Unlearning perfectionism

As someone who has placed an emphasis on perfectionism in the past, I can honestly say it’s a stressful way to live. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by people and perspectives to get me out of that mind state and way of operating. I’ve also had some great experiences that have shifted my perfectionism habits and created awareness of how to overcome them. Join me in shedding your life of perfectionism for a new, happier and way more productive way of operating that’s a whole lot less stressful. It’s absolutely possible for anyone at any stage or walk of life to go from the world of perfectionism to be in constant action, not getting hung up on every little thing that comes their way. This article is meant to highlight experiences and observations in making this radical adoption of a new powerful way of life and provide actionable advice for how to overcome being a perfectionist. Anyone has the potential to thrive and get the results you’re after, especially when you remove having to always do things “perfectly” from the equation.

1. People actually like flaws

You can probably recall situations where something had character and charm and the flaws became what you liked about it. Sometimes what might be thought of as imperfect or flawed, is desirable. As materials like leather wear, they get a nice patina and honest look. Someone might have a scar from saving a person from a dangerous situation when they were younger. So-called flaws can actually make something better. In Japanese culture, flaws are celebrated and embraced. There’s the art of Kintsukuroi or “golden repair” which is the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. They fill the cracks in pottery or floors with gold to accentuate the history and highlight the flaw authentically instead of trying to hide it.

What to consider:

  • Is it a really a flaw or can the imperfection be an advantage or something that can be remarkable for others?
  • So what if it’s not “perfect”. Will anyone else really care?
  • Do others think it’s a big deal like I do?
  • Am I getting hung up on things that don’t really matter?

2. Perfectionism is in the way

It may not seem like you’re trying to inject perfectionism into every little thing. You may just not realize that it’s there and it may be ingrained in your day to day approach to things. There’s a big cost to not seeing the forest from the trees. When you’re in the mindset of getting everything “right”, there’s only one way things can be. It’s actually very limiting and you end up spending time on things that aren’t important. Time being the most important resource you have and an irreplaceable asset, wasting it is just about the worst thing you can do if you want to see results.

What to consider:

  • Could I do things faster or more effectively?
  • Do I tend to get hung up on things that should only take a little while?
  • Do I obsess over the details to an extent that is counterproductive?
  • Am I always thinking about everything that could go wrong instead of thinking about how I’ll give it a try and work through the feedback from users or stakeholders as it arises?

3. Why are people perfectionists?

Often, people who are controlled by perfectionism are afraid that they might come in short with a project or deliverable and let someone down. They might try to do everything themselves because “no one else can do it right”. They also tend to be really into thinking about things because it’s comforting emotionally in the process of working and they feel like they are being productive. In many cases, when perfectionism is at the helm, the end result of a project or deliverable will be lacking. Perfectionism causes people to run out of time, procrastinate on taking action or have too many ideas. Someone focused on perfectionism can’t make up their mind so their end result may be confusing or watered down. They deliver something that is trying to please everyone and therefore pleases no one. Their results are weak, sometimes inauthentic and not captivating because they are a constant compromise of trying to make everyone happy. 

What to consider:

  • Do I remember to let things go?
  • Am I reminding myself of what’s import and what the end goal is?
  • Where or at what point in life, did I develop this habit of perfectionism?
  • Is perfectionism serving me well or keeping me from getting to where I want to be in life?
  • Do I surround myself with people who help me get out of my perfectionism tendencies?

4. Living with perfectionism as an obsticle

My guess is that if you’re reading this you can relate. Someone who is ruled by perfectionism is always trying to make everything flawless and nothing ever seems as right as it could be and it could always be better. You’re also looking for other people, situations and things to be perfect and you tend to be hard on not only yourself, but everyone and everything you encounter. It’s incredibly energy draining do to day and when things don’t work out, it tends to cause frustration and unhappiness. When you’re constantly striving for perfectionism, it’s hard to think about going with the flow and things have to be just right or else it’s not worth it. You might think if things aren’t good enough, they are wrong, or should be scrapped and we should just “start from scratch” because it’s “could be better.” If this sounds like you, you’re probably a perfectionist.

What to consider:

  • Am I taking things in stride and being agile?
  • Am I constantly thinking I need to start over when I really don’t because things need to be just right?
  • Do I really need to control every aspect of a situation?
  • Is perfectionism doing me any favors or can I try on another way to be and go through life?
  • Am I having trouble seeing the forest from the trees?
  • Are there people who can help me shed this perfectionism way of operating and keep me accountable?

5. You don’t have to please everyone

Are you constantly trying to make sure everything is right so that people will like what you’re doing? It’s one thing to make something that people want and something else to try and bend over backwards for everyone all the time. Some people can never be pleased with anything and you can’t please everyone. For the 5 people out there who you talk to about your idea and like it, there may be 5 more who don’t. People have a diverse range of perspectives and attitudes and you can’t make something for everyone. We see this phenomenon in politics, products, technology, and marketing. We come across this experience all the time in our everyday lives. I’m sure there’s a list of things that you might love or hate and you have friends or people you can think of who feel the exact inverse.

