How Perfectionism Destroys Your Productivity — & How to Overcome it
The idea that perfectionism destroys productivity sounds oxymoronic, right? Well, if you’re here I’m guessing that you’ve realised something has gone horribly wrong with your perfectionist tendencies. Yet, as someone with a devoted work ethic and immaculate living and working aesthetic who completes all their projects and tasks to the highest standards, always arrives promptly and is never in trouble, you’re probably left wondering why your productivity levels aren’t as outstanding as you suppose they ought to be.
Perfectionism is one of those traits that’s largely classified as admirable: those who have it proudly boast about it whilst those who don’t commend those who do. If I were a betting woman I would wager you first came into contact with the term perfectionism at school, most probably during some careers development class. I remember distinctly my careers advisor advising us to admit to any future employers that our biggest weakness was perfectionism because it was one of those appealing and ‘hireable’ flaws. Well, who doesn’t want to hire someone who will work through their lunch hour and work unpaid overtime during evenings and weekends because their low self-esteem and obsessive need for external validation pushes them into overachieving and torturing themselves to purify anything they produce from any trace of inadequacy?
As you may have guessed, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Whilst having high standards is a respectable quality, perfectionism is just a glorified version of procrastination. Nothing delays a project more than the daunting thought of unrealistic expectations, and the crushing fear of failure is hardly a healthy motivator for any successful person. The unsurmountable pressure perfectionists place on themselves is not only creatively stifling but self-destructive. Even the founder of impressionist art, Claude Monet, was haunted by his perfectionism. He was renowned for frequently destroying his paintings in frustration and was noted for once crying out in despair, ‘My life has been nothing but a failure’. Yet in 2004, nearly 100 years after his death, his Effects of Sun in the Fog sold for $20.1 million.
We’re too afraid to even try, for fear of exposing our vulnerabilities.
In a video where I explained the 80% rule for productivity, I noticed from the comments that the people who got the most from the message and advice were self-confessed perfectionists, a demographic which is, unfortunately, hardly a minority. We live in a society where failure is seen as a weakness, and anything less than perfect is seen as a failure: if your stomach isn’t totally flat, you’re fat; if you’re working for minimum wage in your twenties, your career is slacking; if your thighs touch, you’re not healthy; if your teeth aren’t blisteringly white, you’re unhygienic; if you didn’t get a first at university, you might as well have not bothered and saved getting into debt.
The society and cultures that consume us have painstakingly infiltrated our psyche to the point that we project our perfectionist expectations onto those we meet, admire or envy. Lady Gaga may be a multi-millionaire with a successful music career but look at that cellulite and love handles! Talk about letting herself go!
Because magazines, social media and gossip forums have made us more acutely aware of the art of critique, we’ve gotten to a point when we’re too afraid to even try, for fear of exposing our vulnerabilities. Our society encourages us to silently laugh, smile or gloat at the imperfections and misfortunes of others, so why wouldn’t others do the same to us? It’s better to not try than potentially give them ammo. Perfectionism is self-defeating and, therefore, painfully ironic: we become perfect by the default of never trying. Letting go of being perfect is the only way you’re going to live a more productive and fulfilled life.
My perfectionism used to be inhibiting beyond reason: my work ethic was unhealthy, irrational and honestly, pretty dangerous.
Studies have shown that the higher the perfectionism of an individual, the more psychological disorders they are going to suffer from. It’s no exaggeration when scientists claim perfectionism is an epidemic that’s destroying people’s lives; even speaking from personal experience, it nearly killed me, several times. I define myself as a recovering perfectionist; whilst I have my moments of relapse, they’ve become few and far between since I began my journey as a freelancer and developed a passion for productivity and time management.
My perfectionism used to be inhibiting beyond reason: my work ethic was unhealthy, irrational and honestly, pretty dangerous. Perfectionism is a complex psychological problem that is broadly defined as a ‘combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations’, but over time it’s become recognised by researchers as a multi-dimensional issue consisting of three kinds: self-orientated, socially prescribed and other-oriented perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionism is the most established and recognisable form of perfectionism. It defines those whose perfectionistic beliefs and behaviours are directed inwards; they’re individuals who place irrational significance in perfection and measure themselves against unrealistic expectations, are overly-critical and become severely self-punishing for their perceived inadequacies. Socially prescribed perfectionists perceive others as judging them harshly and therefore seek approval and acceptance by displaying perfectionism for the ‘benefit’ of others. Alternatively, ‘other-oriented perfectionism’ is when the perfectionist expectations are external and the individual imposes unrealistic expectations and standards on those around them
What’s this got to do with Productivity?
So, how precisely does perfectionism inhibit our productivity, besides the obvious procrastination related to a fear to start or submit. Well, largely because perfectionists focus on the results rather than the progress; they’re unwilling to take risks, try new things or innovate. Perfectionism is a safe alternative to growth and reaching our full potential. Many of us are prompted into falling down these perfectionist rabbit holes thanks to competitive work cultures, pride and fear of failure; but the truth of the matter is that we can’t change the game in our industry or take our careers to the next level without taking risks.
Subsequently, your perfectionist standards aren’t healthy for those around you, be they your team members, friends or loved ones. Whether you want to admit it or not, your personal standards will reflect onto them and alter how you perceive them, and this unconscious or conscious judgement will pollute your environments, stunting any opportunities for growth, meaningful connection and authentic relationships.
