INTRODUCTION

Not too hot, not too cold. Not too hard, not too soft. The middle is just perfect. Goldilocks got it right. Or did she? Was Goldilocks a perfectionist?

The quest for “better” can take you from earnestly striving for excellence to demanding perfection from yourself and from others and accepting nothing less. And since perfection is a realistic impossibility, the quest for perfection can lead you down a path to unceasing disappointment.

This is why perfectionism is such an obstacle to productivity. If you cannot release your work to your client because it is just not right, if you cannot move on to the next task because you can’t let go of what you are currently working on, then you simply cannot be productive.

Since our articles focus on how to be more productive, continue reading to learn more about perfectionism and how it can be a huge obstacle to improving your productivity.

WHAT IS PERFECTIONISM?

Perfectionism is an actual clinical term describing a condition in which a person accepts nothing short of absolute perfection.

Perfectionism is a very tricky beast. It is a great motivating tool, as it drives us to continuously improve our work, our appearance, and many other aspects of our life. But when nothing less than perfection is acceptable, then nothing is acceptable because perfection is realistically impossible. So nothing winds up being “good enough,” and our lives can become physically or mentally crippled.

In fact, Psychology Today says that perfectionism is “a fast and enduring track to unhappiness, and…is often accompanied by depression and eating disorders.” That’s right. Out-of-control perfectionism can be as crippling as obsessive compulsive disorder or some other uncontrollable condition because it controls us, rather than the other way around. It can lead to higher stress levels, depression, anxiety, and a host of other negative impacts on your life.

HIGH STANDARDS VS IMPOSSIBLE STANDARDS

It’s perfectly fine to have high standards. In fact, high standards are a common trait among highly successful people. If you push yourself to write better stories, bake better cakes, or build a better mousetrap, the results can be astounding and can have profound impacts on the overall success and quality of your life. However, there is a big difference between high standards and impossible standards, and successful people know when and where to draw the line.

You must recognize when your perfectionism is out of control, and when it is hindering your productivity. If you think your perfectionism is under control because it is not impacting your life in noticeably detrimental ways, think again. Even if you have tendencies toward perfectionism, but you don’t consider yourself a full-blown perfectionist, it is almost guaranteed that it is affecting your life in small ways. And those can add up to big negative impacts.

ARE YOU A PERFECTIONIST?

Perfectionists often do not consider themselves impaired by their habits, so if you want to know whether or not you are a perfectionist, a good tip would be to ask others who know you personally if they would consider you to be one. You may be surprised by their answers. If the majority say yes, then you have some serious self-evaluation to do.

Health Central has a great resource if you are on the fence about whether or not you are a perfectionist. Some of the signs you might be a perfectionist include the following:

• You avoid activities in which you will not be the best, or may even come in “2nd place.”
• You sacrifice your own well-being to make something perfect.
• You are highly critical of mistakes, and you obsess about your previous mistakes.
• You continue working on a project long past when it was complete, or when others would have stopped.
• You think asking for help is a sign of weakness.
• You need to be in control.

WHEN DOES PERFECTIONISM WORK AGAINST US?

If perfect is the ideal, then why is perfectionism bad? Does it mean we are settling for something inferior when we call something “done” and it still – in our opinion – could use a little work? Are we letting others down by not producing perfection every time? Those are good rationales for continuing to work on a project long after another reasonable person would consider it finished. But when we use those justifications for every project we undertake, for every outfit we select, for every time we clean the house, we simply would not get anything done in a reasonable amount of time. And that is the crux of productivity.

If you wait for perfect, you'll never get anything done

Law of Diminishing Returns

There is a tenet in business called the Law of Diminishing Returns that is very applicable to perfectionism. This law refers to the point at which an investment of resources – time, energy, money, staff – begins to pay off less and less. For example, let’s say you invested $500 in advertising and it resulted in $5,000 worth of additional sales. And for the next $500, it also resulted in $5,000 worth of additional sales. It makes sense to think that an investment of $50,000 should result in $500,000 worth of additional sales, right? Nope.

