Your boss has just handed you a big project to complete. It’s a high-profile assignment, and you hope that it will give you greater visibility in your organization and maybe even lead to a promotion.
You’re so excited and passionate about it that you avoid it for weeks because you really want to wait until “just the right time” when you can focus on it for hours without interruption, when you’ve cleared all the little things off your task list, and your workspace is perfectly in order.
The ideal time never arrives and, before you know it, you’re scrambling under immense stress with too much to do in too little time.
You may get the work submitted on time but not done to the standards you would prefer, or you may end up turning in a stellar product but miss the deadline, much to the recipients’ chagrin.
If this sounds like you–that, in your effort to really give the most important work your all, you end up feeling like you constantly blow it–you’re likely struggling with perfectionism.
In my work as a time management coach, I’ve seen that the key to getting the most done to the highest level and impressing the most people is actually through aiming for less than perfect. Here’s how to adopt this more effective way of tackling your key projects.
Start today, even if it feels awkward
I often encourage people to understand that you can’t do everything all at once and that it’s good to plan so you can pace yourself. But if you struggle with perfectionism, then planning to do something “later” can easily slide into procrastination, because you aren’t willing to start until you reach some optimal state of professional nirvana that never comes.
If you’re falling into that trap, start whatever you’re avoiding today. Or, if that’s truly not possible, put it in your calendar for some time in the next week and then begin the project when that time comes.
The timing might not be ideal: You might be a little distracted, only have one hour instead of the two you planned, or there still might be some stray miscellaneous items on your desk that now seem intensely fascinating even though you’ve ignored them for weeks. But it’s still better to awkwardly get going than to delay.
At the very least, sit down and brainstorm what steps you’ll need to do to get the project done. I prefer to do this away from my desk with a piece of paper and a highlighter; I feel like it helps me think more creatively. But you may prefer to record the steps digitally. Either way, you want to start to flesh out what it will take to get things done and start the process of gaining momentum.
Catch perfectionist habits early
If you struggle with perfectionist tendencies, once you get started into a project, you’ll need to have a plan for how to stop yourself from investing too much time on individual parts of the work.
The most common area where I see this issue flare up is research. If you’re struggling with perfectionism, you’ll tend to over-research topics because you don’t want the possibility of someone bringing up something that you didn’t know. You’ll also tend to struggle to get out of the research phase because it feels safer to read what other people have done than to put your own thoughts and ideas out there.
If this sounds like you, predetermine how much time is an acceptable amount to put into a particular part of research: Maybe it’s one hour, three hours, or five hours. Then stick with that. Once you have put in the time, stop and pivot to execution on whatever you need to produce.
Then, as you focus on the production, get the work to an acceptable level in each area with the understanding that you can come back and refine if you have more time before the deadline. This leads to an overall better outcome than fixating on making a particular part of a project perfect and then having to rush through the rest.
The key to success is to give yourself a time limit, do the work, and then move on to the next part. This doesn’t mean everything will always go accordingly to schedule—there may be times where I need to spend an extra 30 to 45 minutes to get something done. But if you’re going hours and hours beyond what you had determined was the appropriate amount of time, then you likely need to stop yourself and move on.
Focus on the work, not the feedback
Once you get into producing work, you may find yourself getting stressed and overthinking things because you’re wondering how others will respond to what you present. This can lead to analysis paralysis, where you invest much more time in thinking than doing.
To avoid this trap of perfectionism, integrate constructive feedback on how you could improve, but then try to block out thoughts of the future about how people will or won’t respond. Vague concern about whether people will think you’re amazing doesn’t do anything to help you actually get the work done.
When those invasive thoughts slow you down, shut them out with this truth: I can’t control how people do or don’t respond to me. All I can control is what I do now.
This will reduce your stress in the process and help you to get the work done that can lead to better results and therefore better feedback. And even if you do get some legitimate critique that can help you do a superior job next time, that’s okay. A growth mindset is healthy; recognize that you can always develop and improve over time. You don’t need to get everything right all at once.
Hold yourself to every deadline
If you’ve followed the above pieces of advice, you shouldn’t be scrambling at the last possible minute in order to get work done. You started early enough to at least get the basics done, didn’t over-invest in a particular part, and weren’t wrapped up in what other people might think.
Now the deadline is here. I recommend you give everything a final look over—then ship it out. Here’s my advice:
- Don’t redo a whole part that was already fine.
- Don’t decide you’re going to go in a different direction.
- Don’t keep refining it so much that it’s so amazing and you miss the deadline.
- Do let it go.
Yes, people want you to do excellent work. But many times good work delivered on time actually serves them better.
Your boss, colleagues, and clients don’t need the mental burden of being constantly concerned that if something is in your court it might not get done or very likely will be late. If you consistently start to deliver on time, their trust levels in you will greatly increase, and they’ll need to spend little to no time and energy worrying about whether you’ll come through.
This can dramatically improve your relationships and reduce work for you, because you’ll need to spend less time replying to follow-ups and explaining why the work isn’t done.
A perfectionist approach may seem like a great way to excel in your work, but it’s often counterproductive. If you use a few of these strategies, you can get more done with less stress.