Do you spend hours on end trying to write the perfect email? Do you expect nothing but the best from yourself and your team? Is your work, along with that of your employees, never good enough?
Maybe you just have high standards.
Or maybe you’re a perfectionist.
While high standards can help you achieve your goals, perfectionism can hold back your true potential. In fact, perfectionists typically achieve less than their counterparts. Even worse, feeling like you need to be perfect all the time can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
This article discusses the definition, signs, and types of perfectionism and offers nine tips to help you and your employees overcome it in the workplace.
What is perfectionism, and what causes it?
Perfectionism is the desire to appear perfect at all costs.
Perfectionists often have unrealistic expectations for themselves (and sometimes for others, too), and they expect exceptional results no matter what. It doesn’t matter if the task is big or small, important or trivial — it has to be executed flawlessly. Failure to do so will be met with severe self-criticism.
Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that can stem from growing up in an environment based on conditional love. Other factors include a fear of failure, a need for control, and societal expectations.
What are the signs of perfectionism?
The first step to overcoming perfectionism is learning how to recognize the signs. You might be a perfectionist if:
- You find it difficult to do something unless you know with 100% certainty that you’ll be able to do it perfectly. And instead of starting it, you procrastinate with other tasks.
- You take longer than others to finish a task. For example, what takes someone else 30 minutes to complete takes you much longer because you want to make sure it’s flawless.
- You don’t consider a task finished until it’s perfect.
- You agonize over the results of a task. For example, you might redo a task repeatedly until you’re satisfied that it’s perfect.
- Your own standards paralyze you. For example, they make it difficult for you to start and finish a task, meet deadlines, or learn new things.
- Trying to meet your own standards gives you anxiety, stresses you out, makes you angry, or depresses you.
What are the different types of perfectionism?
There are three types of perfectionism, which we’ll describe below. You might only fall into one subtype or hold traits of all three.
1. Self-oriented perfectionism
Self-oriented perfectionism is when you place very high expectations on yourself. This tends to be the type of perfectionism most people are familiar with, and there are two ways you can express it: through personal standards perfectionism or self-critical perfectionism.
Personal standards perfectionism
Personal standards perfectionism occurs when you hold yourself to high standards, but this motivates and inspires you to perform better.
This is healthy because, while your standards may be high, they’re realistic and invigorate you instead of stressing you out. People with this type of perfectionism tend to be very productive.
Personal standards perfectionism can be considered an adaptive (helpful) form of perfectionism.
Like personal standards perfectionism, self-critical perfectionism occurs when you hold yourself to high standards. However, instead of finding those standards motivating and inspiring, they cause stress and anxiety.
That’s because there’s a gap between where you want to be (your standards) and what’s realistic for you, and it’s so wide that it intimidates you.
Self-critical perfectionism can be considered a maladaptive (unhelpful) form of perfectionism.
2. Other-oriented perfectionism
Other-oriented perfectionism occurs when you expect other people to perform to your unrealistic standards.
People with this type of perfectionism tend to be very critical of others and are often seen as controlling or judgemental. While they hold others to extremely high standards, they rarely expect the same for themselves.
Other-oriented perfectionism can also be considered a maladaptive form of perfectionism.
3. Socially prescribed perfectionism
Socially prescribed perfectionism occurs when you believe that others expect you to be perfect all the time and will be highly critical of you if you’re not.
People with this type of perfectionism try to meet what they think other people expect of them to avoid disapproval and rejection. This can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
Socially prescribed perfectionism is also considered a maladaptive form of perfectionism.
9 tips for overcoming perfectionism
You don’t have to let perfectionism ruin your life. Here are nine tips for overcoming it:
1. Become aware of your thoughts
Perfectionism can seep into your everyday life, so it’s critical to recognize when it happens so you can nip it in the bud.
Take some time to notice your thoughts and feelings around needing to be perfect, and write them down, if possible.
For example, how do you feel when you have to start a new, possibly important task? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you worry that your boss, colleagues, clients, or customers won’t like it? Are you reluctant to send it in for feedback because you’re not convinced it’s “ready” yet?
Sometimes, just being aware of your perfectionistic tendencies lessens their power over you.
2. Adjust your standards
This might be scary to perfectionists, who tend to be proud of their impossibly high standards; however, overcoming your perfectionism requires you to be more flexible.
That doesn’t mean accepting low-quality work, of course. But it does involve gradually upping your tolerance for imperfection.
Sure, it can feel like asking a grammar nerd not to cringe when they hear people use there, their, and they’re wrong. Or a cutlery expert to stay calm when they see someone using a dessert spoon to eat their soup. But adjusting your standards means setting more realistic standards, not doing away with them entirely.
You can ease yourself into adjusting your standards by asking yourself what level of imperfection you’re willing to tolerate. That goes for you and your staff — they’re not going to perform at their best 100% of their time, either, so your expectations of them should also be realistic.
