For a long time, perfectionism was seen as a good thing. In job interviews, “perfectionism” was a job candidate’s go-to reply when asked, “What’s your greatest weakness?”
Since then, research has shown us that perfectionism isn’t something to aspire to, but to let go of.
In this article, we share why perfectionism is harmful, and show you how to overcome perfectionism in favor of a healthier alternative: iteration.
What is perfectionism?
In a famous essay titled “The Perfectionist’s Script For Self-Defeat,” psychiatrist professor David D. Burns defined perfectionists as
“people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity or accomplishment.”David D. Burns
What he meant was that perfectionists aren’t high achievers striving for excellence. Instead, they can be anxious individuals with a habit of setting unattainable goals.
Often, they view their work in extremes (“My presentation was awful!”), overestimate the probability of bad outcomes (“Everyone will notice my mistake and comment on it”), and worry that others think negatively of them (“Everybody thinks I’m bad at my job…”).
As a result, they get almost no enjoyment out of work, have trouble celebrating their accomplishments, and may even struggle with mental health issues.
Why overcoming perfectionism is important
Sadly, the research into perfectionism shows that all the effort and worry doesn’t necessarily translate into higher-quality work or increased success.
In a study that looked into attitudes of elite gymnasts and how they impacted results, researchers found that a tendency to downplay past failures made an athlete more likely to qualify for the Olympics. The athletes who didn’t qualify often obsessed over prior mistakes, replaying them in their heads during competitions and becoming more anxious and insecure as a result.
In a survey that measured the level of perfectionism of insurance agents and compared the results with their annual earnings, Burns found that perfectionists earned less.
One of the reasons why perfectionism doesn’t lead to success is that it impairs performance. When the standards you set for work are excessively high, you tend to procrastinate or move at a pace so slow that you miss out on opportunities or lose touch with who or what the work is for.
Another is that perfectionism discourages risk-taking, which blocks innovation.
Overcoming perfectionism as a company
The world’s most innovative companies discourage perfectionism. Instead, they embrace iteration, the practice of doing the smallest thing and getting it out as quickly as possible.
Software company GitLab is so serious about doing work in small increments that it made iteration one of its core values. They’ve found that iterating improves efficiency and leads to the development of better products, since it allows them to get user feedback early and make improvements and adjustments faster.
“Instead of spending time working on the wrong feature or going in the wrong direction, we can ship the smallest product, receive fast feedback, and course correct,” they say.
Tips from recovering perfectionists
Overcoming perfectionism isn’t easy, but more and more people are letting go of the need to be perfect and sharing tips to help others do the same.
Attorney and recovering perfectionist Craig Wheatley wrote on LinkedIn: “My focus has had to change from trying to do things perfectly to doing them as efficiently as I can and moving on to the next challenge. Sometimes a bit of mess is alright.”
Content marketing manager Sophie Michaud also shared her strategy: “My anti-perfectionist mantra? Do the thing, even if you do it poorly, and once it’s done, move on.”
Similarly, career and interview coach Kyle Elliott has changed his thoughts and behavior around work. “One of my personal goals is to work a max of 20 hours per week. To achieve this goal, I’m learning to say ‘no’ more often — and not feel guilty about it,” he shared on LinkedIn.
Tips from the experts
Experts also recommend the following strategies for overcoming perfectionism:
Question your standards
One of the hardest parts about overcoming perfectionism, experts say, is knowing when your high standards are appropriate and when they are completely unrealistic. If you find that your standards are unreasonably high, set more realistic standards. Ask yourself, What level of imperfection am I willing to tolerate?
Make a plan
Setting realistic standards is half the battle. Next comes creating and executing a plan for achieving your goals. Break down large tasks into small chunks and add real or made-up deadlines to your calendar to help you move forward. Before you begin, decide what’s most important. Experts also recommend deciding in advance how much time you want to spend on each task.
You might not be able to overcome your perfectionism overnight, but you can design strategies to prevent it from hurting your performance. Try setting a cut off time for work or imposing limits to the tasks you need to complete (for example, you’ll revise emails only once before sending).
Get feedback early on
Another good idea, which writer Jory Mackay reminded us about in this article, is to get thirty percent feedback—constructive, early-stage criticism on the direction a project is going. To get feedback on work that isn’t quite there yet, learn to cultivate a low level of shame. For Darren M., Head of Remote at GitLab, that means resisting the urge to conceal work until it’s perfect, and celebrate the small changes instead.
Ditch perfect for good
Overcoming perfectionism starts with letting go of irrational thoughts and ideas about work, including the idea that you, your team, or your company must tackle large projects and prepare for all possible scenarios before releasing work out into the world.
By focusing on iteration instead of perfection, you’ll be able to take more risks, be more creative, and ship products faster.
What would you do if you let go of your need to be perfect? Let us know in the comments below.