What to consider:

  • Am I trying to please everyone?
  • Am I being true to myself?
  • Are my choices reactionary or am I creating what I want to create?
  • Am I letting one comment from someone in passing, throw me off and drive my objectives?
  • Do I understand that people’s opinions are only opinions and not necessarily facts?

6. Perfection is relative

What might occur as perfectionism to you, may be completely different for someone else. Our values are individualistic and what might be important to you, may not matter to your friends, family or society. Perfectionism doesn’t actually exist. What might be perfect today, also won’t be perfect tomorrow. What your best friend might find to be perfectionism is completely different than what you think is ideal. Once you start shifting your perspective from this situation I’m in or result I got is completely wrong, to this is the perfect situation because I’m able to learn from it and things are happening exactly as they’re supposed to happen, you’ll find things will keep moving. Positive and open thinking allows for progress and getting closure on steps in your work so you can move on to the next thing. Realizing that perfectionism is all in your mind and perspective, allows you to choose if something is perfect or not.

What to consider:

  • How am I coming across to others?
  • Does doing this thing I’m doing matter for others?
  • Who am I trying to impress and will it really matter?
  • What will be the result of my actions if I spend more time on this thing I’m doing?

7. Perfectionism is a flavor of procrastination

It’s not like you’re saying you’ll do something and then you turn around and watch Netflix or take a nap but procrastination is a form of procrastination. You may know that you’ve completed something and you continue to put time and work into it to tweak and perfect it. When you spend time and energy continually trying to perfect something that doesn’t really contribute to the end goal, you’re technical wasting time and it’s a distraction. Time wasted is something you can never get back. When you’re old and grey, you won’t be thinking of all the amazing details you perfected on a project earlier in life. You’ll likely be thinking of friends, family, memories and all the really important aspects and experiences of life. 

What to consider:

  • Am I working on something that will contribute to the end goal?
  • Is what I’m doing important to others?
  • Will, what I’m doing cause real results?
  • Will I get things done by the time I said I would and if not, what do I need to give up or focus on to get them done?

8. Being meticulous versus being focused on perfectionism

Being detail-oriented is different than focusing on perfectionism. It’s probably true that Steve Jobs was very particular. The thing is that Apple had product-market fit as it evolved it’s computers over time. They were bringing in money, growing profitability and the internet was also gaining popularity, plus the interest in computers was increasing rapidly. Apple met a need in society that people had and they simplified the computer. In the early days, Apple had a bunch of problems with their computers. They didn’t get a lot of viruses like PC’s did, however the Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering had flaws. Apple worked to improve these things and further simplify the product as the years went on. Their focus was creating a reliable experience, and upholding Apples brand ethos and values. Apple’s strong business growth allowed them the room to be particular and obsess over the details. Their reputation for perfectionism was developed over time, after they fulfilled their business goals and the company could be self-sustaining.

What to consider:

  • Is perfectionism something I can afford?
  • Is thinking more and more about this issue going to really help?
  • Am I being detail-oriented or obsessing over perfectionism?
  • Will other people appreciate the level of perfectionism I’m injecting into this situation?
  • Is perfectionism needed?

9. A lot of things really aren’t that important

When you spend time on something that isn’t important, you’re throwing away the best resource you have which is time. Perfectionism is about obsessing over things don’t really have any impact on the overall results. They don’t matter in the scheme of things that are out to be accomplished. It’s important to constantly ask yourself, is this truly important or essential? Will this move my project forward and help me achieve my objectives?

What to consider:

  • Is this essential to the project or goal?
  • Can I stop doing this thing if it’s not?
  • Did I check with others to see if they think it’s important?
  • If this isn’t important, can I free up my time to work on other, more important tasks?

10. Perfectionism is a rigid way of thinking

When perfectionism drives things constantly, you’re looking for all the things that might be wrong. It’s an obsessive pursuit that often leads to creating something that’s vanilla and boring to others. All the fearless aspects of what you are creating get overruled by all the things that might go wrong, which haven’t even happened yet.

What to consider:

  • Am I limiting myself by perfectionism without showing anyone?
  • Can I just make it and see what others think?
  • Are the issues I’m thinking of really issues?
  • What are my hang ups when I go through a project?
  • How can I remove bottlenecks and keep things moving along?

11. It’s exhausting

There’s no flexibility, lightheartedness, or vibrancy i perfectionism. You’re always stressed about analyzing weather something is good enough or if there might be something better or something you could have said that were the “right words” to say. Perfectionism can really drain your energy because you’re always trying to get things just right.

