Is Perfectionism Holding You Back?

You're ambitious. Of course it's important to do the best job that you can--but is your perfectionism preventing you from ever getting that pet project done?

Is your obsession with perfection keeping you from achieving your goals? Share your woes--and your solutions--in the comments section below.

I had dinner with a friend this week. Let's call her "Alice." Alice, like me, is a journalist, and one of the smartest and funniest people I know. Even though she's younger than me, I look up to her--she's very talented and I learned how to do my job better by emulating her. Like most people who work in online media, she's extraordinarily busy.

At dinner, Alice surprised me by confiding that she often doesn't finish things she sets out to do--cleaning her apartment, working on her novel, applying for jobs, even cooking a nice meal--because she is such a perfectionist that she can't work on a task unless she has the time and energy necessary to do it perfectly. Sometimes she puts a task off so long, hoping she'll find enough time to make it perfect, that she ends up rushing to get it done at the last minute. Later, over IM, Alice told me she feels "permanently disappointed in myself" and "overwhelmed," "like I am on a treadmill that I can't get off of but also like I am on the verge of being perfect, if only I had the time to sit down and do it well".

I realized that I've let perfectionism keep me from finishing certain projects--for example, I've held back on making my personal website public for ages, because I always feel as though it's not good enough yet. It turns out many of my friends are like this.

"Claire," for example, published an excellent book but has taken three months to write a short sitcom treatment. "It should be done," she admits. "I feel like I cannot get this character right. The changes I make do not probably make a discernible difference to anyone but me, but I can't help it and it just delays everything. Then I have to panic to get my other work done because I focused too long on this unpaid project." When we were in school, "Janice" used to hand in homework late--not because it wasn't done, but because she didn't think it was perfect. "My perfectionism affected my time management skills," she says. It's still an issue now that she's a homemaker. "I can't even cut into a veggie or fruit sometimes without Googling the best way to do it."

At least one friend knows how to talk himself off the perfectionist ledge and get stuff done. "Perfectionism is a terrible, paralyzing trap," muses Rolando Pujol, who runs one of the best New York history blogs in the city. "Basically, with a blog post, in my mind I know I can enhance it by taking more pictures or doing this or that. If I'm not going to have the time, I say, 'This is the best I can do,'" he tells me. "I'd rather do something with what I have than do nothing. It's fighting a compulsion, but once you hit publish, it looks pretty good and people respond and you're like, "Why was I so hard on myself? This is great!"

And that's the thing. My website is probably fine. Claire's treatment is probably very funny, and Janice's salad won't taste worse if she sliced the fruit incorrectly. Alice has so much talent that anything she puts to paper will likely be better than what most of us write in a lifetime.

How can we get over these perfectionist urges that are keeping us from accomplishing our goals? Is what we call "perfectionism" actually a sign of something deeper--a lack of self-confidence in our abilities, or fear of how other people will receive our work? Do you struggle with the same problems? Share your perfectionist woes--and your solutions--in the comments section below.

[Image: Flickr user Timmy]

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95 Comments

  • Daniel Dogeanu

    I actually reject clients because they want me to build something less then perfect and less than my abilities. Because of that I'm dirt poor, even though people say I'm a good designer.

  • Dominique Laruex

    It addresses a real issue I struggle with all the time. Im always hard on myself because I want to beat the critic(s) to the punch. Im getting to the point where I stop caring so much about someone else's opinion. As a creative I deserve the FREEDOM to be open to opportunities that allow me to be active and present in my own voice. Anything that comes from that allows me to grow for the better.

  • J.

    This is exactly why it's taking me so long to graduate. Every assignment -big or small- has to be inspirational, original en above all creative. You don't want people to think that you're not suitable for the job, incompetent or even stupid. Other people finish this study in 4 years, I will hopefully graduate after 7 years. And you know, the fact that this is a long time makes it even worse.

  • Gerard

    All good stuff particularly "Perfection is judgment  Excellence is accepting"

    As a musician, a recording artist & jazz improviser I try and remind myself at each performance and especially during a recording that it's "one moment in time".  That's why 1st takes are often the best.  Over thinking anything is deadly.  The only way to improvise or create spontaneously is to not censor yourself while you're doing it.  There can't be any negativity during the process.  It's got to be pure acceptance.  No looking back just moving forward.  Coming from a very critical background it's much easier said than done but it's the only way.  

  • Dani

    I am going to use bullet points to avoid perfectionism getting in the way of my composition.
    - You have described the problems clearly, and I agree with the possible causes you have listed at the last paragraph.
    - Perfectionism has its advantages though.
    - Recently, I am fighting the problems of perfectionism not by lowering my standards, but by devoting my time to few important things. When you only give time to the things you really care, you will do it right

  • Matt Ezell

    There definitely is a link between perfectionism and procrastination for me. I prefer to sit down and knock out an eight hour project all at once but rarely have the ability to set aside that kind of time. Just need to learn to use four two-hour chunks to accomplish same work, I suppose.

  • Patrick Vice

    Could find a citation (didn't look too hard), but it's reality anyway: "Real developers ship."

