Breaking the Perfection Habit

Breaking the Perfection Habit

by Penelope Trunk

Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007, 12:00AM

I'm not a perfectionist. In fact, when I painted my walls I didn't paint near the windows because I didn't want to do the detail work. When I accidentally address an envelope upside down, I don't get a new envelope.

You know what? Doing those things hasn't made my life any worse. It hasn't made me unhappy, and it's freed me up to do other things besides worry about if what I do is perfect.

A Lack of Perfection = Perfection

I have a good eye for how well something has to be done in order to accomplish what I need to accomplish, and it's one of my favorite traits about myself. The good that comes from a lack of perfection is that I can set a lot of goals for myself because I get them done.

Here are the reasons I can't stand perfectionists:

Perfectionists procrastinate because they're scared of not being perfect.

Perfectionists are hypercritical to the point that they can't support people around them.

Perfectionists can't finish a project because they can always think of a way to improve it.

Perfectionists are phony, because no one's perfect and they can't handle showing that in themselves.

Four Steps to Imperfection

Here are four things to think about if you're letting perfectionism dictate your life:

1. You get more done if you don't sweat the details.

My disdain for details started when I looked around at all the people who are disappointed with their lives. For the most part, these are people who wish they'd done something that they didn't do for fear of failure. In the worst cases, these people have whole lists of such things. Then I saw a bumper sticker that read, "What would you do if failure were not an option?"

When I went through my own list of what I would do, I decided that if I stopped worrying about failure I'd be able to do a lot more. So I started focusing on just getting stuff done instead of getting it done perfectly. Details fell by the wayside.

I also noticed that once I stopped worrying about doing something perfectly, I didn't have nearly as much reason for procrastination. It's easy to start something if you tell yourself that getting it done 70 percent perfect (as opposed to 100 percent) is OK.

Believe it or not, in most cases 70 percent perfect is fine for what we do. The trick is to balance fearlessness with attention to detail and understand when you need to concentrate on each.

2. You do better work if you aren't worried about perfection.

Here's a story I heard from Alexander Kjerulf, who was talking about David Bayles's book " Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking":

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced. All those on the right would be graded solely on their works' quality.

His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the quantity group; 50 pound of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on quality, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an A.

At grading time, the works with the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of clay.

Think about this in your own life, even if you're not using clay. The more you practice, the better you'll get. But you can't practice if you think only of perfection. Practice is about making mistakes; perfection comes from imperfection.

3. Working the longest hours doesn't mean you're doing the best work.

Usually, the hardest worker in an office is a perfectionist. This begs a few questions: Why does this person need to work harder than everyone else? Is she slow? Is she stupid? Is she avoiding her home life?

The people working the hardest are usually stuck on getting all the details perfect, but they've lost sight of one of the most important things — which is that you look desperate if you work more hours than everyone else. The person working the hardest looks incompetent, either at managing their workload or at managing their family life.

Of course, you don't want to work the least number of hours, either. But you want to fall somewhere in between. People who work very long hours are inefficient and sometimes get so little sleep that they're performing at the level of a drunkard at work . So cut back your hours, and even if you do things with less attention to detail in order to get them done faster, they might actually get done better because you have a better handle on the time in your life.

4. Stop procrastination by stopping perfectionism.

One of the biggest productivity problems is procrastination. And one of the biggest contributors to procrastination is the feeling that we need to do something perfectly.

The key to ending procrastination in your life is to be honest about what you're really doing with your time and energy. Look closely at why you've made the bar so high that you can't even start. Procrastination can only flourish in a situation where perfection is so clearly demanded and so intrinsically impossible that inaction seems preferable to action.

So be honest with yourself about why being perfect is so important to you. Perfectionism doesn't make people happy, and often makes them nutcases.

And remember those clay pots — they represent all the creativity and excitement you could unleash if you'd let the attention to detail slip a little.



Leave a Reply

RSS Daily Search Trends