How to let go of perfectionism and be more productive

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As an enthusiastic mature-aged student I was studious to the point of obsessive. But when it came time to write the final assignment of my favourite unit – a 5000-word essay on a topic of my choice – I froze. I couldn’t do it. I had to drop out. And guess what? When I enrolled in the unit the following semester the same thing happened again.

A version of this writing nightmare has happened to me a few times. More than a few times, if I’m being honest. I have an ideal in mind, and I’m so afraid I won’t reach it, I can’t begin.

This is perfectionism. And perfectionism, unfortunately, is the enemy of living a productive life.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is having unrealistic standards of yourself or others. Perfectionists strive to achieve impossible results, and get frustrated by their inability to achieve them. In a nut shell? Their best is never good enough.

Perfectionism is often seen as a positive trait because it looks like discipline. It’s like when my hairdresser told me she was a perfectionist, I was impressed and thought it meant she was meticulous and I wasn’t in danger of leaving the salon with a mullet.

What really happened? I ended up sitting in the chair for hours while she procrastinated. I left with resentment and an average haircut.

The downside of perfectionism

To the outside world perfectionists look successful. They’re working around the clock, and some are producing great work. Others, however, aren’t producing much at all.

This is because perfectionism is about fear — fear of failing, fear of judgment, fear of whatever your mind can conjure up as an excuse not to start. This fear is often connected to deeper fears of not being good enough, and this is why it can be so tough to unravel.

A study of perfectionism and academic productivity of psychology professors by psychology expert Dr. Simon Sherry at Dalhousie University found perfectionism negatively affected the frequency and quality of their publications. They became so paralysed by the pressure their perfectionism created they could barely work at all.

"Perfectionism may represent a form of counterproductive over-striving that limits research productivity," says Dr. Sherry.

I can relate. Sometimes the pressure I put on myself can become so immense I’m unable to start a project which, of course, produces even more stress because my perfectionism is usually sparked by projects I care about a lot.

“The costs of perfectionism outweigh the benefits,” says perfectionist researcher Gordan Flett. This isn’t just in terms of productivity. Dr. Sherry says, “Academic literature has established that people high in perfectionism encounter more stress, health concerns, mental health issues and negative life events.”

So not only are we unable to get anything done but we’re stressed, burnt out and down on ourselves.

How to let go of perfectionism and be more productive

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So what can you do? How do you combat fear and move past perfectionism? There are some ways you can overcome it.

1.  Accept your expectations are impossible to reach

Acknowledging you are a perfectionist is a great start. You’ll begin the process of accepting that your expectations are unachievable, and this will take the pressure off. Know that you won’t be able to achieve the standards you set yourself and that it’s okay to just be good enough.

2. Check your thinking

When you’re faced with a daunting task that you know will trigger your perfectionism, listen to your thoughts. You’ll probably hear things like, “I have to get this right,” or “what if I can’t do this?” Observing your thoughts creates a space where you can replace them with new, helpful ones. Anxiety Canada suggests replacing negative thoughts with thoughts like, “nobody is perfect,” and “all I can do is my best.” Soon enough you’ll believe them.

3. Focus on the process, not the outcome

It’s that age old adage — it’s the journey, not the destination. Ask yourself how you feel while you work? What’s inspiring you during the process? Forget about what you’ll achieve and focus on what you’re doing. The finished product will probably end up better this way anyway. And if you make a mistake? Well, then, you learnt something. 

4. Done is better than good

The best perfectionism advice I’ve ever received I found in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. She said, “done is better than good.” What? Aren’t we meant to be producing GOOD work? Yes, of course. But if you’re too precious about the quality, you’ll freak yourself out before you even begin. Done is better than good is another thought to replace the ones that paralyse you. This mantra has saved my arse numerous times.

5. Let it go

If you feel like you messed up, try and make a note of what you’ll do better next time, but then let it go. Keep going. Otherwise you’ll waste precious time you could be using working on your next project. There was work before, and there’ll be work after. As important as this project feels right now, another one will come along.

How do you deal with perfectionism? I would love some more tips. Comment below.