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How To Train Your Brain to Push Past Perfectionism

Perfectionism isn't hard-wired, it's learned. Which means we can unlearn it too, with these methods.

How To Train Your Brain to Push Past Perfectionism
[Photo: Flickr user Vivian Chen]

The fear of failure greatly impedes performance. That’s why most successful people are less likely to be perfectionists. After all, think about all of the quick, important decisions high-level people need to make every day. They can’t be plagued with the fear that every decision is a possible mistake. If surgeons waited until they felt absolutely sure that they were making the correct decision in life-threatening instances, they probably wouldn’t be saving many lives.

As a reminder that perfectionism is devastatingly crippling, in 2010 Facebook’s headquarters had "Done is better than perfect" painted on the wall. Imagine if Facebook had waited until it was "perfect" to launch. It probably wouldn’t be around today.

Yet, many of us suffer from real perfectionism. We’re no longer admirably pushing ourselves to excellence, but harming ourselves professionally and psychologically with the need to always be perfect.

How Perfectionism Is Born

Bob Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity, says that at the beginning of every course he teaches at MIT Sloan Executive Education, he asks the class if they consider themselves perfectionists, and half of them usually do. When he asks how they got that way, most point to their "exceedingly demanding" parents or former schoolteachers as wiring their brains that all tasks should be done with precision and care.

"I think it’s not that people are born that way, but in many instances, either through family or for school, they’re trained that way," says Pozen. He says that while perfectionism is a "learned habit," it can be an "unlearned habit" if you work at it.

A big problem perfectionists have is not being able to differentiate between the kinds of work demand that specific tasks require. Instead, perfectionists spend more time than necessary on tasks that don't require the extra care. Consequently, they feel overwhelmed from not having enough time in the day.

What It Takes To Push Past Perfectionism

When you’re so overwhelmed by work and anxiety, you can’t get anything done, and you become trapped in a loop of unhealthy thoughts, impulses, and behaviors.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of the book How to Invest Your Time Like Money, is a time management coach who helps people unlearn their need to be perfect, so they can better allocate their time to more important matters. Below, she offers suggestions on breaking free of the perfectionism trap:

Don’t label yourself. "Instead of self-identifying as a perfectionist, it can be helpful to just change your language and say,’I have a tendency for acting in perfectionist ways’ so you’re starting to give yourself permission to be different," says Saunders.

Recognize that perfectionism impedes success. Once you’ve shifted to "this is what I do" versus "this is who I am," it’s important to recognize that being so obsessed with making one thing perfect only makes you worse than imperfect in so many other areas. For instance, perfectionists often just won’t do things or get things done really late, so overall they become less successful than if they had chosen to lower their standards in the first place.

Stick to a time budget. Procrastination is so often a symptom of perfectionism. To break perfectionists out of this loop, Saunders suggests setting time limits on how long tasks should take.

Saunders say that perfectionists will work on a task until it's "perfect" no matter how long it takes. To push past this she advises that they frame how long they think it should take. For example, if something that should take you three hours ends up taking you 10, then you should recognize that you’re going to end up staying up late to finish it, be behind on other tasks, and get really stressed out and overwhelmed.

Instead, set a timer for yourself (consider setting it at half the time you think the task should take) and once you hit it, think about how you need to proceed in order to respect your time limit. "[Setting a time budget] seems to help a lot of people who struggle with perfectionism because they get a sense that not doing something perfect doesn’t mean that they’re being lazy or doesn’t mean that they’ don’t care. It’s just that they’re looking at their overall time budget and saying 'Okay, how much time can I allocate to [this task] and overall, have a good outcome?'" she says.

Consider the INO technique when allocating time One issue that perfectionists often run into is not understanding that all tasks don’t require the same amount of effort and time. In these scenarios, Saunders suggests thinking about the INO technique, which stands for investment, neutral, and optimized:

Investment activities are those that have a high ROI so you spend more time on them and you get a big return.

Neutral activities are ones that you get in what you put out. Examples of neutral activities are staff meetings and standard reports you’re responsible for.

Optimized activities are tasks that have no return for you spending longer time on them. Examples of optimized activities are administrative duties and email.

By looking at tasks in this way, perfectionists are assigning a sense of value to certain activities instead of approaching every single task in the exact same way.

"You’re not allowed to write and re-read an email that’s in the optimized category three or four times," says Saunders.

How do you know which category to assign tasks? Below are some important questions Saunders suggests asking yourself to identify where tasks belong:

  • Does this align with my priorities?
  • If so, how important is this?
  • How much value is there in doing this to a high level versus just getting it done?
  • What’s the minimum required I need to do to accomplish this task?
  • How much time do I have to spend on this?
Related Video: Are Work Habits Ruining Your Productivity?
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