Being a perfectionist might not seem like a bad thing at work. In fact, you might even be valued for being detail-oriented. Who wouldn’t want an employee who has high standards, right?
But perfectionism has a dark side–one that doesn’t get talked about enough. According to a study conducted by Stoeber, Davis and Townley at School of Psychology, University of Kent in UK, perfectionism affects a person’s productivity and performance by leading to workaholism. This further causes stress, anxiety, burnout and unhappiness.
Not many perfectionists will admit the problems they face with all this, no matter how exhausted or worthless they feel, but here I am with a frank admission: I’ve struggled with perfectionism all my life. While it has served me well, helped me ace academics and meet the goals I’ve set for myself, it has also left me with a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction.
A couple of years ago, after struggling with perfectionism all my life, I was finally able to figure out a way to use my perfectionist tendencies to my advantage.
I was working on a skill development project that required me to visit several training centers and write reports on my observations. Sometimes this meant writing over four reports in a week. For those who are wondering what the big deal about this is, let me tell you a secret: We perfectionists hate deadlines.
Didn’t expect that, did you?
While deadlines are useful to organize and schedule work, perfectionists struggle to meet them because we get stuck perfecting what we’re working on. The law of diminishing returns states that after a point, all the extra effort that you put in does not yield equal or proportional returns. Basically, the benefits you gain from something are less than the effort and time invested.
I’ve struggled to recognize this so many times. Even though I was aware that the extra time I spent working on something was not really going to help much, I couldn’t stop myself from ‘improving it’.
This is exactly what happened to me when I was working on the reports. I ended up obsessing over minute details that were not really important and I missed my deadline by three whole days. While the reports I eventually submitted were impeccable, they no longer mattered.
My then boss called me in for a meeting. She knew that writing these reports wasn’t really a big challenge and asked what had happened. I confessed that I was incapable of submitting a report I didn’t find 100% right.
In that meeting, she let me in on a secret: She told me she too, just like me, had struggled with being a perfectionist early in her career. I was shocked to know this and asked her how she had coped. Her response completely changed the way I work today. She said: “Focus on getting things 80% perfect but always on time.”
Before this, I didn’t know there was a formula to overcome perfectionism! This changed my life. Sure it wasn’t easy at first. How could I submit something knowing it’s not perfect? That just didn’t feel right. Why could I not work a little more, make that 20% perfect and submit on time too? Slowly, with her help, I learned what matters most is getting things done–as well as possible, yes, but always on time.
For those of you who struggle with deadlines because of the strong urge to ensure your work is ‘perfect’, it may seem impossible or too difficult in the beginning, but with time, effort and practice, you’ll learn how to work backwards from a deadline.
I am doing my part and am sending in this article for publication, even though I have a nagging feeling that it’s not quite perfect just yet…
Explore topics such as Importance of Writing Skills, Process of Writing, What is Report Writing & Types of Report Writing from our Harappa Diaries blog section to build your skills for workplace success.
Sanjay Deshpande is a Young India Fellow and worked at the NASSCOM Foundation. A curriculum specialist at Harappa Education, his collection of printed shirts elicits collective envy. Dancing and trying out new cuisines keeps him going.
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