how to fight perfectionism and call a project complete

If you agonize over details and find it hard to ever call a project complete, you’re probably suffering from acute perfectionism. If you miss deadlines or neglect other work because you’re spending so much time trying to perfect a project that you can’t let you go, you’re at real risk of perfectionism harming your career.

Of course, a bit of perfectionism is a good thing. You want to be someone who produces excellent work, rather than rushing through and settling for something subpar. But perfectionism is a real problem if it causes you to spend far longer on something than most people would find reasonable, and especially when it interferes with your ability to juggle other priorities.

But you can retrain yourself to let go of projects and stop agonizing over whether they’re flawless enough. Try these five steps.

* Realize that not everything needs to be done perfectly. In many cases, getting something done reasonably quickly is more important than making it flawless. You might find it helpful to talk to your manager or others who are affected by your work to discuss their expectations. Would they be okay with a less “perfect” product if it left you with more time for other work? Do they care about the details you’re putting in hours to perfect? You might be surprised by the answers! You can also talk with others who do work similar to yours; pick people whose work you admire and find out what they consider the standard to strive for. You might learn that they don’t even think about some of the factors that you agonize over, because it doesn’t make much difference to the final output.

* Realize that sometimes merely “good” work is actually better than “excellent” work because it will leave you with more time and energy to work on other important priorities. After all, the costs of perfectionism can be missed deadlines or lower productivity, which are very much the opposite of  a perfect performance – something that perfectionists often overlook.

* Be honest with yourself about how much difference extra time will make. If you tend to spend an hour getting a sentence to sound just right, it’s probably not going to make enough of a difference in the final product to be worth the time you’re spending on it.

* Be clear with yourself about the trade-offs you’re making. If you spend two more hours reworking that draft, that’s two hours that you won’t be spending on something else. Do you have that time available to you, or will you be digging yourself into a hole with the rest of your work?

* Use an alarm to time yourself while you work or schedule your work in rigid chunks. For example, tell yourself that you’ll spend one hour working on that client report, and then you’ll move on to a second project. This will prevent time getting away from you and discovering that you’ve spent far more time than you intended on something.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. CrazyCatLady*

    I’m a mostly recovered perfectionist (but still beat myself over even minor mistakes for the rest of my life) and I love this point:

    “…the costs of perfectionism can be missed deadlines or lower productivity, which are very much the opposite of a perfect performance – something that perfectionists often overlook.”

    1. Artemesia*

      In my experience, perfectionists (including myself when I have done this) are often people who have trouble accepting that they are not that good at something i.e. ‘it is not great because I need more time’ rather than ‘this mediocre thing is the best I can do.’ Waiting and delaying and missing deadlines generally doen’t produce a superior product, just a later one.

      1. louise*

        Thank you. That’s an apt explanation of me. Or, I’m often afraid mediocre is the best I can do on something so I wait until the last minute/push the deadline/whatever so that the receiver thinks, “Oh, but she was really rushed on this–it’s pretty good, considering the circumstances.”

        1. Artemesia*

          You are in good company; all of us procrastinators are I think at heart looking for an excuse for less than perfection. I have done a lot of ‘pretty good’ writing this way including a couple of books — I suspect ‘pretty good’ is as good as I could do.

          1. jillociraptor*

            I think this is so apt. Through all of high school and college, I don’t think I worked on a single assignment before the absolute last minute (usually pulling all-nighters), for this reason and another shade of this reason: time pressure was the only strategy I found effective at quelling my anxiety about the quality of my work. If I knew I had to produce something in the next 6 hours, I was so much better at making good decisions about what was necessary, when I had made my point sufficiently, and so on, but without that time pressure, no matter how well outlined my paper was, or how well I knew the material, there was a 100% chance I would spend hours spiraling about “well, I’m not an EXPERT on the literature yet…” and “the cadence of this sentence is so awkward…” and “ugh, Teacher is going to know I’m a FRAUD”

            The one benefit of this, is that now I’m just bananas good at doing really high quality work on an extraordinarily fast timeline. But I am really only now developing better approaches to managing my anxiety, in my late 20s. (Big win: I ran for something I knew it was very unlikely I would win! I didn’t win! I was fine! These are major accomplishments for perfectionists!)

