Until a few years ago, I had no idea I was a perfectionist. Like most people, I assumed that perfectionists where those “perfect” people who never failed, those people who lived in perfect homes, who always did their tasks spotless, who never left something unfinished behind them. What I saw when looking at my own life was very far from this image – an endless row of abandoned projects, important tasks always finished in the last minute, procrastination, indecisiveness, chaos.
As the piles of undone stuff was growing around me until I had no idea where to start, I thought I suffered from depression, that the reason why I couldn´t get things done was that I was too low in energy. And I certainly WAS low in energy – and probably depressed as well, but today I know that one of the main reasons for being in this dead end was my backward perfectionist thinking, and to realize this was nothing less than a revolution.
What put me on track was an article I stumbled upon by Stanford professor John Perry about perfectionism and procrastination where he suggests that perfectionism not is DOING things perfect but merely having the ambition to. This was literary mind blowing for me. Since I never had done anything perfect, at least not towards my own standards, I certainly didn´t consider myself being a perfectionist, but after reading this article I started to be more aware of what was going on in my mind:
Every time I thought about doing something, I would get the vision of a perfect result. If I was going to write an article, I wanted it to be the best article ever written, if I was going to clean my wardrobe I wanted every single item to be placed in a “perfect” way. Sometimes this attitude was very helpful (like when café guests told me my carrot cake was the best they had ever tasted) but more often the ambition put me in trouble. One problem is, doing things “perfect” takes a lot of time, and time is always limited, especially if you are a scanner always getting interested in new things and wanting to start new projects… And how do you know something is perfect, anyway? What if I THOUGHT I had done a good job, and then found out later I had forgotten something really important? My fear of failing made me avoid the task as long as possible. If it had a real deadline, like an article that needed to be sent, I would throw something together in the last minute, always working late hours, but somehow the sleep deficit (and the adrenaline) helped me to focus on the most necessary and get something decent (but far from perfect) written. If it was something without a real deadline (as with cleaning the wardrobe) I simply wouldn´t do it at all, with the mess steadily growing as a result.
During periods when I was very busy (like when working in that café, with customers waiting for their orders) I would usually manage ok – the fear of failing to deliver on time would overshadow the fear of not doing things perfect) but when I had more “free time” (meaning time to do things that didn´t have a very clear deadline) I would get totally lost. I specially remember one period when I decided to work part time in order to “catch up” with my life. Every week I would have 2-3 days free for my projects. This means I could have achieved a lot, if I had only been able to use the time. If I, for example, had been able to randomly pick one or two task every day, I would probably have eliminated my piles in a few weeks. But with a perfectionist mindset it´s just not that easy. I didn´t want to pick something random – I wanted to pick things in the perfect order. I even wanted to put together my days in a perfect, seamless flow. It was just that my brain got locked when trying to arrange this system, since it was too much information to handle at once. Also, as I know today, very often there IS no right or wrong order – just different. Of course I have to wash the clothes before I can hang them to dry, but with most tasks it simply doesn´t matter if I do B before A and then C or if I do it some other order. Another problem was that I wouldn´t be satisfied just by doing one or a few things a day – I wanted amazing results! I remember waking up in the mornings, usually in a good mood after sleeping, then thinking “today I will fix my life”. The next thing that would happen was that the list of everything I would need to do in order to achieve this “goal” came to my mind. The list would turn into a gigantic mountain in front of me, and I would get totally overwhelmed, I would have no idea where to start and realize how impossible it would be to success. Before I knew it, I would have fallen into a deep black hole, filled with angst, a big hard lump in my stomach, feeling like a total failure. Since my expectations of what to achieve and what I actually could manage never would meet it felt pointless even to start, and I usually ended up spending the day reading the newspaper and playing the piano for hours. (Not a bad thing in itself, but never what I had planned) I NEVER got the satisfaction of checking of today´s to-do-list, seeing I had reached my goal. Do you wonder why I felt a bit low in energy?
After starting to pay closer attention, I´ve noticed that most people who get a lot done are no perfectionists at all – they are “action heroes” who usually act before they think. This is the secret behind how they get so much done. Acting fast also means that they sometimes makes mistakes, but they don´t let this stop them from taking action.
Perfectionists, on the contrary, think A LOT. They hate to make mistakes and having to correct them later, so they try to predict every single step before getting in action. They have very clear ideas about how things “should” be done, and they refuse to do anything “half baked”. Since perfectionists rather do nothing than doing something “un-perfect”, the result is often that they don´t get much done at all. They live in messy homes, they procrastinate, they feel stuck. Their perfectionism becomes a prison, preventing them from doing almost anything they care about.
From what I know today, perfectionism seems to be one of the most common reasons for people to feel stuck. I´m totally convinced that perfectionism causes depressions, burn-outs, and a lot of other health problems. It certainly prevents a lot of people from living fulfilling lives. It´s really ironic that the reason for not doing things, for many people, not is that they don´t care – but that they care too much. And, just like in my case, most victims don´t even know that they are perfectionists!
So, what to do about this? Actually, I started to write this article mainly with the focus how to change patterns, but it became so long so I decided to divide it in two parts rather than spending too much time trying to shorten it down to a “perfect” length… But I figure recognizing a problem is always the beginning to change (as for me when stumbling upon that article). So if you recognized yourself in anything I wrote here (or if you are one of those rare perfectionists who still manage to keep track with your ambitions, but to the cost of risking your health since you´re always working) please turn over to Prison break for perfectionists – but before you do, you are most welcome to tell us in which ways perfectionism has affected you!