Perfectionism can be a Major Time Waster!

There's a saying that, "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing well." This is emphatically not true! One of my favorite sayings is this:

"Some things require completion, not perfection."

Perfectionism can stymie us in many ways. Often it prevents people from doing a thing at all. They feel so much anxiety about whether they'll be able to do it perfectly, or feel so overwhelmed with the enormity of trying to do it perfectly, that they're unable to even get started.

Perfectionism can have another, more insidious effect as well. It can lead us to spend more time on a task than it warrants. In my previous article, I talked about how some things on our to-do list are simply not things we should spend time doing. Other times, a thing is worth doing, but not worth spending a lot of time on.

Let's say you need to rake leaves or shovel the porch or vacuum the living room. How perfectly do you need to do these tasks? Is it worth spending an extra two hours to get every leaf off your driveway? I don't think so! They'll just blow back anyway.

I've sometimes caught myself spending an absurd amount of time writing articles, emails or forum posts. Hello! There is a point of diminishing returns. After a certain point, the improvement is so small that it just doesn't matter. Let it go!

As you do the tasks on your to-do list, try to stay aware of the balance between how important the task is and how much time you're spending on it. If you devote time to each item in proportion to its importance, you will discover many extra hours in your day!

perfectionism can lead to BAD work

I read something in "Too Perfect" that just gonged inside me with recognition. I used to be a writer for a magazine. The column I wrote for most often was historically 2000-3000 words. Then, due to budgetary problems (they weren't selling enough ads), it was cut to 800 words. I had a lot of trouble covering the topics in 800 words. I'd try to cover the same amount of ground as I did in 2500 words, but that didn't work. I went from being a star writer who didn't need editing, to being constantly criticized for everything I wrote until finally they stopped hiring me. The more my editor criticized me, the harder I'd try the next time and the worse it would be next time.

Here's a quote from "Too Perfect":

"A trait related to the need to be flawless is the need to be thorough. Bowing to this pressure when preparing a presentation or written report, the perfectionist will include far more information than necessary. He can't draw the line between what is and isn't important, and he can't risk leaving anything out for fear someone will think he wasn't fully informed.

....[some paragraphs cut]....

...This fear blinds the person to the fact that too much detail can dull the impact of his main points, boring and confusing listeners rather than clarifying. If every base has to be touched and all pros, cons, and caveats acknowledged, communication is sterile. It lacks color, force, and focus. Perfectionism once again winds up detracting from overall performance, rather than enhancing it."

It's hard for me to find the words to describe how closely this describes me. I do this all the time. I do it in email messages, I did it in the articles I wrote... When the column was 2500 words I could get away with it because I had room to be thorough, but when it was cut to 800 words, I was unable to make choices. I tried to include everything, so my narrative was over-terse, choppy, confusing, and dull.

I was shattered by my editor's decision not to hire me anymore. Shortly after that I was removed from the masthead as a Contributing Editor. I had always prided myself in my ability to write, and she was telling me I couldn't write! It was one of the worst blows of my life. The horror and self-doubt was intense. Again, I have trouble finding the words to describe it.

After a lot of introspection, I did end up realizing that this is what was happening, even before I read "Too Perfect". I had dinner with my mother over the summer and told her as much - that I was trying to cram more and more information into fewer and words, and the harder I tried the more I'd research and the worse the articles got. But to see it described in a book is quite an experience. Half of me wants to sob, and half of me is intensely relieved by the validation that this is what was happening - that I'm not actually a lousy writer. I never tried to get another writing job after this because I felt I was no good. But it's not true - I can still write. It was the perfectionism. The harder I tried, the more I failed. Ironic.

re "Too Perfect"

"A trait related to the need to be flawless is
the need to be thorough. Bowing to this pressure when preparing a
presentation or written report, the perfectionist will include far more
information than necessary. He can't draw the line between what is and
isn't important, and he can't risk leaving anything out for fear someone
will think he wasn't fully informed.

....[some paragraphs cut]....

...This fear blinds the person to the fact that
too much detail can dull the impact of his main points, boring and
confusing listeners rather than clarifying. If every base has to be
touched and all pros, cons, and caveats acknowledged, communication is
sterile. It lacks color, force, and focus. Perfectionism once again
winds up detracting from overall performance, rather than enhancing it."

Holy smokes. I can't believe how well this describes me. I've been in the middle of doing exactly this for the last 3-4 days, wreaking havoc on my life and my family's life in the process — I'm past deadline on what should have been a very simple project, and losing this client would be disastrous for my family's finances. Even with a lot of support from other recovering people, I don't know how to do it differently. Sigh...