            On a related note, did you all see this article, “Exhaustion is not a status symbol”

            It’s an interview with Brene Brown, who talks a lot about anxiety and perfectionism in the context of the narrative of “crazy busy” – how articulating ourselves as “crazy busy” helps us to quell the anxiety that we are not important or necessary, and I think she hints at Artemesia’s idea too, that it lets us off the hook for lower quality work because, hey, everything’s an emergency, you did what you could.

  2. Artemesia*

    In my experience, perfectionists (including myself when I have done this) are often people who have trouble accepting that they are not that good at something i.e. ‘it is not great because I need more time’ rather than ‘this mediocre thing is the best I can do.’ Waiting and delaying and missing deadlines generally doen’t produce a superior product, just a later one.

    1. CrazyCatLady*

      Interesting! I was never like that as a perfectionist. If I wasn’t good at something immediately, I almost always gave up instead of thinking that more time would allow me to become good at it. (It just meant I gave up on A LOT of things!)

      1. hermit crab*

        Oh, that’s me too. I’m trying to break out of that kind of all-or-nothing thinking and it’s tough!

        1. CrazyCatLady*

          It really is! I think it’s partly because a lot of things that I’m good at just came naturally. So I assumed if I wasn’t immediately good at something, I was a failure and just gave up. I hate the mentality but it’s still hard to break away from.

          1. Dr. Doll*

            You may be interested in “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, a psychologist who studies exactly this phenomenon.

      2. Artemesia*

        This is one of the real drawbacks of being smart. So much is easy that when it is hard, people tend to give up as ‘not good at that’ instead of recognizing that much worth doing requires time and effort to master. It is particularly common in smart school kids who if not challenged and held to standards will not develop their talent.

      3. Aardvark*

        I’ve read that girls who are smart are taught that it’s intrinsic–either you have it or you don’t–and guys who are smart are taught that practice makes perfect. This means that girls/women tend to give up earlier on learning particular skills if they don’t “get it” right away. I wonder if perfectionism can be a different manifestation of this–in the workplace, you can’t just give up on something your boss wants you to do, so procrastinating to get some thing to 100% AMAZING is a way of covering for not being confident/not feeling like there’s a built in feedback loop that will help you improve.
        I think that’s part of my perfectionist tendencies–I tend to procrastinate and fiddle with the details if I don’t know 100% that I’ve done something well. I also have struggled with the same issue of giving up rather than persevering with tough subjects.

        1. Aardvark*

          Link to article:

          Key point:
          “When [girls] do well in school, [they] are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.
          Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.”

          1. Andrew*

            I’m not sure I buy this. I think boys and girls are both told they’re smart when they do well. It was true in my experience. The study isn’t comparing like with like. It’s comparing boys that do poorly with girls that do well. I’m sure if the girls weren’t doing well, they would also be told to put more effort in.

    2. Gobrightbrand*

      That hasn’t been my experience. Mine has been perfectionists are craftsmen first. The perfectionist tends to be a step in a progression of a project (like a designer working on taking copy and creating an ad that the communications team will then push out). So they hyperfocus on the crafting part of their piece of the project and don’t have the perspective of the place their portion of the project fits into the overall goal of the project. Like the designer worrying too much about the ad being beautiful but not considering there is a hard print deadline.

      I work with my team on this all the time. What is the lifespan of this project? What is the impact of this project? Will good enough get us the same results as amazing? I also tell them they need to care but not care at the same time. Do good work without getting overly emotionally invested.

      I am reformed perfectionists, and my work is not mediocre. I product excellent work faster than most people create poor work, but eventually things can become overworked.

    3. CaliCali*

      I feel like it almost needs a new name, because being a perfectionist is more than just trying to create something flawless. It’s partly a belief that your product is representative of yourself — as in, if this piece of writing is flawed, I AM flawed. If this graphic isn’t what the client is looking for, I AM not what the client is looking for. And it’s about seeking validation through the things you produce, rather than separating your work product from your intrinsic value. Being not-perfect at something isn’t the end of the world, but it can feel that way when your identity is wrapped up in that idea of being perfect — to where you’ll blow deadlines and essentially waste time and money in order to defend your intrinsic worth.

      1. CrazyCatLady*

        I feel that’s where perfectionism comes from – a flawed belief that if you are perfect, you will be valued finally (by yourself, by your employers, your parents, whomever). And if you perform inadequately or less than perfectly, no one will value you. There’s a great book on this topic – the Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I agree. It took me a LONG time to realize that my work or what I produce is not actually me. I still get bogged down in that thinking sometimes. But at least I’m aware of it now; that’s half the battle right there.

