How to overcome perfectionism

If you are someone who struggles to get started on a project or to complete complicated projects, you may be a perfectionist.  Things can never feel good enough and you may get stuck in a painful spiral of paralysis by analysis! Perfectionism is a much more complex personality trait than many people realize.  Ultimately, it is the desire for perfection that drives the perfectionist mindset. 

The perfectionist personality can be healthy and highly effective when high standards are required.  Healthy perfectionism can drive a person to achieve success, and it can be a valuable trait for overcoming adversity for some, it sets high self-motivation skills.  However, perfectionism is frequently a self-sabotaging behavior; perfectionism can also be a toxic trait that leads to a downward spiral of despair, anxiety, obsession, and feeling overwhelmed.

The root causes of perfectionism

Perfectionism likely stems from genetics or experiences in early childhood.  Opinions vary around whether perfectionism is a learned behavior or if some people are predisposed to perfectionism.  Some believe that a person may be genetically predisposed to perfectionism.  Scientific studies of twins indicate that genetics rather than upbringing and circumstance predispose a person to perfectionism.  The studies discovered that identical twins had a much closer perfectionism score than non-identical twins.   

However, many experts maintain that perfectionism can also be a learned behavior.  When a child is raised with high or even unrealistic parental expectations or those who never felt good enough or who learned to gauge their value by their achievements may learn to embrace perfectionism and show classic perfectionist traits. 

4 strategies to effectively overcome perfectionism:

1.   Acknowledging that perfectionism isn’t perfect

Whether the source of perfectionism is genetic or learned from environmental factors in early childhood, it is frequently a problem to be overcome for the successful completion of projects. Many people believe that the psyche of the perfectionist leads to high standards. However, that is not always the case because the high standards set by perfectionism may come at a price. Perfectionism can be a barrier to effective, efficient productivity. Furthermore, perfectionism is likely to stunt creativity, delay action, and create unnecessary stress for those involved. 

The first approach to dealing with your perfectionism is understanding the perfectionist trait. The better you understand perfectionism, the better you can work through the negative aspects of your perfectionism while utilising the advantages that perfectionism brings.

Perfectionism is a single personality trait that exhibits in three ways:

  • The self-oriented perfection which sets unrealistic aims to be perfect oneself  
  • Other-oriented perfectionism which is imposing unrealistic perfectionism onto others
  • Social perfectionism is having a perception that others require perfection from them.

A manager with perfectionism sets themselves or their team unrealistic goals. Frequently, the hardest part is getting started. The perfectionist usually sees things as success or failure; there is no in between. The problem is that this idealistic outlook means that you do not always live up to the exceptional standards you set yourself. You become so fixated on the end goal and making sure that the end project is perfect that you fail to start the project at all.

2. Pareto Principle or 80/20

As well as overcoming procrastination and failing to get started through over-analysis, there are recognized principles that can help you get started, including the Pareto Principle or 80/20 system. Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, developed the Pareto principle in 1896. Initially relating to the ownership of land in Italy whereby 80% was owned by only 20% of the population. He also observed the principle in other areas of his life. As well as economics, you can observe the phenomenon in sports, business, and time management.

Identify highest-impact priorities first

The Pareto Principle is a system worth investigating when you want to work efficiently. The trick is to work smart, not work hard; working hard and always being busy is not always as effective as working smart. The 80/20 rule is about doing the things that make the most significant difference to the project. In other words, use 20% of your time to achieve 80% of your work. It’s worth reminding yourself of this rule whenever you find yourself procrastinating. You can use the Pareto principle to help with time management. Work out the 20% that will have the most impact on the creativity and effectiveness of the project. Break these down into easily managed sub-tasks that help to streamline the project. By concentrating on the most effective areas for moving the project forward, you take giant leaps forward in productivity.

3. Addressing your exaggerated fear of failure

The element of perfectionism seldom encountered when learning about perfectionism is the fear of failure, yet that is the crucial element of the trait that is stalling you when you need to get started on a project. Perfectionism is subjective, and your idea of perfection as a perfectionist is holding you back!.

Ultimately, your fear of failure is holding you back, so you have to strategize to overcome your fear of failure. Finding the courage and resolve to accept that failure is not something to fear, that it is a normal part of growing the project will empower the perfectionist manager to find balance. Furthermore, mistakes along the way are not failures.