Funny how I've made very similar career choices to those Anon describes. Writer/editor/content strategist. 

too perfect

The late General Patton reportedly said " a good plan today is far better than a great plan next week." i.e. unless it is timely ( on time) it doesn't count. If the basket doesn't beat the buzzer, it doesn't count

Length of articles

I have always had the same problem with my assignments. If I'm given a word length I always have trouble sticking to that amount. In my current course they tell me to be 'succinct' and I think I ~am~ - If I'm answering the question they ask me then that's how long it takes to answer it properly! If they don't want me to answer it properly they should set the question they really want the answer to! (Can't possibly be ~my~ fault!). I really don't see how I can cut some things sometimes, so I do the ruthless thing in Word where you get it to edit by 50% or whatever, and it makes the choice for you. If it wasn't essential to answer the question I wouldn't have put it in, so I don't see how I can decide what to edit.

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AAaaaackkkk!

I ALWAYS tried to do what pro describes and what the book describes in my college essays and in my sermons. If I still had essays to write, it would probably be the same. On sermons, I gave up writing. I just make a poetic or off-the-cuff response to one or two things that strike me about a set of scripture readings, rather than a thorough, commentay-like response PLUS illustrations and edifications. I told myself that it was enough to make ~any~ response to the passages. But I have been feeling like I'm cheating them out of the full monty. Now I don't--thanks! Still, I have to know: Normy, what's the deal with Word and editing 50 percent? I never heard of that! It would be interesting to see how it works.

Microsoft Word Editing

OK, open up a Word document that you don't mind messing with. Go to Tools, and click on AutoSummarise. You'll see some options:

*Highlight key points - this one's scary, but it's good for a synopsis
*Insert and executive summary or abstract at the top of the document - not scary at all, because it keeps the original document
*Create new document and put the summary there - also not scary, because you still have the original elsewhere
*Hide everything but the summary, without leaving the original document - OMG shocked

You can then choose how long you want your summary, 75% of the original, 50%, whatever. Sometimes, if what I've written is waaaay too long, but I'm very attached to what I've written, I'll do 75%, then 75% again, so it doesn't all happen at once, and I get a chance to get used to the little change before the big one (like getting your hair cut to shoulder length before going short I guess). You also get the option to reject the changes it suggests. I don't know how this thing works, but it does. It's great if you just can't make the choice yourself.

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Wow--Weird Science

I am so stunned that a program can do that and still produce legible English! It's also stunning to think that all my care and craft can be reorganized so cavalierly and perhaps become better! Mind-blowing! Thanks for sharing.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

I get into this especially when I'm doing something that I expect other people might see or something I'm supposed to be good at. I couldn't begin to guess how many hours I've spent "fixing" stuff that wasn't broken in the first place because I wanted it to perfect. I'm always telling myself "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" but then I try to fix it anyways. Areas I'm especially prone to doing this: programming, cleaning and fixing up the house.

Ahh that explains it

I have very strong perfectionist tendencies.

I was very proud of myself at payroll work today though - my new boss replied to an Email saying I had been 'very thorough' and I didn't know if it was a compliment or a criticism (I used to think 'perfectionist' was a compliment - well, how can there be any wrong with being perfect?? Now I've realised why it wasn't ;) ).

Anyway, I decided it ~was~ a compliment in the end, because the only way it could have been a criticism (I think) is if she meant I'd overdone it (perfectionist), and I'd made a deliberate effort not to be a perfectionist on that one, and got it done to an acceptable but far-less-than-perfect standard (and 'thouroughly' apparently). If I'd tried to do it perfectly it still wouldn't be done now.

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perfectionism

Me, too.

I just ordered a book on perfectionism from amazon.com. It has a chapter on demand resistance. Apparently perfectionism and demand resistance are related (both aspects of an obsessive personality, which I surely have).

More Quotes

This is a constant, constant issue for me. I so frequently "end game," as my friend puts it--always jumping ahead to the end result I should achieve, and becoming afraid of not being able to acheive my ideal. But this fear is only because I CAN'T KNOW or have much of an idea about the end result without having plugged away at the process. So, the more "inspirational" (or maybe actually the more "grounding"?) quotes floating around in my head that reinforce the idea that "done is better than perfect," the better.

I posted all these a few months ago and thought they might be a nice accompaniment to this article, though I hope no one minds that they stray a little off topic.

Other Homilies Collected by Gwen

Bravo!

My father ( a supreme perfectionist) always said "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right"-- I can't tell you how liberated and relieved I was when I read another article on perfectionism that said, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing. Any way you can. To any degree that you can. It does NOT have to be perfect." Thank you for the reminder. Flylady annoys me a little, but one of the things I like about her is that she takes the very same approach you are describing, to housework. I appreciate your writing, and I hope it isn't procrastinating!!!

That was the most valuable thing I got from FlyLady...

FlyLady annoys me, too. I was on her list for about a week and couldn't stand it. Housework isn't my issue, anyway. But she did say that one very important thing that stayed with me:

"Housework done imperfectly still blesses your family."

As I said, my problem isn't housework, and I live alone - not with a family - but this phrase still helps me because of the underlying meaning. I've adapted it in my head to this:

Work done imperfectly is still a blessing.

Right on!

Applies to lots of situations!