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3 simple ways to stop being a perfectionist and become more productive

Productivity strategist Tanya Dalton says “Now is a time to be aggressively imperfect.”

3 simple ways to stop being a perfectionist and become more productive
[Image: Paul Campbell/iStock]
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As a self-diagnosed “recovering perfectionist” I know the pain and struggle that comes with a perfectionist mentality, especially right now, with so much on our plates. Today, I’ve already had to cancel a standing meeting to pick up my daughter Kate from school since they’ve decided to close early. Like the majority of parents with school-age children right now, my husband and I are navigating our two kids’ fluctuating school schedules, which include two days in person, two days virtual, and one day off— just in case life wasn’t hectic enough.

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It’s no wonder that a new report from The New York Times found that parents, particularly mothers with kids at home, are markedly more stressed than nonparents during the pandemic. Women are taking the brunt of the workload during this pandemic and for the first time ever, we really are being asked to juggle it all.

Allow me to propose a quite radical solution to this problem. For anyone—but particularly all the women—reading this who are struggling with perfectionism, I’m here to tell you that now is a time to be aggressively imperfect. More than ever, I’m seeing true authenticity from people, whether it’s spotting a sink full of dirty dishes in someone’s Zoom background, or a kid walking up behind them, or a dog barking. It’s becoming more accepted that even when you are in professional mode, there is still life happening outside of that. This is a time where it’s okay to feel vulnerable because we all feel that way. We’re all human at the end of the day.

Find out what type of perfectionist you are

If you’re looking to fix a problem, the first thing to do is admit you have a problem. You’ve probably heard that before. This means discovering which type of perfectionist category you fall into. In case you didn’t realize, there are actually two different types:

1. The Striver: If you’re a striver, you likely have no issue starting a task or project, but you set impossible standards. You set goals for yourself and work incredibly hard, but your standards are unreachable, so you’re constantly battling against failure.

2. The Idealist: If you’re an idealist, then you likely never even start. You spend too much time wrapped up in envisioning what the perfect future will look like and don’t actually make the move to begin. Because your idea is perfection, you know you’ll never come close to achieving the grandiose vision that’s in their mind, so you just keep dreaming.

Chances are you read one of those two descriptions and found yourself strongly identifying with one or the other. Knowing this information about yourself is actually a power because you can catch yourself in the act. Now, let’s discuss how to combat your perfectionism.

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Finding your “yes” so it’s easy to say “no”

“No.” It’s such a simple, two-letter word. So why do we—especially women—have such a difficult time saying it?

Here’s a tip: It is so much easier to say “no” to things when you can identify your “yes.” Have you ever said yes to something and felt like your entire body and being was jumping up and down in excitement? That’s what a good yes should feel like. A good yes should align directly with your core values and leave you feeling fulfilled.

Here are five easy questions to ask yourself to find out how you truly feel about an opportunity. If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, then take my advice and let it go. More importantly, no just became much easier to say.

  1. Do you want to take this on?
  2. Why?
  3. How much time will it take?
  4. Do you have the time?
  5. Does it fulfill you?

I’ve found that question number five, in particular, will lead you to the best “yeses” in life. It will also save you from the ones that should have been “no.”

When in doubt, reference the three priority levels

By now you’re probably thinking: what about the times I have to say yes to something that doesn’t necessarily fulfill me? Like any rule, there are exceptions. Does being on snack duty at my daughter’s volleyball tournament fulfill me? Hardly. But I do it because she is a priority in my life.

When one of the women I coach is having doubts about what to prioritize in her life, I bring out my tried and true three priority levels. The ultimate sign of burnout from perfectionism is if you’re feeling helpless, or like you do not have control over your own schedule. I often say that overwhelm comes when you don’t know where to start. This three-level prioritizing system should do just the trick.

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1. Escalate: important and urgent—These tasks are pushing us toward long-term goals and they have a pressing deadline. This section goes at the top of our list because this is where we want to start our day. However, we don’t want to focus all of our time in the escalate section. When you’re in this urgent, “beat-the-clock” mode, you don’t allow yourself time to innovate or explore creative solutions, which leads me to priority level #2.

2. Cultivate: important but not urgent—These are activities that move us closer to our end goals because they are focused around future planning and self-improvement but have no looming deadline. Because there is no urgent deadline, it is so easy to let these tasks fall off your radar completely. That’s why we need to place the most emphasis on this section. These are the tasks and projects that will eventually grow your career and you as a person.

3. Accommodate: unimportant but urgent—These are the tasks that may have a pressing deadline but don’t help us reach our long-term goals. Because these tasks tend to scream out louder than the rest, we often prioritize them to shut them up. Say it with me: We want to spend as little time in this section as possible. Okay, so the kitchen is a mess, but can it be cleaned later in the day, or even, dare I say it . . . tomorrow?

When we use a priority list, we stop wasting energy deciding what to do next. Instead, we work by priority. Focusing on our priorities is what separates the busy from the truly productive. It’s also what helps quash that “procrastination paralysis” a lot of idealist perfectionists struggle from. After all, if we don’t prioritize our own priorities, then who will?

I spent years feeling like I ended every day falling short. I finally woke up and realized, there is no perfect. Those of us trying to catch it will only feel it slip through our grasp. If anything, perfectionism is a tool you’re using to keep you from reaching your full potential. It’s time to liberate yourself. Only you can do it.


Tanya Dalton is a productivity strategist, owner of Inkwell Press, and author of The Joy of Missing Out.

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