Maybe you can try preparing a presentation in an hour instead of three hours, letting your colleagues see the first draft of your project, or not sticking to a script word-for-word when you’re talking to clients. You’ll probably find that nobody noticed the imperfections anyway — or if they did, they didn’t care.
3. Set reasonable goals
Perfectionists are notorious for setting goals that are impossible to achieve. Not only are they unrealistic, but they also leave you no room to make mistakes — which, ironically, causes you to make more mistakes.
But does that mean you shouldn't set goals at all? No! On the contrary, it means you should set smaller, more achievable goals and reward yourself when you meet them. By the way, people who write down their goals are 42% more likely to achieve them.
4. Avoid procrastination
One of the drawbacks of setting an unreasonable and unrealistic goal is that the sheer scale of it can paralyze you.
It’s like there’s a monster looming over you, and the only thing you have to tackle it is a measly toothpick. Seeing things from that angle can get overwhelming pretty quickly, almost to the point where you’d much rather do something else to avoid it.
According to research by author and productivity expert Darius Foroux, 80% of salaried employees procrastinate between one and four hours per day at work, while 76% of entrepreneurs do about the same amount of time. That’s most of the workforce! If a person who earns $40K per year procrastinates for three hours a day, they waste $15,000 yearly.
Being a perfectionist is stressful enough as it is, but procrastination only adds to that stress.
For example, a perfectionist who procrastinates might make up the hours by working overtime, leading to lower concentration and exhaustion. Or they might rush if there’s a scary deadline looming, leading to more mistakes. Both of these things lead to poorer job performance and possibly burnout.
To avoid procrastination, you can break each task into smaller, more manageable chunks so it doesn’t seem so intimidating. This can make it easier to start, which is a major win for overcoming procrastination (and perfectionism).
Remember, your work isn’t supposed to be perfect on the first go. If you really must, you can always refine it later. The point is to just get started — you’ll find it easier to gain momentum as you get the ball rolling.
5. See the forest for the trees
Perfectionists are detail-oriented. After all, if you’re going to do it right, you can’t skimp on the details.
But getting bogged down in every little thing uses up a lot of energy and is incredibly time-consuming — especially if you have a tight deadline.
So you’ll have to decide on what’s important and let go of what’s not. Using the 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle) might help.
For example, is using the right font on your presentation really going to make an impact in the grand scheme of things? Do you really need to phrase things just right, or is getting the general gist of it good enough?
At some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, so it’s best just to get things done to a reasonable standard. That’s especially true when you’re overseeing a team. After all, if everyone on your team is worried about negligible details, they won’t be able to get anything done!
6. Focus on the positives
As a perfectionist, you’re probably used to spotting mistakes in your work. And while it’s okay to make them (see below), it’s also important to recognize the positives in your work.
For every mistake you spot, try to find a couple of things you like about your work. You might not be able to get rid of that critical voice in your head, but you’ll be able to balance it out with something a little more appreciative.
Keep this in mind when giving feedback to your team, as well. While employees need constructive criticism to grow, finding the positives in their work shows them that you appreciate their efforts and will therefore motivate them instead of stressing them out.
7. Allow yourself to make mistakes
Speaking of mistakes, it’s absolutely okay to make them! In fact, you need to make mistakes to learn, grow, and do better. Easier said than done, we know.
Perfectionists are usually their own biggest critics, so it might be difficult to just accept that humans make mistakes. In moments like these, self-compassion can help.
When you catch your inner critic trying to bring you down, strive to replace the negativity with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness. After all, you’re only human!
8. Learn to handle criticism
Criticism can be hard to take if you feel like it’s an attack on you personally. You might react defensively or take it as a personal failure, developing low self-esteem as a result.
While some criticism can be like that (not to mention some people aren’t very good at giving productive feedback), constructive criticism is meant to help you learn and perform better. Like medicine, it might not taste good going down, but this kind of criticism is healthy and will take you from where you’re at to where you want to be.
Try to remember that constructive criticism isn’t an attack on you or your character. It’s advice that’ll boost your performance.
9. Attend therapy
While all these tips can help you manage your perfectionism, you might want more help from a professional. That’s where therapy comes in. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular, can assist you in overcoming perfectionism by helping you reframe your thoughts.
Therapy can also unveil the root cause of your perfectionism while giving you even more tools to overcome it.
A great tool, for example, is mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness in the workplace not only reduces stress but also increases your focus and makes you a more effective leader.
Want a little more help with overcoming perfectionism?
It’s not easy being a perfectionist.
Not only does perfectionism make it more difficult for you to perform your duties, but it also sucks the joy out of life. And it’s not exactly helpful, either, when you’ve got a deadline looming over your shoulder. Procrastination, anyone?
Let Motion simplify the process of overcoming perfectionism by helping you avoid procrastination.
Motion automatically prioritizes your tasks for you so you’re always looking at the bigger picture, and its intelligent algorithms ensure you never miss a deadline. Plus, you can get feedback from your colleagues right in Motion’s project manager.