” You stop working on something.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? 

Perfectionism is not a binary trait. It is not something you either have or do not have. That means you cannot hide behind it and use it as a “get out of jail” card.

Perfectionism means a disproportionate focus on the quality of a result while ignoring other factors such as cost, deadline, “fit for purpose” and risk.

Perfection, or rather “excellence”, means taking all variables and constraints into consideration when working towards an outcome.

Imagine a perfectionist pilot

A pilot has to deliver excellence, not perfection. A perfectly smooth landing every time is desirable. The pilot cannot keep going around indefinitely to try and make that buttery smooth a reality. Nor can it decide to divert to another airport if conditions for a perfectly smooth landing are better there. 

That plane has to land, smooth or not. Otherwise, it will miss its time slot or run out of fuel. Imagine the response of the passengers when the captain announces that although they are now in a different city than they planned to land, the landing itself was very smooth. 

The perfect game does not a champion make

In competitive darts, players must score 501 points in a single game and end on a double or bulls-eye. The player who manages to do that with the fewest darts wins. A “nine-darter” is considered a perfect game. It is also very rare. You do not become a champion when thinking “nine-darter or bust”.

The same goes for the “perfect game” in bowling. It is awesome if you can get it, but if perfectionism would prevent you from finishing a game unless you only throw strikes, you will never win.

Why done is better than perfect

In his book “Work Clean”, Dan Charnas writes about “Mise-en-place”, the processes used in professional kitchens to consistently deliver excellent food in time. He describes how chefs have to have a finishing mindset. To a customer, a dish 95% ready is the same as a dish that is 5% ready.

Excellence is quality delivered. Deadlines compel excellence.

— Dan Charnas in “Work Clean”

The finishing mindset as an antidote to perfectionism

Applying a finishing mindset to whatever it is you are doing, does not mean you have to rush your work or half-ass it. It means you need to apply focus and priority to what it is you are going to deliver.

Recognizing perfectionism creeping in is the first step to combating it. As a musician, I know perfectionism can pop up when I am playing with musicians that are much better than I am. As soon as I notice an “I am not worthy” kind of feeling, I snap out of it by analyzing what parts of the music I am struggling with and focusing on that. The concert will come no matter what, so I better work to deliver the best performance I can so that I can enjoy it and not beat myself up on all the imperfections.

Looking to get more productive, focused, and resilient?

Join my free Focus Finder email course to transform yourself from deeply distracted to fully focused.

    Looking to get more productive, focused, and resilient?

    Join my free Focus Finder course and go from deeply distracted to fully focused.

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