    4. Pipette*

      I would not call that perfectionism at all, but I have noticed that some people who do not realise they are bad at something frame it as a lack of time rather than a lack of skill. Based on anecdata of invigilating and marking undergraduate exams. There would always be a handful of students sweating over their exams until the last minute, when everyoune else had handed theirs in an hour ago. And they would always complain about the lack of time. And they would hardly ever pass.

      1. CrazyCatLady*

        I work with someone who calls themselves a perfectionist, and they’re always framing their under-performance as a lack of time. I think being a perfectionist can really be a form of self-sabotage in a lot of ways.

  3. MaryMary*

    Any suggestions on how to manage up on this, or is it something I should just let go? Our Chief Consulting Officer is terrible about this. He will spend hours finding the right visual, or have multiple meetings to go through reports word by word, or dedicate days to writing a one page article. I know he spends nights and weekends perfecting his work. He meets client deadlines but blows through internal ones, even those set by the CEO. I think now that he’s at an executive level, he can do things “the way they should be done.”

  4. Realistic*

    I am very grateful to an early mentor who taught me the “TTR model” — time-to-task ratio. When working on projects, he would say “I expect this will take you 3-4 hours. If it takes considerably less, check in with me regarding your understanding of the project. If it takes considerably more, check in with me regarding the quality of the project.” He would then help me adjust either my understanding of the work (“this is good enough” or “here’s where you need to improve this”) or the quality/priorities (“what more can you achieve in another hour of work?”). It was an amazing lesson in “when good enough is good enough.”

  5. Lynn Whitehat*

    Alison, you’re doing God’s work. I’m married to a perfectionist, and it’s really frustrating. For instance, he can’t ever help our young boys with their school projects, because he gets all wound up about producing essentially a doctoral dissertation about Abraham Lincoln or whatever, and then gives up entirely, “LET’S JUST SEND IN A PENNY AND SEE HOW EVERYONE LIKES THAT.” Dude, it’s the second grade.

    He started out majoring in computer science, but dropped out because none of his programs were ever perfect, so he decided he must not be any good at this. I’m a software developer, and he just realized about six months ago that no software is perfect. I mean, we wouldn’t ship with blatant, glaring errors. But sometimes if the Portuguese version is a little weirdly laid out on the page, or sorting a particular field is case-sensitive when you didn’t want it to be, or something, you choose to go ahead and give users the improvements you do have, even though it isn’t perfect. (And never will be.) My husband is sure this is deeply immoral.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      I have a friend who failed multiple classes in college because she refused to turn in a paper that wasn’t perfect. I myself did the same with a few pre-college assignments (and fortunately passed somehow).

      1. Anx*

        I did this fairly frequently, although ‘refused’ isn’t quite the right word in my case.

        A teacher may something to the affect of “I don’t want to see any poorly researched papers” and if I worried that mine wasn’t perfectly researched, I wouldn’t want to bother them with my poorly researched paper.

        That combined with the anxiety of perfectionism in general and I would just not submit it.

        I’ve had much fewer issues with perfectionism and anxiety in work because I felt as though I was doing a job and had a role to play and my worth was measured by what I could do for other people instead of how well I could do an academic assignment.

      2. Anx*

        Honestly, I think the best thing a lot of people can do is not look at perfectionism as a workplace issue. Of course it will affect your career and your work, but I think the fact that the word seems to come up in the context of interview questions and work styles can down play just how much perfectionism can subtly affect so many aspects of your life. I learned so much about perfectionism the moment I actually looked into it as a behavioral and mental health issue instead of a work style (I also finally recognized it in myself…someone who I never would have associated with perfection at all).

  6. ABC*

    OK – how does one differentiate between “good enough” and “perfect” ? I keep thinking – I need to do this bit…its essential when actually it might not be truly essential. How do I know?

    1. Regulant*

      I think this comes down to having clear objectives for the piece of work/project/whatever at the start, so you can check against those. What does success for this task look like? Then you can measure whether x is a requirement to meet those, or a add-on that would be nice to have but not essential. Then, once the work meets these criteria, it’s good enough.

      1. CrazyCatLady*

        I agree with all of this. I also would add that if you’re starting to ruminate or obsess over certain things, you might be leaning toward perfectionism.

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