What to consider:

  • Can I be more flexible?
  • Does this have to actually be the way I want or can it be another way?
  • Can I let go of trying to have this be perfect?
  • Is it possible for me to give up having to devote all my emotional energy to perfectionism?
  • Can I redirect my energy to focus on problem solving?

12. Do you always have to do everything yourself?

A lot of times, someone with perfectionism in their personality will try to do everything solo. The idea being that they are the best person to do the job and it might take longer to describe it to someone else. If they give the task to someone else, they might also be worried that it won’t get done the way they want.

What to consider:

  • Can I ask others for help?
  • Am I being flexible and focused on the end goal?
  • Do I latch onto the exact way things are done versus the end result?
  • Can I remove attachment about the path to get to an end result and ask others for help?

13. Perfectionism at the cost of progress

A perfectionism personality can relate that it’s common to overthink things. There’s a desire to endlessly mull over and obsess about every little detail and every possible scenario. A lot of what is this or what thoughts constantly rave through your mind. The problem is that thinking isn’t doing and more thinking isn’t going to move you forward.

What to consider:

  • Do I set a timeline for my tasks and get them done no matter what?
  • Am I reminding myself to not let perfectionism run things?
  • Am I putting time into things that don’t matter to others?
  • Do I order my to do list in terms of priorities?

14. You’re not a failure if you didn’t get it perfect

There’s an attitude or idea that permeates perfectionism which is if something isn’t perfect, it’s bad or terrible, or you’re a failure in some way. This is a heavyweight idea that people tend to carry around in their thinking. The concept that they missed the objective and everything is wrong, or because you messed up something once, you can’t recover. Or the thought that you’ll never be quite as good because you missed the mark or you’ll eventually never get it right. The reality is that sure you might have messed something up or made a mistake but that doesn’t have to define you. You can get back up again until you get it right. People like Michael Jordan are the best because they keep trying, keep going, and don’t give up.

What to consider:

  • Because something didn’t go right the first time, doesn’t mean you can’t get it right on 2nd or 3rd try.
  • Failure or missing the mark is temporary.
  • People easily remember successes while commonly forgetting someone’s failures.
  • It might suck that you missed your objective but it doesn’t mean you can’t get up again.
  • Part of learning is making mistakes and that’s ok.

15. The argument for letting go of perfectionism

Perfectionism will keep you in a box that is your creation and it’s disconnected from the real world. It’s a way of thinking where everything that could possibly go wrong is ruling a person’s thought process. Someone once said to me that worrying about something is a down payment on a problem you may never even have. All the magic and solutions that resonate with the world and people happens in trial and error. Testing and refinement. Do your best to create a product, service or idea and put it out into the world to see if it will work. It’s better to do a bunch of little tests to find something that sticks. Perfectionism will want you to invest a bunch of time perfecting something that might never have worked to begin with. Some things that seemingly should work amazingly well completely flop and things that you might never expect which are counterintuitive end up being wildly successful. 

What to consider:

  • Done is better than perfectionism.
  • Am I boxing myself in with my perfectionism as an approach?
  • Do I test things and put them out in the world for others to use?
  • Is feedback perceived as constructive or do I let it derail me?

15. You can always catch yourself

Have you ever been working on something and had a hard time letting go of one aspect of what you’re working on to move onto the next step? You know you’re accomplished the task you needed to and you should move on, but a little voice in your head says, “I can keep tweaking this” or “I’ll just spend a little more time working on this”. Overcoming perfectionism is about letting go of how things “must be” and creating space for something new. If you’re super attached to the way and order in which something needs to happen, it will take that amount of time to complete. If you keep pushing your timeline out and giving yourself “a little more time”, before you know it – you’ll have spent a ton of time on something that, let’s be honest, really didn’t matter that much.

What to consider:

  • Set a timer for by when you’ll do something and stick to it.
  • Breakup your tasks into actionable to-do items.
  • Prioritize your tasks based on importance and if they will actually move the needle.
  • Cut out any tasks that aren’t contributing to the progression of your project.
  • If you catch yourself, realize that you’re not doing anything wrong. You can laugh it off and move on. Everything takes practice at first.

Like anything, with focus and practice, you can improve. Work towards letting go of perfectionism. You’ll find you have a lot more time to get things done and make progress. People are often focused on perfectionism because they like to think a lot. They may have trouble letting go of things. For some, it’s simply the way they’ve always operated and they can’t see another way for themselves to be in the world. No matter how perfectionism came into your life, you still have the ability to see the forest from the trees and operate in a highly effective way. What’s missing or what can you let go of to get you started on that path today?

– Matt Grigsby

Comments (2):

  1. Sushil Adhikari

    March 27, 2019 at 1:29 am

    This is so persuasive, Matt. I read your aticle with interest. Thanks for sharing.

    • Matt

      July 18, 2019 at 11:19 pm

      Glad you found value in this Sushil and thanks for the comment!


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