Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

9 Great Tips to Keep your Perfectionism in Check


Interviewer: What are your weaknesses?

Job applicant: I’m a Perfectionist.

Interviewer: Great!

Does this sound familiar? Perfectionism is one of those traits which is a double-edged sword, and is often secretly considered a good thing by those who have it. Similarly, companies and managers know that Perfectionists are likely to be a lot harder on themselves than their manager is, creating high quality work at their own expense, and beating themselves up for making a mistake or something not being quite right.

Perfectionism is characterised by a tendency to set standards for yourself which are impossible or extremely difficult to meet.  Instead of seeing making mistakes as a natural part of being a human being, the perfectionist will see mistakes as an indication of failure.  Because of this, Perfectionism can cause anxiety or stress and disappointment, as the person never or rarely lives up to their own impossible standards.  In addition, perfectionists tend to take a long time over work, and may ‘over-deliver’ – which sounds good until the client wants the same thing, at the same price, from all the members of the team, or your brother expects you to create the same amazing cake you created for his birthday for his partner’s birthday.

Perfectionists may also impose our impossible standards on others, which can make them difficult to live with or work with. Those who don’t have their standards and are happy to send out an email with a typo in it might not appreciate the feedback that an apostrophe is in the wrong place…

The key to managing perfectionism is relaxing your own standards, but this is a complex issue, and you will likely need to attack it from a number of angles.*  I’ve suggested 9 different ways to approach it here, but as a little bit of a perfectionist myself, would love to hear more of your approaches in the comments below.

1. Are you a Perfectionist?

The place to start is with a diagnosis. Is this an issue for you? Take a close look at the way you approach tasks and ask yourself these questions: Do others think my standards are too high?  Do I have trouble meeting my own standards? How often am I satisfied with my own work?  How do I feel when I make a mistake? How do I feel about disappointing others? How do I feel when others don’t live up to my standards? If you have strong responses to these questions, not in line with the majority of people you know, you should probably think about ways to  reduce your perfectionist tendencies.

2. Get some perspective.

You need to feel it’s ok to change, before you start thinking about how to change.  Look around you at colleagues, friends, bosses, managers, family.  Are they perfect? Do they ever make mistakes? What’s the real impact of those mistakes?  Write down three examples of mistakes you are aware of from one person in your work life and one in your home life.  Consider the impact of their mistakes and challenge your own thinking.  And if you don’t think they’ve made any, ask them.  You’ll be surprised.  Put their mistakes into perspective – it is both inevitable and natural for human beings to make mistakes.  They can also make us more likeable – Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability is  great to help us embrace a lack of perfectionism.  Or see her book Daring Greatly.

3. Get realistic about consequences.

Have a look at a previous project you worked on where you put in a lot more time and effort than others.  What would the impact have been if you had made a mistake in your work?  Were there particular areas where you could have spent less time? Can you differentiate the most critical areas of your work from the less important areas? How would others view the situation? What other views are possible?  Did you produce more than was asked?  Did anyone care?(!)

4. Start small.

Think of changing your perfectionism tendencies like weight training.  You need to start small.  A good starting point is emails.  Perfectionists tend to re-read emails many times before sending them.  Experiment with limiting the number of times you re-read an email once it’s been written to twice (I recommend this to get to Inbox Zero anyway!).  See what happens.  Other ways to start small might be to leave your desk messy at the end of the day; be late for a meeting; cut your preparation time in half for your next meeting.

5. Review the mistakes you have made.

So, when did you last make a mistake?  And what happened when you did?  Apart from your own reaction – which, it’s possible, may have been out of proportion – what was the reaction of others?  What was the material impact of the mistake?  Did the world end?

6. Make a deliberate mistake.

That’s right, mess up on purpose.  Leave a typo in a report, or an email.  Obviously if you’re a brain surgeon then don’t make the deliberate mistake in your core work, but make a mistake somewhere.  See what the actual consequences are.  And even if the consequences seem challenging, take the opportunity to realise you are more than capable of dealing with them.  If this feels too hard, then do something you’re not good at.  Try an art or music class, sing in a choir, learn another language – anything that will test you and where it will be almost impossible not to make a mistake.  Practise making mistakes.

7. Be positive even when it’s not perfect.

Choose a piece of work where you made a mistake, and pick out 10 great things about it, even if individually they’re quite small.  Perhaps it was submitted on time, the client said something nice about it, you got good feedback on working with others, someone else is using it in a different department, anything.  Be clear that nothing is ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’

8. Reduce the time you spend on your work.

This is one of the biggest challenges for perfectionists, who are often the ones staying late or coming in early.  Understand how much time you have been given by your boss for a suggested piece of work, and try to stick to that plus a maximum of 10%.  Use timers if necessary.

