Perfectionism: The Enemy of Balance


By Debra Condren

“I’m a perfectionist.  It keeps me from meeting deadlines and working up to my potential. But I’m so young and new at this company, I’m afraid of screwing up and not being as good as everyone else.”

I hear countless versions of this lament from a ton of clients, friends—and from that little voice inside my own head. Sound familiar? Join the club.

Perfectionists are so focused on their belief that a project or task or goal isn’t perfect that they never finish anything on time — or at all.

The inability to execute is a major energy drain, but not only because of the actual effort you’re exerting by working on the project. More importantly, constantly thinking about what hasn’t been completed saps a huge amount of mental air time. A classic psychological study, “The Zeigernick Effect,” found that uncompleted tasks weigh heavily on our minds; once they are done, we quickly forget them.

For perfectionists, the list of incomplete tasks just gets longer and longer; the energy drain is endless. You lie awake in bed at night; you use your leisure time, always obsessing about what you haven’t completed.

Contrast this to people who are able to get it done — even if it’s not perfect — and then move on; they enjoy the benefit of having energy that was formerly deployed for an unfinished project now freed up for new ideas, creativity and passion for their work. Think about this, and you have the perfect motivation to park perfectionism. Here’s how to do it.

1. Adopt the mantra “good enough.”

When a project is 85 percent good enough, move it off of your desk. What’s the worst possible outcome? You make a mistake, you learn from that mistake, and you do it better next time.

The benefit? You’ll create more opportunities to challenge yourself on the job by risking turning in that good-enough assignment; by moving more quickly and nimbly from one project on to the next, you free up temporal and mental space for fresh projects and challenges to make their way into your “inbox.” Accept that you’re sometimes going to fail. Mistakes equal learning opportunities.

I heard a powerful woman say, “You can’t make the basket if you don’t take the shot.” Do your research, then execute. At the very least, you're giving yourself a shot. Tell yourself each and every day that good enough is the perfect goal. And you just might make the shot.

2. Embrace your expertise.

My interviews with 500 high-achieving women for my book, Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word: A Woman's Guide To Earning Her Worth and Achieving Her Dreams, revealed that 95 percent of those women periodically feel like impostors in their fields, that their colleagues and competitors know more than they do.

Recognize that the fraud police Are Not going to show up at your door.

How to get this through your head? Write down your accomplishments (for your eyes only). Brag; don’t be modest. The majority of the women I work with who do this exercise are surprised by just how much they have accomplished, surprised by how many of their achievements they’ve forgotten about or minimized (“Wow! I’ve done all that?!”). Remind yourself of your track record to give yourself a more objective perspective about how skilled you really are.

3. Invest in lifelong learning.

Keep your mind filled with fresh, cutting-edge information to fuel your confidence. Read your industry’s trade publications and books that are getting buzz. Scan the headlines of major business papers on a daily basis. Take brief, intensive classes once a quarter; do a Saturday workshop or conference.

Buy high-quality CD or MP3 courses. Listen to them while you drive. Or subscribe to, then, for example, do daily downloads of the Wall Street Journal then scan headlines and listen to articles that interest you each morning while you work out.

Most of all, give yourself permission to be imperfect, because that’s just being human.

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