Managing Perfectionism

Leonard Murphy   •   05.31.2019

Are you a perfectionist? Do you manage a perfectionist?

I am a perfectionist myself. It’s served me well throughout my career. But not always. There are times when my perfectionism gets in my way, rather than helps me succeed.

Let me give you some examples and see if you can relate.

Challenges of Being a Perfectionist

Procrastinating Getting Started

Image shows 2 sides. The Plan: Tackle Big Project. But First: Inbox Zero, Meetings, Action Items from Meetings, Finish Smaller Projects, Help Coworker, Solve Unrelated Problem, Catch up on Reading, Clean Desk

Does this sound familiar? I plan to tackle a big project. If I do 2 hours before lunch, and 2 hours later in the day, I’ll be off to a great start. Except I don’t. I don’t even start. But, at the end of the day, I am at Inbox Zero, my desk is clear, and I’ve made lots of progress on smaller projects. Great!

A perfectionist finds it hard to start on something big. You want to be in the right frame of mind. You want enough time to really get into the work and complete it to your high standard. But, reality gets in the way. It’s a big project, so there’s never going to be that much time in a block. There will always be more meetings, more emails, more action items, more smaller projects. Waiting for the perfect chunk of time results in this:

Image shows two timelines. On the top, the planned timeline. Starting on the left. 50% done about a third across. Done about 75% across. Deadline on the far right. Underneath, the actual results. Start, 25%, 75% and Done are all crammed on to the far right of the timeline.

Perfectionists wait too long for the perfect time to start.

Working on the Wrong Things

Another challenge I face as a perfectionist is spending too much time on less important things. I was delivering a 6-hr training in 12 weeks. This was my plan:

Image shows the plan for weeks 1-12. The first 5 weeks are dedicated to the first draft. Weeks 6-9 are for the 2nd draft. Weeks 10-12 are for practicing.

Looks like a good plan, doesn’t it?

This is what happened:

Image shows the actual use of a 12 week timeline. The first 8 weeks are for choosing a slide template. Weeks 9-10 are for the first 2 modules. Week 11-12 are for modules 3-6 and practicing.

Perhaps an exaggeration, but I spent a great deal of my first 8 weeks trying out different slide templates (and other trivial things). In my head, it didn’t make sense to write a presentation if I wasn’t first settled on the look & feel. Obviously in hindsight, the look & feel was nowhere near as important as having high quality content.

But that’s how perfectionism works. You want everything to be perfect. Which results in a lot of time being spent up-front on less important things, which ultimately steals time away from more important things that come later.

Perfectionists find it easy to spend a lot of time on the wrong things.

Giving Up Too Easily

As a perfectionist, I often have really great ideas and a strong vision for how the final result should work. I feel inspired, so I get started right away.

Then, I get stuck. It doesn’t work how I imagined. I realize challenges I didn’t think of when I was initially inspired. It’s taking a lot of work and time, and I’m not even happy with how it’s turning out.

So, if it’s something I don’t have to do, I may quit. Stop working on the project entirely. If it’s something I have to do, then I might become disillusioned or disengaged, or stop caring about quality.

Perfectionists find it easy to give up when they can’t meet their own standards.

Summary of Challenges

These 3 challenges, combined, can make a perfectionist a slow worker. They delay getting started, they focus too much energy on seemingly trivial matters, and then they give up or stop caring when they can’t meet their own standards.

It’s an odd paradox that a perfectionist often under-delivers compared to what they’re capable of.

Making Perfectionism Work

All is not lost. If you’re a perfectionist, there are 4 tools you can use to mitigate the downsides of perfectionism, and make your perfectionism work for you.

Timebox Yourself

When a project is large and daunting, it’s easy to procrastinate getting started. Don’t. Instead, set yourself a 20 or, at most, 30 minute time limit.

At first, 20 minutes sounds counterproductive. You need far more time than 20 minutes. This is a big project. You need several hours to even make a dent.

Yet while 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much, you might be surprised at how much you can get done in 20 minutes of dedicated time. When you reserve a 4hr block of time, it’s easier to get distracted by emails, get interrupted by coworkers, or let your mind wander. It’s hard to make everything wait 4 hours. However, your emails, your coworker, your untidy desk, and your other projects can all wait 20 minutes. Likewise, you can hold your focus for a 20 minutes sprint much easier than a 4hr marathon.

Instead of waiting for the perfect time, commit to 20 minutes this morning. And 20 minutes again this afternoon. And perhaps 20 more minutes at a time of your convenience.

Don’t wait for the perfect time. Find 20 minutes today.

Don’t “Owe”

A perfectionist sets goals for themselves. E.g. a module a week. Or, as above, 60 minutes a day in 20 minute increments.