As a perfectionist, your fear of failure is so intense that it could hijack the whole project. It’s what holds you back from getting started. However, by learning to utilize the positives of perfectionism in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the project, you effectively manage your perfectionism and have the opportunity to learn from any mistakes. 

The perfectionist mindset will want you to hold onto the project until it is completely ready and perfect. Yet, it may never seem perfect to you. So what will you do then? 

  • Never complete the project and hand nothing in
  • Let down your team
  • Have nothing to show for all the hours spent procrastinating?

Not handing the work in is the biggest failure of all. The worst-case scenario is that it is preferable to do something, to have something to hand in rather than nothing at all. Correctly managed failure is a prodigious step towards the required outcomes.

How the concept works:

  • Firstly, realize that the only real failure is to hand nothing in. 
  • Realize that the project you perceive as not ready is acceptable to everyone else.
  • Realize that we learn through mistakes. 
  • See failure as a neutral, not a negative. Do this by rewording ‘failure’ when you think of it to ‘learning opportunity’.

4. Gain Continuing Feedback for Approval

Regular reporting to your manager or client is a valuable method to stop procrastinating and get the project started, then throughout the project to prevent your perfectionism from impeding progress. Don’t be afraid to ask a member of your team for advice and input. 

Approval from your manager or the client offers a confidence boost when you are at risk of going over and over the plan for the project or the pitch. To overcome the fear of failure requires letting go of control. Plan to report to your manager or client in steps along the way. Accept that each stage is a step towards completing the project. By asking for and gaining feedback at each stage, you will gain their input and ultimately approval about how the project is progressing. You learn from the feedback; it’s a tool to improve the work. 

Feedback helps you adjust your goals quickly

This methodology is similar to the concept of Minimum Viable Product (“MVP”), which is from Eric Ries’ book ‘Lean Startup’. MVP is a mechanism for validated learning through testing market reactions. MVP is a system built around feedback and validation. You use the feedback and validation at each stage of the project in the same way. You can find out more about MVP here.

When you select a trusted person from the team to co-work with, they can reassure you when the work is good enough. By co-working with another person in the team to go over the draft pitch, you may be surprised that the plan or pitch is actually completely acceptable. As a perfectionist, your mindset is biased to look for and concentrate on what needs fixing, looking for the faults and what is wrong. Another mindset will see all that is good about the work. When their honest opinion is that it is good enough, it probably is ready for submission.

Sharing stages of the project along the way will take some getting used to, but once you conceptualize and accept that doing so is a necessary strategy to get the project underway and to its satisfactory conclusion, you will overcome the resistance. 

By gaining approval when the stages submitted are acceptable, you teach your mind to work in a more accepting way. By accepting feedback when a stage is not quite right, you learn from it. You can’t learn without mistakes. Failure or mistakes are an option in stages; by breaking the project down into stages and acting on the feedback given, you are actually getting closer to achieving the perfect outcome for your manager or client.    When you break the project down in this way, each stage becomes a mini-project in its own right, thus simplifying the project into smaller goals which in turn, help it to become less insurmountable.

Conclusion

Various conceptual methodologies help you when you recognize the pull of perfectionism in your personality. We have shared these highly effective methodologies above. When you realize why the perfectionist’s perceived failure is frequently not failure at all, just part of the natural progression of the project, it’s how you learn from the failures along the way that counts. Being solution focussed and thorough are helpful to a project, but being overzealous about perfectionism is not. When you manage your perfectionism effectively, you actually move closer to the perfectionism that you seek through the mistakes made along the way.

References:

https://www.liquidplanner.com/blog/7-secrets-highly-productive-project-managers/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/productivity

https://asana.com/resources/pareto-principle-80-20-rule

https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2021/12/08/a-review-of-the-minimum-viable-product-approach/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/perfectionism

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/understanding-hypnosis/202204/overcoming-perfectionism-can-lead-enhanced-achievement

https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/being-a-perfectionist-may-lie-in-your-genes-scientists-112110500378_1.html

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/perfectionism

https://allthingstalent.org/2019/07/24/managing-perfectionist-workplace/

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ert.21370

https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/how-to-overcome-perfectionism

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