Perfection Is The Enemy Of Done!

That anxiety in your chest when you send an email off — the one that you spent half an hour writing and proofread five times just to make sure that you’d included all the details and your grammar was on point — isn’t doing you  or your project peers any favours.

You value putting your best face forward, and want to ensure that you’re professional and appear competent at all times. While you firmly believe that small details matter, working in a state where you’re unwilling to push whatever creation you’ve made out into the world before it’s perfect, is likely doing more harm than good.

There is constant pressure to do more, be more, achieve more and everywhere we look the message is the same.

“You’re not enough and you won’t be enough until you’re perfect”.

This message gets internalised. We start to play it on repeat in our heads, over and over. Then we start hustling and trying to prove our worth through external achievements and setting high standards that are impossible to achieve or maintain.

When we’re caught up in perfectionism, any mistake is met with a self-critical internal dialogue where we hurl shame, guilt and other damaging thoughts towards ourselves.

We think that tough love will be enough to course correct; that we can shame ourselves into doing better.

When it comes to your career and your life, striving for perfection is holding you back.

It’s an anxiety-producing time suck that keeps you from learning through trial and error, accomplishing your goals, and ultimately moving yourself closer to where you want to be in life and work.

Shifting Your Mindset

You’re not the only one that struggles with perfectionism — it’s everywhere and you’re hard pressed to find someone that can’t relate. This mindset of never being good enough can translate to your performance throughout your education, and later potentially as you are establishing your career. We are trying to make ourselves exceptional in other ways that hopefully lead to success — but this can come at a very high cost.

Perfectionism can constantly lead to being anxious and depressed. I know people who hold themselves to incredibly high standards when it comes to work, in some roles that saw people wasting  about 50% of their time, a total time suck.

We become afraid to push send on an email or flip over what was clearly a rough draft of a document because we don’t want to appear incompetent.

There can be a constant nagging doubt that if you can’t put a perfect version of whatever it is that you are working on the first time around, there isn’t a point in doing it.

Experience and some hard knocks led me to a place where I realised that my pursuit of perfection was holding me back.

While I want to produce a quality product and still hold myself to high standards, I can now see that it stands directly in my way of making progress.

With a subtle shift in my mindset — that perfection is great but it won’t get you where you want to go — I’ve been able to ease up on myself.

Perfectionism doesn’t lead to success, rather it keeps us from avoiding failure and the associated pain that comes along with it. However it’s only through these negative experiences that we actually build the skills and resiliency to bounce back.

And you want to bounce back, rather than be stuck in what I call ‘perfection paralysis’ — unable and unwilling to make a decision for fear of what might happen if you move forward.

When you find yourself in a situation where your doubting what your next steps should be because of perfectionism, remind yourself of these three things:

  • Perfectionism is the enemy of done. It will kill my productivity if I continue to let it dictate how and when I put my ideas and vision out into the world. Done is better than a big pile of ‘what ifs.
  • Delaying a project or trying to avoid making a decision because I’m not assured of a perfect outcome will ultimately result in my being stuck and not being able to accomplish my goals.
  • No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. My perfectionism isn’t helping me to achieve more, instead I’m avoiding failure and the pain that I think is going to come along with it.

Making Friends With Failure

Failure is a dirty word for most of us. We see it as a negative, potentially harmful threat to our ego and even our core identity.

No one wants to fail and risk the judgement of family, friends and colleagues. For perfectionists, we also know that some of the worst shame and guilt is going to come from our own internal dialogue.

How could I be so stupid? I should have known better. Only an idiot would have sent that proposal without proofreading it for a fifth time.

When I started my career I held myself to standards of ‘perfection’ and quickly found myself drowning. I simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of the role while maintaining the same commitment to doing my very best work.

I had to learn to let it go, and over time have learnt to get comfortable with the feeling of imperfection and failure.

As it turns out, it’s actually not that bad. I extended myself a lot of self-compassion, taking stock of all the pressure I was under and decided that it was time to make friends with failure.

I adopted an approach to work and life where I simply told myself that perfection is impossible and I will fail — and when I do, I have the skills I need to bounce back.

Now any time where failure is a possible outcome I do three things:

  • Ask myself what’s the worst possible outcome and write it out in gritty detail. I also include a full run down of what I’d do if this worst case scenario did play out. By exposing myself to the ‘what if’ and having a clear idea of what I’d do to manage my way through it, fear takes a backseat and I can move on.
  • Remind myself that failure is the BEST teacher. The absolute best. While it might sting a bit and cause me to shift or change directions, there has yet to be a situation where failure or making a mistake has caused my life to implode. I’ll make a list of all the things that haven’t gone as planned and what I learned from them to remind myself that I am resilient.
  • Drop the word ‘perfect’ from my vocabulary and reframe what ‘my best’ looks like, being mindful of my current situation and circumstances. Sometimes this means that just the act of showing up is a big win.

While we all want to produce quality work and make the right decisions, we will all make mistakes and eventually fail. Perfectionism is a tool that we use to convince ourselves that we are success oriented, when it’s actually being used to avoid failure.

By shifting your mindset to view perfection as an enemy of productivity and making actual progress towards your goals, you can move away from the paralysis that often comes along with it.

Along with a change in how you view yourself and an acknowledgement that perfection won’t get you where you want to be, the process of making friends with failure is valuable. It will build your resiliency and serve as the proof you need that you can — and will bounce back from setbacks.

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About the Author

Jason Novobranec is Implementary’s Chief Operating Officer.

With over 20 years of Consulting, Program Management & Senior Leadership experience, Jason has delivered initiatives for large multi-national / multi-regional organisations as well as SME’s and is an expert in shaping solutions to fit a customer’s project needs.