What happens if you miss that goal? If you planned 60 minutes today, but didn’t get them in, you’ll obviously just add them to tomorrow’s 60 minutes. 2 hours is doable. If you planned to do a module this week, but are only half-way done, you’ll just finish it on Monday and still get the next module done next week too. Right?

Wrong. 

If you didn’t get 60 minutes in today, forgive yourself. Your primary goal for tomorrow is to get your regular 60 minutes in. Keep your goals small and achievable. If you start adding up all your missed goals and “owing” them to yourself, you’ll quickly end up back where you started – overwhelmed and waiting for the perfect block of time that never arrives. Never getting ahead of how much you “owe”. Always having to do more than 20 minutes at a time.

No progress Monday to Thursday and 60 minutes on Friday is better than “owing” 5 hours on Friday, but not doing any of them.

What’s that you say? You’ll catch-up the 5 hours over the weekend? No. If you miss a goal, let it go. Keep moving forwards in small increments.

Of course if you find yourself with extra capacity or motivation, there’s nothing wrong with doing more than you planned. That might often happen. But only if it’s because you genuinely have capacity & motivation – not because you “owe” yourself to catch-up. Continued forward momentum is more important than catching up on a large “debt”.

Don’t “owe” what you didn’t do yesterday – let it go and focus on today.

Refuse to Revisit

One of the most challenging concepts a perfectionist struggles with is that of a first draft. Recognize this?

The Perfectionist’s First Draft:

Image shows a blue brick wall, 3 layers high. Module 1 is the bottom layer. Module 2 is the middle layer. Module 3 is the top layer. Module 3 is missing a brick. All the bricks are uniformly colored and neatly aligned.

Notice how the first 3 modules (of 6) are looking pretty good. If I had to deliver this presentation 6 weeks early, I’d be in pretty good shape. Until module 3. Then the class might notice that module 3 ends rather abruptly. And, indeed, I haven’t even started any of the entire last half of the training.

This is what a first draft should look like:

Is it a thing of beauty? No. I changed color schemes half-way through. There are gaps and inconsistencies. It’s definitely not perfect.

But, on the other hand, if I get asked to do my training 6 weeks early, I at least have a complete training. In my head, I already know what changes I want to make. And every hour after my first draft is complete can go into applying those changes, and fixing the gaps & inconsistencies in priority order.

As a perfectionist, the best way to transition from a perfect first draft to an imperfect first draft, is to have a no re-do rule:

Don’t go back to something until you’ve completed everything.

No, not even to change a font. Or re-word a paragraph. Or change your slide template. Your first priority is to complete a rough first draft. 20 minutes a day works much better when you’re always moving forward.

Collaborate

If you can, combine your perfectionism with someone who is faster but less detail-oriented. There’s a place for both skills in the workplace, and working together will help you both. Perhaps you outline the overall vision, and someone else puts it together, then you review. Don’t treat it as a competition. They may have missed an important detail (e.g. they coded an annual fee to only charge on the 1st anniversary instead of every anniversary). You catch it, and that’s great. It doesn’t reduce their value of their contribution.

If you are already working with someone, it might be tempting to split the work up 50:50. I’ll write 3 modules, you write 3 modules. Sounds great in theory, but maybe that’s not the best way to combine your skills since it leaves both of you doing work you’re not great at. Perhaps, instead, your partner does the first draft of all the modules, and you perfect them. Or you write the modules, and they build the demos. Be creative. It might feel like an unequal division of labor if you do all the work you’re good at and none of the work you enjoy less, but your partner could feel the same in reverse. (If not, discuss.) There’s no rule that work has to be split evenly down the middle to be a fair division of labor.

Recognize other people’s strengths and collaborate. 

Summary

Perfectionism can be a fantastic career-booster. Your attention to detail and high standard of work will take you far in life. But there are times when perfectionism can work against you. Where, in the pursuit of perfect, your work takes far longer than it should, yet is still sub-par.

The 3 challenges:

  1. Perfectionists wait too long for the perfect time to start.
  2. Perfectionists find it easy to spend a lot of time on the wrong things.
  3. Perfectionists find it easy to give up when they can’t meet their own standards.

The 4 mitigations:

  1. Don’t wait for the perfect time. Find 20 minutes today.
  2. Don’t “owe” what you didn’t do yesterday – let it go and focus on today.
  3. Don’t go back to something until you’ve completed everything.
  4. Recognize other people’s strengths and collaborate.

If you can tame your perfectionism when it is working against you, and unleash it when you need it, you will be unstoppable.

Let me know in the comments if you can relate to these challenges, find these tips helpful, or if you have other tips that make perfectionism work for you.


Leonard Murphy

Senior Consultant

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