The Law of Diminishing Returns states that there is a point at which the money invested into advertisements will not produce the same results. Let’s say the third time you invested $500, you only saw $4,000 in increased sales. And the fourth time, you only saw $200 in increased sales. When the benefits start dropping drastically, you have reached a point where it becomes less and less justifiable to continue increasing the amount of money you invest in advertising.

This law is a perfect analogy to the efforts of a perfectionist. Let’s say you are a graphic designer. Every initial hour you spend on a project yields a great return – to a point. As you turn an idea into a finished product, there will be a point at which the improvements are so minor that the average eye would not be able to tell the difference. You can tell, because it’s your creation and you keep looking for the flaws, for the minor imperfections that you can’t let go because of your nature as a perfectionist.

Now let’s look at all the ways that persisting past the point of optimal return on investment will negatively impact this situation:
• Your customer – who would have been pleased as punch at your project after the fifth hour – is now extremely unhappy at being billed for ten hours when the product looks about the same to him as it did at five hours,
• Your other customers become frustrated because their projects are delayed,
• Your family gets angry because you have to stay so late at work,
• You have to cancel a personal appointment to make time to catch up your work,
• …and on and on.

Perfectionism leads to a vicious cycle of disappointment, frustration, stress, and a host of other problems. You will never be able to catch up, much less get ahead, when you are constantly playing catch-up on all your projects. It is best to train yourself to let go of a project when you reach the point of diminishing returns.

Procrastination

Speaking of vicious cycles, no one can better attest to the endless cycle of stress and panic about due dates and deadlines than a dyed-in-the-wool procrastinator. A perfectionist can and will often procrastinate rather than finish a project he or she considers inferior, or he or she may avoid a project altogether because the results are not expected to be the absolute best.

Procrastination is avoidance, plain and simple, and it is a clear obstacle to improved productivity . A common precursor to the tendency to procrastinate is the tendency toward perfectionism.

Expectations

Managing expectations is a crucial component of improved productivity, as MushMonday has mentioned in other articles, and perhaps nowhere does it come into play more than when we discuss perfectionism. This refers not only to your own expectations of performance, but others’ expectations as well.

Holding ourselves to an impossible standard is, obviously, a poor expectation of our own performance. If we expect nothing but perfect output, we will delay submission of our work, avoid participating in projects that we are uncomfortable with because of an expectation of second-best, and we will beat ourselves up repeatedly for the smallest mistake or imperfection. That is no way to live life, and certainly no recipe for living life happily or productively.

Perfectionists need to change their expectations of themselves. Forgive small mistakes. Let them go entirely. Free yourself from the need, not the desire, for only the highest standard of performance. Learn how to move on from what you believe to be a substandard result, because chances are no one believes your work is substandard but you. Imagine the freedom from added stress and worry and all the accompanying time management woes.

Managing the expectations of others is crucial for a perfectionist as well. If your standards for yourself are impossibly high, it is unlikely that you let others off the hook very easily for their perceived faults or failures. Your too-high expectations of others will lead to very poorly managed relationships and a lot of wasted time.

Take one simple example of painting. If you hired a contractor to paint your home’s interior walls, and the project turned out great except for one or two spots that you believe should have been done better, it is unlikely that you will pay the contractor without mentioning the imperfections. Even if the spots are barely noticeable, they jump out at you because of your high expectations. Your disappointment or frustration with the contractor puts that relationship at odds. The time you spend stewing about the spots is absolutely wasted. There is a happy medium somewhere between letting someone off the hook for sub-par performance and having too-high expectations of others, and you need to find that happy spot in the middle if you want to improve yourself and your productivity.

HOW DO I CONTROL MY PERFECTIONISM TO INCREASE MY PRODUCTIVITY?

Obviously, the first step to removing perfectionism as an obstacle to your productivity is to recognize you have this issue and it needs to be corrected. As mentioned, you may not be able to accurately gauge your own problem (or lack thereof) by yourself. Look to others for help here. Ask for their opinions and be prepared to hear things you may not be happy about. One of the signs of perfectionism is an inability to reasonably accept criticism. Be aware of that as you evaluate yourself. Understand that you are trying to improve yourself and your productivity here. It is not always easy, but if successful, it is always worth it.

If you determine you have a problem with perfectionism, then you can move on to the methods and techniques to controlling it. Read on here.