5 Ways to Prevent Perfectionism from Sabotaging Your Success

by Brian on February 24, 2013 in Personal Development,Productivity

Do you have higher standards than everyone else you know?

Does it frustrate you that other people always seem content to leave things done half-assed?

I mean come on! Some of the mistakes people make are so glaringly obvious that it just doesn’t make any sense that they don’t seem to have any interest at all in fixing them. What is wrong with these people?!

If this sounds like you, then you just might be a perfectionist.

As perfectionists we suffer unique problems. From our work, to our conversational wit, to the precisely optimal temperature in our homes, we strive to optimize every aspect of our lives. It’s not enough to just do something until it’s “good enough” (whatever that means), it has to be done the right way. And if it’s not done the right way, well… it’s not really done now is it.

While the drive to pursue excellence–nay, to elevate the performance of our activities to a form of art–is a powerful asset that helps us become good at what we do, it also hinders us in ways that may be preventing us from achieving larger success in life.

Breathe a sigh of relief with me as I tell you that the answer is not to stop being a perfectionist. What we need is some mental judo to help us recognize where we are getting blocked, and refocus our energies to keep moving forward.

1. The 70% Solution

Whether it’s starting a business or simply getting our butt out of the chair to go talk to that guy or girl across the room, we often have troubles even getting started with projects–especially ones that feel important to us.

Do I have the right business plan? There seems to be a market for it, and the calculations seem plausible.. but, is it really right? What if I put years into this thing only to discover that my plan was flawed from the very beginning?

Do I have the perfect pickup line? I’d better plan out the whole conversation in my head before I get there and anticipate every response to make sure I get this right… Wait, where’d she go?

We mull over whether or not we have planned adequately for so long that opportunity slips us by. We further complicate things when we make it mean something about ourselves if we fail to plan correctly and let it stop us from even trying.

It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that when the military plans an attack, they plan until they are 70% sure of success and then they go. As World War II General George Patton said, “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

The reality is that we can’t really know the outcome of a situation with 100% certainty in advance. Sometimes we just have to take our best guess and go with it while the opportunity is still available.

2. Establish your MVP

This is where we get into perfectionism proper. Our work is just never quite perfect, causing delays in delivery. The pieces of this damn Ikea furniture just don’t line up at perfect 90 degree angles (but it looks fine to your friend who has no idea what you are talking about). If you follow the paleo diet like me, you might get into a paroxysm over whether your micronutrient balance is optimized.

There’s almost a skin crawly sensation that you can feel working its way up the underside of your fingernails that what you are working on refuses to be perfected.

We can bring to our aid one of the best ideas to come out of popular startup literature, the idea of the “minimum viable product” or MVP.

Basically the concept is that for developing the first version of your product, determine and implement only the minimum features required for it to perform its function. Save the bells and whistles for version 2.0, but get your MVP to market as quickly as possible.

Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn, even went so far as to say, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

The applications of the MVP idea are useful far beyond the bounds of product development.

Are you preparing a presentation for work or for a client? Figure out at minimum what you need to say and say it. Don’t worry about putting the perfect water mark on your powerpoint slides, or trying to squeeze in every single detail. The fact is whoever is looking at your presentation won’t care about the former, and will just get distracted from your main points by too much of the latter.

Have you been struggling with how to introduce yourself to a guy or gal in just the perfect way that they will be mesmerized and hopelessly attracted to you? Try just going over and saying, “Hi, I’m [your name].” According to Woody Allen, 80% of success is just showing up.

An MVP for the paleo diet would be make sure you’re eating the bulk of your calories in meats, fruits, and vegetables while minimizing grain, seed, legume, and processed food consumption. If you’re getting that part right, optimizing the hell out of your Vitamin B12 intake just isn’t going to take you that much further and is not worth the stress.

As for that Ikea furniture though… You’re just going to have to send that back, or pay someone else to do it. The pain never ends with Ikea furniture.

3. I’m okay, you’re not okay

Now getting back to those villains who say dastardly things like “just make it good enough,” they, unfortunately, are not going away. So we need a way to deal with them.

In my brief stint as a Hollywood production assistant and extra, I helped film a short with comedian Eddie Pepitone. During his pre-shoot warm up he was ad libbing jokes and said something that I will never forget:

Y’see, when I make mistakes it’s part of the process. Yeah… part of the process. But when other people make mistakes… well, that’s just wrong.

I think unconsciously this is the script most of us perfectionists have running in our heads. When we make mistakes and correct them as we are working on something they are almost completely invisible to us. We even pat ourselves on the back for how perfectly we corrected the mistakes as further testament to our awesomeness.

But when other people make mistakes, they stand out in bold relief. Even if they correct their mistakes, we stare on and wonder why they are such a bumbling idiot.

The truth is, we vastly overestimate just how perfectly we are doing things ourselves since we are blind to many of our own mistakes. There are also parts of our lives that we just completely let go. My desk, for instance, is notoriously messy. And I just can’t be bothered to wash my car that often because it just gets dirty again after a day or two of driving.

In the words of the eponymous 1970s self-help bestseller, we need to move out of this state of “I’m okay, you’re not okay” to a state of “I’m okay, you’re okay.”

Here are a few strategies you can employ:

  • Define (even if only to yourself) and accept minimum viable product (MVP) work from others
  • Deliver MVP work when asked to “just make it good enough”
  • Give people a break, help them fix their mistakes
  • Respect the necessity of mistakes in the growth process of others

If all else fails, sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and say to yourself “just let it go.”

4. Regularly delete your to do list

When we are in perfectionist mode we are particularly prone to never-ending to do lists.

This seems like a good idea.. oh, well, that does too. Put it on the list. And the list grows and grows.

A month later many of those things still seem like a good idea, but you don’t know when you’ll ever get around to them. You definitely do want to do them at some point though, so they stay on the list as it grows… and grows.

Your to do list becomes a source of stress, like an unpaid credit card balance on your time. You start to feel trapped by all the things you have to do, but don’t have time for.

You need to release and free that energy again.

I recommend simply deleting your to do list and starting from scratch a minimum of once per week. Only put things back on the list that you actually intend to do during that day or week.

I’ve written in detail about deleting your to do list before, so I won’t go into detail here.

5. The Serenity Prayer

If we’re honest with ourselves, we also have a mean streak of control freak in us as well.

Though I am not a religious man, I have found the serenity prayer helpful for coping with perfectionism in an imperfect world.

So as parting words of wisdom, I offer my secularized version of it:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sarah February 26, 2013 at 1:44 am

This pretty much describes me to a tee. I am a choosy perfectionist though, as I just do not care about some things, like the perfect temperature in my apartment. Being selectively perfect helps me stay relatively sane. Others may disagree about the sanity part. I guess this goes to #3 on your list.


Leave a Comment (real names only please)

Previous post:

Next post: