I seem to be very susceptible to the disease called perfectionism. Yes, it is quite literally a dis-ease: It prevents things from being easy. As perfectionist you don’t just want to do something – you want to do it the best way possible. So, if you don’t feel able to do it the best way possible you don’t do it at all.
Often, I face this problem with my writing projects. At first, I start with huge enthusiasm. Then things get slightly less exciting. Finally, the writer’s block hits me. My productivity dies and the project is put on ice. It’s a pretty consistent pattern for all my ambitious projects. And almost all my projects are ambitious to some degree.
Why Perfectionism Sucks
Perfectionism is the arch-enemy of my motivation and productivity. Perhaps it’s even my absolutely biggest problem. Unfortunately, it doesn’t suffice to identify it as problem. As life-long bad habit it is too deeply rooted inside of me, so I need to fight it actively. And that’s pretty hard, because intuitively perfectionism sounds like a good thing in theory. It would be great if we could do everything perfectly. But we can’t.
Absolute Perfection Doesn’t Exist, So Perfectionism Doesn’t Work
We can avoid certain mistakes, but we can’t avoid making mistakes at all. Nothing we do is really absolutely perfect. There’s always something that could be better. Always. If you think otherwise, you aren’t just looking critically enough.
For every real world object there’s a set of quality standards that this object doesn’t come up to. Are smartphones perfect? No, their performance is weaker than those of desktop PCs, and they shut down once the battery is empty. Are Goethe’s literary works perfect? No, they are too difficult to understand. Are these examples perfect? Heck no, lots of people could come up with better ones after giving it some thought.
On the other hand, perfection regarding to a single quality can very well be achieved. There are products that are perfectly cheap: Freebies. Documents can be perfect in the sense that they contain no errors. Programs can be simplified so much that they can’t be simplified further.
Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away
–Antoine de Saint-Exupery [found at Quotes For Software Engineers]
Let’s call the first type of (unattainable) perfection absolute perfection and the second type specific perfection. What is usually called perfection is more or less perfection regarding to some not necessarily clearly specified criteria, and takes place between absolute and specific perfection. While absolute perfection is impossible, and specific perfection often can be attained, it cannot be clearly determined whether colloquial perfection is possible, or not.
Let’s see how Wikipedia defines perfectionism in philosophy
In ethics and value theory, perfectionism is the persistence of will in obtaining the optimal quality of spiritual, mental, physical, and material being. [...] The perfectionist does not believe that one can attain a perfect life or state of living. Rather, a perfectionist practices steadfast perseverance in obtaining the best possible life or state of living.
and perfectionism in psychology (emphasis by me)
Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists.
Philosophical perfectionism could also be circumscribed as determination to approximate perfection is areas that actually matter. It’s a viable, although quite challenging, way of life which I personally subscribe to (if you didn’t already guess that from the title of this blog). The practically interesting question is how you approximate perfection – and this is where the psychological kind of perfectionism comes into play.
If you want every single project of yours to yield perfect results instantly, you have a problem. Before you can create something even just specifically perfect you need to produce lots of junk first. Otherwise you won’t get the necessary experience to even come close to perfection. I’ve read that even the most successful authors produce first drafts of their novels which are pretty bad. I really don’t have the desire to verify that claim, but I guess it’s true.
Believing that you can produce perfect results on your first try is totally wrong and maladaptive. Instead, you just get something done, no matter how bad the results, and do it better the next time. That’s called training. Or you get something done and improve it afterwards in several steps. That’s incremental improvement. It’s what programmers do if they want to do a good job (otherwise there wouldn’t be any need for version numbers).
Actually, the kind of perfectionism that this post is mostly is about is just consists in having ambitions which are so high that they threaten the success of a project. How does being too ambitious sabotage your success? For reaching really great results you need to put of lot of time and energy into that project – often more than you are able or willing to pay. Perfectionists tend to overestimate their own abilities to produce super-high-quality results in no time and show unrealistic optimism. Conversely, they are unrealistically pessimistic about the negative results of doing something less than perfectly.
Effects Of Perfectionism On Motivation And Productivity
Yeah, I might be preaching to myself here. When I started this blog I felt a drastic decrease of motivation. I was rather confused by that phenomenon and couldn’t explain it. Now I have a plausible explanation: I wanted this blog to be a really high quality blog – at least compared to my former personal blog which didn’t really aim at quality and usefulness. But that ambition turned blogging into something resembling hard work. Thus, my motivation dropped and I haven’t written nearly as much as I intended to do.
The higher your quality standards are, the harder it is to satisfy those standards. Usually, the large amount of effort required to meet ambitious goals decreases the fun you have on the way. Less fun means less motivation means less dedicated work (and more procrastination) means less productivity. In turn, a decrease in productivity is frustrating and destroys fun. Therefore, perfectionism can initiate a vicious circle which can only be stopped by abandoning perfectionism.
Healthy Alternatives To Perfectionism
But which level of quality standards is good? Let’s begin with following observation: If your quality standards are so high that they make you want to quit, then they are obviously too high! Aim for a baseline level of performance which you are really comfortable with even if you are not at your best and feel pretty tired. Intersperse sprints of high intensity work, but don’t expect that you will be able to sprint all the time without crashing badly afterwards.
You still can be ambitious without falling in the trap of perfectionism. Optimalism is a concept that is presented in Tal Ben-Shahar’s book The Pursuit of Perfect. A book review of The Pursuit Of Perfect mentions the key concepts of optimalism:
- Optimalists value the journey, expect detours, and seek to learn from (not fear) failure: “learn to fail or fail to learn”.
- They set high standards and ambitious goals that are attainable and grounded in reality.
- Optimalists appreciate and savor success, and can find satisfaction in a less than perfect performance.
- The “good enough” mindset results in more energy. Coping and learning increases self-confidence, encouraging optimalists to take on more challenges.
- A rich emotional life of high self-esteem and self acceptance is the reward for being an optimalist.
What distinguishes perfectionism and optimalism is that optimalists are more realistic and ready to accept results which aren’t as good as possible. Perfect results require so much effort that it’s economically inefficient to pursue them.
Another formulation of optimalism comes from the post Optimalism: The Ism That Will Change Your Life:
Pursuing the best course of action, that gets maximum output from minimal input, to achieve optimal results.
1. Ascertain the BEST course of action
2. Ascertain how you can get the maximum results for the smallest amount of effort (think: pulley, delegation, 80/20)
Instead of requiring perfect results, optimalists seek for the methods that yields the highest output per unit of effort. Focusing on the essentials and minimizing the rest is the way to go.
Alternatively you could just go for “good enough”. That’s basically the idea behind satisficing:
Satisficing, a portmanteau “combining satisfy with suffice”, is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution. A satisficing strategy may often be (near) optimal if the costs of the decision-making process itself, such as the cost of obtaining complete information, are considered in the outcome calculus.
Perhaps it would be the best for me to apply a satisficing approach to blogging. I could set up basic requirements for blog posts like:
- Has an interesting and descriptive title.
- It is useful in some sense.
- Is so interesting that I would share it on social media if it was written by someone else.
- Uses headers for structuring.
- Contains at least one image.
- Is proofread at least once.
What’s the point of writing a post here if I wasn’t even willing to share it on Facebook or Twitter? Of course, I could go further and require that my posts are really original, cover a topic in-depth, feature scientific results, and deliver a powerful emotional experience. But trying to satisfy all these conditions at once would require an unreasonable amount of time and effort. It’s important to draw a clear line between basic requirements and optional extras.
How To Defeat Perfectionism
Knowing about healthier alternatives might not be enough to stop perfectionism. After all, the idea of doing something really really well is so attractive that it’s hard to go for “ok” and build on that incrementally. So, what does the Bloggosphere have to offer in the war against perfectionism?
In the post Perfectionism: How To Defeat It, And How Not To Pass It On some potential causes for perfectionism are mentioned: Fear and lack of self-confidence due to the experience of inappropriate criticism in childhood.
Ultimately, in my mission to defeat my own perfectionism, the key was this: I resolved to do new things even when I was scared. I allowed myself to make mistakes. I recognized that mistakes don’t change who I am as a person. I admitted my mistakes to others and asked for help.
Penelope Trunk offers a really interesting solution for perfectionism in her post Perfectionism Is a Disease. Here’s How to Beat It.
Allow yourself to be wrong in front of others.
Try having an opinion that is wrong. Tell a story that is stupid. Wear clothes that don’t match. Turn in a project that you can’t fully explain. People will not think you’re stupid. People will think you spent your time and energy doing something else — something that meant more to you.
A very surprising suggestion comes from Jessica Stillman and her post 5 Ways to Beat Perfectionism:
Compare yourself to others. This probably sounds surprising when the prevailing wisdom says not to. But we perfectionists need frequent reality checks. Think about whatever has you firing on all cylinders and what you’re hoping to achieve. Now notice how many people are doing quite well, thankyouverymuch, without raising the bar so high.
Five habits that defeat perfectionism and procrastination contains lots of good advice. For example this effective method:
In most cases, regardless of our specific “work product”, we can produce an SFD [shitty first draft]. Write a rambling, confused legal brief. Code up a short program that breaks easily. Create an incomplete document outline that helps structure our ideas. Some “all or nothing” cases exist, where it might appear that the rule doesn’t apply – flying aircraft or performing surgery, for example. In these cases, however, practitioners still complete SFDs. They just do them in a safe environment, using a cadaver, or a flight simulator.
Do I have something to add to all those suggestions? Yes: This blog post is good enough now.
What helped you to overcome perfectionism? Of course, your comments don’t need to be perfect.