How To Dodge Perfectionist's Burnout

Being a perfectionist isn't a noble higher calling, especially if it's hurting your work. Here's how to stop your type-A personality from destroying your productivity.

It's every perfectionist's mantra: "Why settle for anything less than perfect?"

But always strive for perfection and you'll either a) start to lose your mind b) get nothing accomplished or c) some combination of the two.

Perfectionism is actually deeply flawed. Perfectionists set themselves up for constant stress. They resist taking on challenging new work for fear of not being able to deliver. Their progress can easily be paralyzed by impossibly high standards.

From start to finish, every creative task or project we tackle can take on unfathomable proportions when we are unwilling to settle for anything less than perfect. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time coach and self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist knows all too well how easy it is to slip into the danger-zone of perfectionism. Here are three common perfectionist roadblocks Saunders identifies and how to overcome them:

1. Realize that there will never be a perfect time to start.

Getting started is often the biggest hurdle to any creative project. You need the right inspiration, work environment and uninterrupted time. But waiting for the perfect time to start can mean never starting. Usually wherever you start out won't be the actually beginning to your end-product, so why belabor the results from the get-go?

Instead of agonizing about not getting work done or lamenting that you don't have the time, space or resources you need--just start somewhere, get something down, and let it look ugly. "Expecting too much too soon can be a fatal mistake," writes Alan Watt in his book The 90-Day Novel.

Taking too long to get started is why perfectionists often find themselves scrambling at the end of a project, says Saunders, having belabored the beginning without factoring enough time to get to the end.

2. When all your work doesn't produce tangible results.

If every detail must be perfect, you'll have a hard time making progress. We often get in our own way, wanting to make sure every word or line or idea we lay down is accurate. But trying to iron all the kinks along the way can be exhausting.

To avoid this kind of burnout, Saunders recommends defining a specific end goal and then outlining the steps you need to take to get there. When you look at what must be done and the steps to get there, weighed against how much time you actually have, you can start budgeting your time more effectively before it's too late.

Set milestones throughout a project to allow yourself to keep pushing forward, rather than looking impossibly far ahead to the end. Most importantly: this requires letting the work be good enough.

3. If it's flawed, it's not done.

Look hard enough and you will always find flaws. You will always see imperfections and inadequacies. Instead, create a new idea of what it means to be "finished," suggests Saunders. Establish a set of minimum requirements that must be met in order for your project to be complete.

Once you've met those requirements, allow yourself to consider it done. If you have more time once you reach this point, you can go back and make improvements, but don't let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

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3 Comments

  • Blanche Birenholc Cordero

    Just thought of another comment and it’s a big one. What do you do if you work for a boss who demands perfection? I guess you just show them this article. There was a page in “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff” by Richard Carlson, PH.D. about perfection which I just wanted to show my boss. I believe it was similar to what you are saying above, but this boss would not accept any imperfections. You would literally hear the yell, “How could this happen?” In my head, I would say, "Duh, I made a mistake. How do you think it happened?” Unfortunately, these are also the bosses who NEVER make a mistake. Right!

  • Blanche Birenholc Cordero

    …..if only. This is a great beginning for perfectionists who let the time go by, working toward perfection, while the boss just wanted a guesstimate. Been there, done that.

  • Boaz David

    Is there an absolute definition to PERFECT? or is it relative to the conditions, situations, time and…point of view?
    As you mentioned if you look enough you will always find something wrong....fact is that nothing will ever be perfect (or at least not stay perfect forever), I think that once you accept that EVERYTHING becomes perfect! Working with fashion designers i often see how hard it is for them to accept that, especially since a lot of times they see it as a projection of their brand. Great article!