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The Thread

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]