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Beating Perfectionism

Hand on your heart: are you a perfectionist?

I used to try to convince myself that I wasn’t. What I would say, was that I’m “detail-oriented”. I like to get into the nitty-gritty of things. I spot typos and I can look at a large Excel spreadsheet and find that outlier. I can spend hours fine-tuning an email I want to send or double-check data before sharing.

But then I noticed that this behaviour was costing me a lot of time. I seemed to apply my love of detail to everything, big or small.

I tried to change, but it was really hard.

Why? Because the consequence of letting go of perfectionism is allowing yourself to make mistakes.

The sin of making mistakes

Spotting a mistake, or even worse, having someone else point it out to me, used to cause me physical discomfort.

I would cringe and instantly wish I could turn back the time to fix it before anyone could see.

But it goes even further: what about those things that you can’t identify as a “mistake” as such, but that just don’t seem like “good work” either? I found that I could live with a typo in my email, but not with providing unclear information or feeling like my tone could be misinterpreted.

The ruminating mind

Then, a few years ago, I was in a situation where I had a meeting that went pretty badly. I found myself ruminating over the conversation, wishing I’d said something different or lead the conversation in another direction. It was driving me crazy and I was looking for a way to get my mind out of this loop.

That’s when I remembered a tool we had when I was working in medical research to deal with incidents and complaints.

Because medical research is so highly regulated, there are pretty strict procedures to follow whenever something goes wrong. This felt perfect after I had spent so much time beating myself up.

So I decided to write a report about my meeting.

The incident report generally followed these steps:

  1. Describe exactly what happened
  2. List the persons involved or affected by the incident
  3. Evaluate the impact
  4. Determine the root cause of the problem
  5. Describe corrective actions (what can you do to fix what happened?)
  6. Describe preventive actions (what can you do to prevent it from happening again?)
  7. Lessons learned (what’s your overall takeaway?)

After I completed this document, I realised that the overall impact of my problem was low, that there was little I could do to fix it for the time being, but that I could think of a number of things to prevent me from getting into a similar situation and I took away some great lessons learned.

After writing it all down, I felt a hundred pounds lighter inside, because I felt that I could get closure on the things I couldn’t change and move forward from the situation, feeling that I learned something from it.

Keeping perspective

Don’t get me wrong, perfectionism can motivate you to do exceptional work.

At the same time, it can stall your progress when you’re trying to perfect everything. Using the questions from the incident report can help you to evaluate how much perfection you need to apply to your task at hand.

What, if you finish it right now? What could happen, if it’s not perfect? What impact could it have? Could you do something to fix it afterwards? What can you learn?

Thinking ahead in these terms can give you the wiggle room you might need in order to move on.

I’ve tried to stop thinking of perfection as a yes / no question. To me it has become a scope with perfection on one end, imperfection on the other and a whole lot of possibilities in between, that can still fall into the category of “good work”.

So as I finish writing this blog post, I am wondering, if it is good enough to publish. It’s probably not perfect and I could spend a bit of time on it, making it more entertaining or more appealing.

But if I keep sitting on it and not release it, you might not get to read it. It wouldn’t even have the chance to make an impact. And if I find, that it really wasn’t good enough, I can always come back and update the post.

Feel free to leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

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