  • Dr. Anil Batta

    Seeking perfectionism is not a bad thing but making it way of your life is bad.What you write may be perfect for you but it could be garbage to me.So work hard and never assume that what you have done is ultimate.It can be a nice beginning.

  • Frances Marin

    Hit the nail on the head for me! I have always been a perfectionist, though it has held me back again and again. Thanks for the reminder that it holds us back from our goals!

  • Patricia

    Often we don't know the next 'right' step so we do nothing. We get overwhelmed which stops us in our tracks. A technique I use is called ANRQ - asking the next 'Right' questions which focuses on not asking the next logical practical question but digging deeper and asking ourselves the harder questions to propel us forward. This process will jumpstart activity and leave you with an exciting outcome.

  • Andrew

    Love your comment, Rahul. One perspective on your fear about transacting too early (and painting a picture of yourself as a low quality producer) would be: consider a draft to be a complete transaction. Then step back from it & edit it to make it better. Another transaction. Another victory.

  • Rahul D Barua

    Great article and comments! As a third-year PhD students, I am more or less in permanent analysis paralysis. After 30 months, when many of peers have published 1-2 papers (e.g. half their theses) I am still shaping, very subtly, the conceptual architecture of my work. 

    Like many folks here I've noticed my perfectionism as an impediment to my output, and have recently focused on simply "transacting" more. In and for anything.This insight came from a personal battle. I'm from the US but have been living in Europe the last 5 years. Many of my friends speak 2-3 languages very well, while I can barely speak proper English and a bit of Spanish. But I noticed that other American friends in my situation, with similar language skills, were able to pick up languages left and right. These guys (and gals) were transacting without any semblance of fear or inhibition. If a proper Dutch sentence required 9 words, they would hit the 4 key words they knew, and get a point across. I started considering this in my own language learning adventures and noticed skill and morale improvements immediately. 

    I'm still piloting the transaction-frequency mentality in my professional work, but now have another fear. If I transaction too much, too fast, or too early (e.g. before I am ready to), am I painting a picture of myself as a low-quality producer? 

    Also, although I agree with post an comments, to play devil's advocate: The discussion implies that we need to maximize output/productivity/growth. Is there something to be said for taking it slow and steady, doing it your way, and going big/holding out for that masterpiece?

    Perfectin' on...

  • Vadim Rapp

    This is somewhat of a philosophical question, having contradiction right
    in the middle. If I'm perfectionist, meaning that perfecting my product
    (whatever it is) is my core value, then how can it hold me back from anything to
    begin with? this means, at least, that there's some other value, more
    important that this one. But if so, then probably I'm already not a
    perfectionist.

    It's too bad that today simple professionalism is clearly declining in
    value, being replaced by various "social skills" - to the degree where
    it starts acquiring negative labels like "perfectionism", and needs
    almost apologizing for, even if insincere.

  • Jason TEPOORTEN

    I can relate to some of this...  Holding off on making anything public out of wanting it to be perfect.

  • Neil

    I identify a lot with this, and see it everywhere I go with work. Most people though seem to suggest the answer is to apply the 80/20 rule and get stuff done without "the gold plating" and out the door quicker. I wonder though if the solution is actually to do less slower, enjoying the process rather than continually trying to get stuff done. It's the time slicing and hedging of bets I think that causes the overwhelm, but the constant focus on outcomes and destinations rather than process and experience that causes the existential pain. Slow down and make something you love.

  • Jo Tanner

    As a professional procrastinator, I can add 'wanting things to be perfect' to my list of excuses to put things off.  Really, though, I sometimes like the energy of working under pressure versus having all the time to make things perfect, which is rarely a luxury.  I find "efficient creativity" in some things done on the fly versus having the time to dilly dally just to come up with mediocre ideas.

  • Valentina Adami

    OMG, I love this article and all the comments! I am definitely part of the club! I'm so happy to hear that I am not the only one, sometimes I feel so insicure when I can't get things done... Thanks to all the posters, I gained a lot of clues and links to get more into the topic...well, I am a perfectionist, after all! :D
    Jokes aside, I try to keep my perfectionism under control, focusing on the quantity of projects done, instead of their quality. It's hard, believe me, really hard (you know it!), every time I complete the next task I see that there's something that could be improved. So it never ends!

    Thanks   for underlining that creation is an iterative process: a perfectionist lacks feedback most of the time since he/she so paralyzed in his/her ideas and fear of failure that produces nothing at all.

    I realize that perfectionism is a trait of my personality and IMHO is not bad in itself, but it may affect you negatively when you become obsessed with it.
    I think that a perfectionist is an idealist and is a severe judge of himself. Having a partner/colleague/friend that "brings you down to earth" is a great resource to help you manage  your moments of "high perfectionism"!

  • Teresa Wilde Lo

    Yes! For me, as a student, I have to have perfectly neat homework with everything on it and end up spending a lot more time than my classmates, sometimes not having time to finish it all. Or anything to do with drawing a straight line, I MUST have a straight edge.