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The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Are you a perfectionist? Not that there’s anything wrong with that! We all agree it’s important to take pride in our work, set goals, and try to achieve them. Lena and I are perfectionists — it’s why we are so compatible and why we happily delegate work to each other without a backward glance.

But sometimes we get a glimmer that our perfectionist tendencies are hurting rather than helping us — stopping us from accomplishing more and trying new things outside our comfort zones. We often quote Voltaire: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” But reciting it hasn’t helped us learn how to focus on excellence rather than perfection. So in this post we’re consulting the experts and learning new skills right along with you.

Let’s be clear at the outset: we want our surgeons and airline pilots to be perfectionists to a very high degree. What we are talking about here is the office work-place and how we can create more by perfecting less.

7 Ways to Define a Perfectionist

Leadership consultant Stephanie Goddard says that perfectionism and work stress always go hand-in-hand, calling it “stress with a guarantee.” She offers these questions to help you determine if you are a perfectionist:

1. Do you find yourself becoming frustrated because you feel that you aren’t as far along as others?

2. Do you feel others (even loved ones) are always assessing you? From your clothing choice to your word choice…that you are regularly being scrutinized by the people in your life?

3. Do you criticize yourself even when you are learning something new? Do you expect yourself to do everything well at all times?

4. Do you find yourself taking part in activities in which you have little interest to gain approval?

5. Do you find that when you do something that satisfies you, your satisfaction is short-lived?

6. Have you been told by the people around you that you focus on the problems in life, and even if everything is okay you find something that bothers you?

7. With most tasks, do you feel that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do them and you are uncomfortable with alternative ways of getting them done?

5 Ways Your Perfectionism Affects Your Work

If we want to be perfectionists and work a little harder, doesn’t that make us more valuable as contributors? Self-improvement coach Celestine Chua shares with us the ultimate irony: extreme perfectionism may actually prevent us from being our best:

1.  We become less efficient. Even when we are done with a task, we linger to find new things to improve. This lingering process starts as 10 minutes, then extends to 30 minutes, then to an hour, and more. We spend way more time on a task than is required.

2. We become less effective. We do little things because they seem like a good addition, without consciously thinking whether they’re really necessary. Sometimes not only do the additions add no value, they might even detract from the end-product.

3. We procrastinate as we wait for a “perfect” moment. Our desire to perfect everything makes us over-complicate a project. What’s actually a simple task may get blown out of proportion, to the extent it becomes subconsciously intimidating. This makes us procrastinate, waiting for the ever-perfect moment before we get to it. This perfect moment never strikes until it is too late.

4. We miss the bigger picture. We are so hung-up over details that we forget about the bigger picture and the end vision.

5. We fuss over unfounded problems. We anticipate problems before they crop up, and come up with solutions to address these problems. It becomes an obsession to preempt problems. As it turns out, most of these problems either never do surface or they don’t matter that much.

5 Ways Your Perfectionism Affects Your Team

Because we are living in our own perfectionist heads, we don’t think about how our perfectionism may affect our teammates. As project managers and team leaders, Lena and I have seen perfectionism create these consequences for our teams:
1. Your work isn’t timely because you obsess over it until after the deadline, even though your manager has told you it’s much better to be “good and on time” than “perfect and late.”
2. You don’t get many things done, so others have to pick up the slack. At some point, they will say “enough is enough” and quit supporting you.
3. You create tension because you constantly rail against the lower quality of others. (Whether you mutter it under your breath or say it out loud, they can hear you.)
4. You become a control freak, trying to micromanage every aspect of a team project. You’re no longer a team player; you’re now someone very difficult to work with.
5. Everyone quits trying and just waits for you to tell them the right way to do everything. They do a half-hearted job because they know you’ll re-do whatever they’ve done. They lose enthusiasm and interest. They may even become scared to fail; they become perfectionists too.

9 Ways To Let Go

Help is on the way if you want to change. Try these ideas on letting go, shared by psychologist Alice Domar in The Upside of a Job Done Well Enough and coach Celestine Chua in Why Being a Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect:

1. Cultivate calm: Arrange your schedule so the start of the day can be spent planning, and the end of the day on loose ends.

2. Reward good behavior: Break up assignments into smaller tasks, then reward yourself for meeting each mini-goal.

3. Watch your co-workers: Are they always at work on time? Is every report perfect? Have they ever taken a long lunch and not been fired? Comparing yourself with others might help acquaint you with reality.

4. Stop trying to impress: Pleasing others can take a lot of time. Learn to say “no” when appropriate.

5. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize: Assign each incoming task to a category: must get done today, would be nice if it were done today, and must get done eventually.

6. Draw a line: Use the 80/20 rule: 80% of output can be achieved in 20% of time spent.

7. Be conscious of trade-offs: When we spend time and energy on something, we deny ourselves from spending the same time and energy on something else.

8. Be okay with making mistakes: If we’re busy perfecting this thing, we can’t get to other important things. The more we open ourselves to making mistakes, the faster we can get down to learning from them, and the quicker we can grow.

9. Realize our concerns usually amount to nothing: It’s good to plan and prepare, but being overly preemptive makes us live in an imaginary future instead of in the present.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

Now It’s Your Turn

Laugh at perfection: download The Cult of Done Manifesto and pin it to your bulletin board.

Did you answer yes to some or many of the questions above? Which ones had your name written all over them? Focus on a single area from 9 Ways to Let Go above that you’d like to improve for yourself or for your team.

What’s your reality-check mantra?

Lena and I help each other recognize when we are on a perfectionism binge. Rarely does a week go by that we don’t need to quote “the perfect is the enemy of the good” at least once! What good advice do you need to remind yourself every day? what’s your mantra?