Perfectionism is often driven by striving for excellence. It can also be self-impairing. Often times, there are three big mistakes that tend to kill perfectionists’ productivity.
Productivity isn’t about getting more done. It’s about what you get done. Three aspects of perfectionism can interfere with your ability to prioritize the most important tasks.
1. You’re reluctant to designate decisions as “unimportant.”
One argument is for unimportant decisions, you should either decide quickly or delegate the decision.
But perfectionists have hard time designating decisions as unimportant. They like to be in control of everything. This is because the imperfections bother them more than they do others. If something goes wrong, perfectionists feel frustrated and causes irritation that’s hard to ignore, and they don’t want to risk.
Sometimes, perfectionists are so accustomed to micromanaging that it doesn’t even occur to them that any decision is unimportant. They automatically think everything is worthy of their full effort.
Solution: A perfectionist can learn to give up control over some choices if they pay attention to how good it feels to be relieved of the decision-making burden. Try using heuristics to quickly decide or delegate with the expectation that you will get much faster and pretty good decisions overall but not perfect ones. For instance, one of my heuristics is: if I’ve thought about doing something three times, I will get on and do it without further deliberating.
2. You feel morally obligated to overdeliver.
The belief that you need to beat expectations in any situation can manifest in many ways.
Let’s say someone pays $1,000 for a service. If you’re a perfectionist, providing that value might not seem like enough. You might think that you need to give what your competitors would charge 1.5X for because you always strive to outperform. You think: “If I don’t overdeliver, I’m underdelivering.” The key point is that you believe what’s generally reasonable doesn’t apply to you, and your own standard needs to be different.
Sometimes this line of thinking comes from wanting an excessive cushion; for instance, you think “if I aim to deliver 1.5X or 2X value for all the services I provide, then I’m never going to under-deliver.” It can also be driven by anxiety, insecurity or imposter syndrome; for instance, you think the only way to prevent anyone from being disappointed with you is by always exceeding expectations. Perfectionists also sometimes imagine there will be unfavorable consequences if they fail to overdeliver.
Solution: Have a plan for how you’ll course-correct if you notice these thought patterns. Understand what’s neglected to always aim for outperformance. What else don’t you have time, energy, and focus for? Perhaps your bigger goals. If you assess that the costs are significant, try having a rule of thumb for when you’ll overdeliver. For instance, you might decide that in six out of ten situations in which you have the urge to overdeliver, you will, but not in the other four.
Situation-specific habits can help you, too. For instance, if I receive more than six questions for an article they’re working on, I’ll generally answer six or so questions in detail, and either minimally answer or skip the others. I probably give better answers using this strategy because I focus on the areas in which I add the most value.
3. You get excessively annoyed when you aren’t 100% consistent with good habits.
When perfectionists want to adopt new habits, they tend to fall into one of three categories. They bite off more than they can chew, and their plans are too onerous to manage; they avoid starting any habit unless they’re 100% sure they can hit their goal every day, which leads to procrastination; or take on only those habits that they can stick to.
Flexibility is a hallmark of psychological health. You need to have the capacity to take a day off from the gym when you’re sick or just got off a late flight, even if it means breaking a streak. You should also be able to shift away from habits that were once important to your productivity or skills development but that you have outgrown. Maybe as a beginning blogger, you vowed to post thrice a week, but now that’s burning you out.
Solution: Have a mechanism in place for checking that you’re not sticking to a habit just because you are obsessed by self-discipline. If you’ve never missed a workout or a habit in two years, it’s likely there were some days when getting it done wasn’t the best use of your time. Review the opportunity cost of any such activities or habits to make sure they are currently the best use of your physical and mental energy.
Perfectionism is often driven by striving for excellence, but it can be self-sabotaging if it leads to suboptimal behavior like continuing habits beyond their usefulness, overdelivering when you don’t have to, or overthinking or overanalyzing every decision you make.