The Problem of Perfectionism

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by Carthage Buckley, Stress and Performance Coach

I wrote an article about an interview with Barry Schwartz on CBC radio. You can check it out here. Schwartz is the author of The Paradox of Choice; a book which discusses the problems associated with having too much choice. I have since purchased the book and while reading it, I can’t help but think about one of the biggest challenges to time management and productivity – perfectionism. Perfectionism is one of the biggest causes of procrastination in modern life. The problem of perfectionism is often difficult to detect as people think that they are simply taking the time to make the right decision.

What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism (in the productivity sense) occurs when you keep putting off what needs to be done because you want the very best. You are afraid that you won’t do the best possible job so you keep deferring it until you are more confident in your chances of being perfect. You might convince yourself that you need more time, money, skills, technology, support etc, but whatever the excuse, you keep postponing that moment where you just do the work.

It is important to note that perfectionism can occur in any area of life e.g. as Schwartz points out maximisers (perfectionists) have great difficulty making purchases, career decisions and even relationship decisions. If you are driven by a need to always have the very best, you are going to have problems because there is rarely a best and even if there is; the best doesn’t remain the best for very long e.g. you will barely have put your new smart phone in your pocket when a ‘new and improved’ model will hit the market. Schwartz tells us that maximisers/perfectionists regularly regret their decisions, especially when they learn of other options which they hadn’t considered.

The problem of perfectionism
The problem of perfectionism ultimately leads to major problems since the world doesn’t stand still. The world doesn’t wait for you to make your mind up and very few decisions require the level of thought which perfectionists assign to them. The problem of perfectionism has many negative consequences but the following are some of the most important:

1. You miss out on opportunities

As I have already stated, the world does not stand still. You will get many opportunities in life but most opportunities will have a limited window for you to take advantage of them. If you spend too long considering the opportunity, you may miss out altogether.
It is not about ignoring all risk but you can’t keep blowing all decisions out of proportion. Most decisions are not anywhere near as important as they are made out to be. When you start to give decisions the level of importance (high or low) that they deserve; you find that you make most decisions quicker without the negative outcomes you feared.
With opportunities, it is also worth noting that few decisions in life are permanent. If you realise you have made a bad decision, you can change course; armed with more knowledge to make a better decision next time.

2. You don’t make a decision

The problem of perfectionism isn’t just about making a good decision or a bad decision. Sometimes it is about making no decision at all which is usually the worst possible situation.
Sadly, many perfectionists, having considered their options, decide that avoidance is the best strategy to deal with a problem. But avoidance is not a problem-solving strategy. You can avoid dealing with a problem but the problem will still be there. What most perfectionists fail to realise is that the problem will rarely stay the same size. The longer it is ignored, the bigger the problem grows.
For example, if you have a big credit card debt, ignoring it will only cause the problem to grow as interest accumulates on the debt. Eventually, you are going to have to deal with it. As David Allen says: “You can deal with it when it shows up or when it blows up.”
Most problems will eventually blow up and if you leave it that long to deal with it, it is going to be a lot more painful to deal with it.

3. Missed deadlines

When we use money (credit card debt) as an example, it is easy to see how the problem might grow but this will happen in almost every situation. Your career is another area where it is relatively easy to demonstrate how failure to make decisions about what needs to be done and, take action to get it done; will cause you big problems.

As you continue to ignore the problem of perfectionism, you will begin to miss deadlines and people will feel like they can’t depend on you. You might get away with this on the odd occasion but as the missing of deadlines becomes more frequent, the following problems are likely to arise:

  • The backlog of work grows
  • You become stressed
  • If you are an employee, you are likely to be disciplined
  • If you are self-employed, you are likely to lose customers
  • People will offer you less opportunities because they can’t depend on you
  • Your confidence deteriorates
  • The problem leaks into other areas of your life

And many more potential negative consequences.

The problem of perfectionism and its consequences keep growing as you keep refusing to deal with them.

A better way forward

We are thought from a young age that we should seek the very best in life. It sounds like good advice until you realise that ‘the best’ is a very subjective concept. The only way you can be sure that you have chosen the best is to consider very single option. With every passing year, there are more options in every area of our lives. If you were to honestly consider every option before you made a decision, it would take a life time to make one; if you got that decision made in your life time.

The first thing you need to do is, as Barry Schwartz advises, accept that good enough is almost always good enough. If you doubt that, write down the first 5 cars who would seriously consider if you needed a new car. Wouldn’t any of those 5 cars do a good enough job for you? I am sure that at least one of them would. I am not saying that you must buy your new car that way but when you realise that there is more than one option which would be good enough, it strips a lot of pain from the decision. You can use that simple exercise for any big decision in your life.

Once you have a few potential solutions for the problem/decision you face, you can implement the following steps:

  • Choose an option you believe will be ‘good enough’
  • Take action and implement that option
  • Allow some time to see how things pan out
  • Evaluate the impact of implementing that option
  • Identify any adjustments that are necessary
  • Implement those adjustments
  • Keep evaluating and adjusting as necessary

The problem of perfectionism is exacerbated by the fact you can’t get feedback until you act. Once you act (good or bad) you will be able to evaluate the impact of you chosen course of action. You can then adjust accordingly. Therefore, even if you take the wrong action, you have made progress because you have eliminated an option and gained valuable feedback which will allow you to improve things.

That’s why the problem of perfectionism is ironic; in your desire to get it right, you are holding yourself back from doing the very things which will help you get it right – action, evaluation and adjustment.

About the author
Carthage Buckley is a Stress and Performance Coach who helps entrepreneurs, management and driven professionals to identify and eliminate the sources of stress while developing and implementing strategies to realise their objectives and create a happy, healthy and successful life.
The principle philosophy of Carthage’s coaching is that the individual can shape their own world, rather than waiting for their world to shape them. Working from the inside out, it is perfectly possible for each person to create their own life, allowing them to fulfil their personal desires while living in harmony with the world around them.

Carthage has lived and worked in 5 countries and continues to work with clients all around the world, both in person and via the Internet.