Reality Check: The Perfection Trap

How do you feel about this statement: “If I can’t do something perfectly, I may as well not do it at all”?
While different people have different attitudes toward perfection, there are some situations where perfect accomplishment is what we want. For example, if I can choose between a perfectionist and her “win-some, lose-some” colleague, then I would like the perfectionist for my brain surgeon, please.
On the other hand, if I’m paying by the hour to have my firewood stacked, I could be quite happy with an imperfect pile, as long as it doesn’t fall over and saves me some money.
While perfectionism takes time, and possibly money, I’ve also observed that it can reduce joy. For example, a perfectionist who learns a new skill may not want to try using it until they feel perfectly accomplished. A perfectionist artist may miss out on recognition from an appreciative audience if they won’t display their work unless it meets their perfect standard. A perfectionist parent may never feel the joy that comes with knowing they’ve done enough.
If perfectionism is holding you back, we both know that suggesting that you turn off your perfection switch isn’t going to help much. Yet, the reality is that everything doesn’t rate “perfect treatment.”
We only have a finite amount of times in our lives. If we’re going to put energy into making something perfect, it’s more satisfying to do so where it matters. I could, for example, spend time building a perfect mound of kibble in the dog’s dish. But the dog doesn’t care and the kibble, whether artistically arranged or not, disappears in seconds. Unless kibble-arranging gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, then there are better uses for the time.
The organizing guru, Julie Morgenstern, has a suggestion I thought might be helpful. She encourages “selective perfectionism.”
Morgenstern defines three levels of perfectionism: maximum, moderate, and minimum. If you are struggling with a task, picture what each level would look like.
Let’s say you are struggling with cleaning out your clutter of paperwork.
A maximum perfectionism level might have you carefully read each piece of paper, reminisce about the memories, and then ponder exactly where it should go. Put it there.
A minimum perfectionism level might be like this: Find 3 big boxes. Label them “Keep,” “Discard” and “Think about later.” Toss each paper into the appropriate box. (Here’s hoping that “Think about later” isn’t the only box with anything in it.)
Finally, a moderate level might call for labeling boxes with more specific categories, such as old bills, sentimental greeting cards, essential legal papers, and so on. Quickly sort each paper into the appropriate box. When you’ve gone through that initial sorting, then you can decide whether you want a higher level of decision-making for what to store permanently, what warrants more careful sorting, and what can be discarded.
As is so often the case in these columns, the big takeaway is to recognize our choices. Some activities benefit from perfection, but not all. If a task is so overwhelming that you can’t bear to get started, then this approach might at least help you make progress in a good direction.
Does perfectionism ever hold you back? How do you handle that?

This entry was posted in Control and Choice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.