This past week I had a conversation with a client who wrestles with wanting to be perfect at work. In terms of psychology, perfectionism is considered a personality trait. It is characterized by a striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. Everything we were talking about.
I know something about endeavoring to be perfect. I am a recovering perfectionist myself (I like to think that I’m making good progress). In addition to my own lifetime tendency for being hypercritical (of myself and others) I have a propensity for spending an inordinate amount of time on unimportant tasks; an affinity for procrastination, waiting for the perfect time and way to start things (sometimes never) and the inclination to get totally wrapped up in small details to the detriment of my larger goals. Just a sample of the perfectionist bents I’m getting over.
According to Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation in Boston, and the author of “The Perfectionist’s Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes,” the idea of perfectionism is always presented as a negative thing in clinical settings. It is difficult to argue with his contention. Just Google perfectionism along with something you do such as writing (articles like this) and you will find page after page of internet information offering warnings about the “dangerous” tendencies of perfectionism and tips for dealing with and overcoming the “disorder.”
The truth is, as with any behavior, there are positive and negative sides. In my opinion striving to be perfect is not a bad thing. I believe it is our human nature that makes us want to avoid mistakes and do something as well as we can. We can’t help that. We like being elevated in the eyes of family, friends and co-workers. Striving to do my best in everything has had real benefits for me. And the really good news is it can be an advantage for anyone who thinks about and utilizes the unique positives this personality trait offers for them.
With my client, I suggested the following experiment. Slack off on purpose, against your every instinct. Leave work on time. Don’t arrive early. Take breaks and go out to lunch. Prioritize and don’t answer every email. Leave your desk at the end of the day with work for the next day. Give yourself a limit on attempts to finish an assignment and turn it in.
Then pay attention. Did you get fired? Did you get punished? Did the company and all of your co-workers continue to function? Are you less stressed and happier? I’m sure you will see that everything continues to function, and the things that were so worrisome weren’t that crucial. They never are.
The problem (or blessing) when it comes to perfectionism is that most of us can never completely change our inherent characteristics. Fortunately, we have options. In the words of Author Lauren King, “There are two kinds of perfect: The one you can never achieve, and the other, by just being yourself.”
Think about it. If you want to be perfect and happy choose the other.
William “Bud” Hart is a certified “Mindset” Coach, Accountability Partner and Business Consultant. Visit Hart Group, www.hartgroupma.com for more on coaching.