9. Delegate.

When you delegate, especially to someone who is new at a task, it’s very unlikely things will go perfectly.  Reassuring others that their mistakes are natural and something that can be learned from rather than something worthy of blame will help you cut yourself some slack in turn.

Most importantly, Give Yourself a Break

Don’t think for a minute I think this is easy. I have some of these tendencies myself – alright, quite a few – and I know how hard it is. So if you take one thing from this article, then it’s to just give yourself a break – keep this phrase in your mind, put it as your screensaver, or pin it on a post-it on the computer.

If you want to work on this issue in more depth, a good resource is Mind over Mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think, which looks at this issue and others which relate to it.

Are you a perfectionist? How does it affect you? What do you do about it? Tell us in the comments below.

*If you feel your perfectionism is preventing you from living a full and healthy life, you may like to seek professional help to support you.

8 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Caroline Leon September 2, 2014, 7:19 am

    This has been a bit of a problem for me in my life, in the main because being a perfectionist often starts me from starting things in the first place. Now that I work for myself and don’t have the same pressure to produce as I did working in an organisation it can sometimes be tough to get going with an idea if I can’t see perfectly what the end product will be. I’m learning though and actually being a blogger has been great for me because whilst I could easily tinker with one blog post for weeks, knowing I have an audience who want to hear from me, means I push myself to finish and stop editing (at some point!!). It feels reassuring to know I’m not alone with this :)
    Caroline Leon recently posted…Bridging the gapMy Profile

    • Ellen September 2, 2014, 2:17 pm

      This post definitely came from the heart – it’s something I continue to work on. For example, actually getting this site to launch hasn’t been easy as I’ve wanted to go over every post a thousand times to check for typos! But luckily I wanted to get it out there more, so that’s helped. And today I made a mistake on something to do with the site – and the world didn’t end! I think practising making mistakes, whilst weird, can be very helpful indeed to challenge the belief we have to be ‘perfect’.

      Thanks for sharing :-)

  • Sue Anne Dunlevie January 3, 2015, 12:53 pm

    Hi, Ellen,

    I’m a recovering perfectionist! Now that I’m in my 50’s, it’s so easy to see how perfectionism kept me from being truly happy in my 20’s. I’m so glad there are writers like you who help younger women ditch perfectionism so they don’t have to suffer with it like I did.

    On behalf of all perfectionists (and former perfectionists) everywhere, thanks for the great info! It really works and life does get better.

    Sue Anne Dunlevie recently posted…How To Handle The “Lack Of Time Monster” Before It Kills Your BlogMy Profile

    • Ellen January 3, 2015, 1:55 pm

      Thanks so much for this Sue – and it’s something many of us need to hear (though, I can’t believe you’re in your fifties from your gorgeous photo!!). Really appreciate your words of support for all perfectionists out there x

  • Debbie Hampton February 1, 2016, 2:38 pm

    Oh….as a reformed perfectionist, I love this. I think the tendencies will always be there, and as you point out, it’s not just a bad thing. My perfectionism has driven me to accomplish some amazing things in my life. However I do temper it now with practices, as you suggest above, mindfulness and compassion. I have learned to tell the perfectionist in me to chill out!
    Debbie Hampton recently posted…How To Work Your Brain In Your Workout (and why it matters)My Profile

  • Sandra Pawula February 1, 2016, 6:42 pm

    This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. I’m sitting on my free opt-in ebook and have been for a few weeks so I can look it over one last time and then have someone else proofread it too. Most of this material has already been published so it’s unlikely to have many typos, but there you go. And it’s a freebie! Although I think our freebies should represent our best work. Still, and I going to delay this several more weeks? I’m ready to put this up and look for typos afterward. I can always correct the book and upload a new version. Yeah!
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…3 Ways to Mitigate Morning StressMy Profile

  • Elle February 1, 2016, 8:38 pm

    Funny how we’re often on the same page Ellen. As a ‘recovering’ perfectionist I can relate to a lot of what you say. Not everything, but a lot. And maybe we never totally recover, but it’s always good to see how other people manage the perfectionism tendencies. :-)
    Elle recently posted…How to Stop Getting in the Way of Your Happiness and SuccessMy Profile

  • Lynn Louise Wonders February 2, 2016, 11:19 am

    I think delegating is the greatest exercise for a perfectionist! It can be anxiety inducing to trust someone else to get it done as well as we would do but I think it is an important part of that process of relaxing around having to have everything perfectly perfect. Thanks for a great article!
    Lynn Louise Wonders recently posted…Everything Is Constantly ChangingMy Profile

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