Interviewer: What are your weaknesses?
Job applicant: I’m a Perfectionist.
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.
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.