Whilst the ultimate answer to overcoming perfectionism is to strive for 80% (the process of which I have already covered in another article), perfectionism is an intricate and complex mental culture that takes time to beat, which means you have to start small and work your way up.
Start letting go of the small things and welcome minor imperfections. Show other people your human side and start being openly vulnerable: admit to a colleague or friend that you’re stuck, don’t proofread an email before sending it or don’t script out texts days or hours before sending them: just click send. Try going out in public or even to work one day without gelling your hair or wearing makeup, skip a gym session or don’t go so hard on the weights or treadmill when you’re there. Admit when you’re tired or when you don’t know something.
Start off small, allow small cracks to show in your facade and learn to not be ashamed or afraid of them. You’re not letting go of yourself, but for your own sanity and the health of your relationships, you have to lower your standards a bit.
Make it Bigger
Then, when it comes to bigger things such as work projects, start with a strategy and a skill-set which are good enough. Good enough is your lowest standard (which, all things considered, is pretty great: after all, there are many people who never motivate themselves to reach even that). You can adjust this standard later once you’ve established a submittable and solid project that is good enough.
The object is to complete tasks to complete all tasks and projects to a suitable standard before polishing them and making them fantastic. Cover your ground and don’t allow the details to drag you to the edge of failure: you know you’re capable of outstanding work so don’t stress about it.
Decouple Your Performance from your Self-Worth
The next and most important stage of overcoming perfectionism is learning how to decouple your performance from your sense of self-worth. If you’re anything like me this stage will be the least practical and most recurring issue to address, but it does get easier with time and practice. However, what you will have learned the hard way is that punishing yourself for failing to meet unrealistic expectations is brutally counterproductive, and berating yourself for your efforts only leads to chronic low self-esteem, a toxic self-image, misery and defeat to your life.
The Fake Deadline Tactic
Set parameters on projects and create fake deadlines. If your perfectionism makes it hard to start your projects and/or finish projects, you have to commit to working within time frames using the Pomodoro technique and by setting yourself fake deadlines.
Tell yourself you can only work on this project for one hour without any editing and repeat this technique for a set number of days. Don’t allow yourself to revise and edit until after a few days (though obviously, factor in this rule according to the scale and time frame of your project), but again, give yourself even less time to edit than you did write.
So, for example, say you made yourself write unedited for four hours a day over a period of four days, give yourself an hour of editing for every day you spent writing: meaning on the fifth day, edit for only four hours.
Days spent writing: 4
Hours per day: 4
Total hours spent writing: 12
Total hours allowed for editing: 4
Then move on and repeat the cycle. Again, obviously, this isn’t the time frame most projects adhere to, but a good rule of thumb for a perfectionist is to only edit/review a quarter of the amount of time you spent on something. Chances are nothing horrific will have happened in that time frame. If you get anxious about leaving editing and reviewing for so many days, lessen the time frame between edits and working, but remember to keep the rule of thumb.
Divide the hours you spent writing by one quarter and only edit for that amount of time. The most important factor is to schedule your time frame to fit within your theoretical deadline. Remember: done is better than never finished.
Spoiler Alert: I’m Not the Ideal
I very nearly didn’t start my youtube channel because I was afraid of not being taken seriously because of my imperfect life. I don’t have my own minimalist apartment with my own office with white walls and wooden floors like all the other successful people I follow and admire. My rented apartment has dull cream walls and a dirty brown carpet which I hate. I don’t have a fancy coffee machine to that grinds my own beans, nor my own desk because we can’t fit one anywhere. In other words, I was afraid that my home would detract from the fact that I’m really awesome at what I do, that it would undermine the legitimacy of my hard work ethic, my organisation skills and productivity, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
Many of us see these pristine lives online as signifiers of true success; and yes, people get to that place in life because they’ve worked hard, but their lifestyles are the product of their hard work, not part of the process. Success is a process, and all these people who live in fancy homes were successful in their non-fancy homes too. How else would they get where they were today were they not? Many of us just didn’t see the unglamorous side.
Focus on the Process
I may not have the picture perfect apartment, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love my home and it doesn’t mean I’m not successful: I’m just earlier in my journey than the people I look up to. I’m grateful for everything, from the roof over my head to my draughty thin windows that let freezing air into the apartment. When we focus on the process we appreciate the excitement of the journey, the progress we’ve made and our potential for growth. Focussing on the results makes us feel inferior to others, unsuccessful, inadequate and incapable. It makes us resent and feel ashamed of where we are rather than appreciative of what we have and excited for who we are growing into.
To perfectionists, perfectionism almost feels like a moral conviction they cannot betray, and as a perfectionist, it’s likely you’re mentally, and possibly even physically, withdrawing from the steps proposed in this article. But impossible standards are an oxymoronic prerequisite to those striving for growth, success and productivity in life, and feelings of shame, self-hatred and inadequacy don’t propel us towards the person we want to be and the life we want to live. Allow yourself to proudly and unashamedly stick to the basics, ignore the nagging self-doubt and just get to work.
If you want to learn more about being 80% effective, then check out my previous article where I dive into this concept further. You can also follow my productivity and self-development journey here on Medium and on my Youtube channel.