Have you ever delegated a task to someone, then taken it back because the person didn’t do it the “right way”? Which of course is your way, because your way is the perfect way. You may suffer from the disease of perfectionism. Do these phrases sound familiar? “If I let someone else do this, it won’t be done correctly.” “If you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself.” “If you can’t do something right, it’s not worth doing at all.”
If you hear yourself saying these things, be careful. It’s true that if you truly believe your way is the only “right” way, you’re going to harbor resentment from others. If you demand that people perform your way, according to your perfect standards, many people will be content to let you do things your way, leaving you wondering why you have so much on your plate! Yes, perfectionism will make you crazy and others around you nuts as well.
I know. I am what I fondly call a “recovering perfectionist.” I’ve learned not every task deserves my best effort. One reader said it beautifully: “I need help learning when to say ‘Enough.’ Every ‘A’ doesn’t have to have a ‘+’ after it, and every ‘Wow’ doesn’t have to have an ‘!’ after it. I don’t want to say that I am a perfectionist — I see it as striving for excellence and not wanting to settle for less. I think this can be detrimental to my time management and frustrating for my colleagues and bosses.”
I think my kids may have helped me “recover.” When Meagan, my first-born, was too young to clean up after herself, I would clean up her playroom at the end of the night. The books would go back into the bookcase, on the correct shelf, in order by size, height, and topic. Crazy, huh? Did that increase customer satisfaction in some way? Now that I have three kids, as long as they stuff them back on a shelf somewhere, I’m happy, because it’s fine the way it is.
High Standards versus Unrealistic Expectations
One of the early lessons I learned was to distinguish between a high standard and an unrealistic expectation. Some things require high standards and have to be done “just so.” Most expectations we impose on others, however, are simply picky-picky standards without merit.
There’s a big difference between being disciplined, careful, and attentive, and being obsessive. The difference is in focusing on the purpose of your efforts. Look at everything in terms of the big picture. To the extent that the details enhance and promote your overall purpose, give them your time and energy. To the extent that the details detract from, or even replace, the original purpose, let them go.
A seminar participant told me that his mother was so obsessive when he was a kid that he couldn’t play ball on the grass because it would mess up the lawn. She also was a perfectionist about keeping her house clean. They had a white sofa in the living room, but he couldn’t sit on it because it might get dirty. If a chair was out of place slightly, he had to move it back. He couldn’t play freely, his friends were uncomfortable, his family didn’t feel at home, and she was a wreck. Nothing is more wasteful than worrying and fretting over trivial details.
Keep your life’s purpose clearly in mind, and make the details your servant rather than your master. Eliminating picky-picky standards will make life more bearable for everyone involved.
When the situation requires high standards, keep your expectations high. For example, if you overheard a pilot saying, “Well, I landed nine out of ten planes last week,” you’d worry slightly that person was piloting your plane. As a professional, you must demand the best if it’s required. In other situations, when it really doesn’t matter, be flexible and let small mistakes go. Ask yourself, “Is this acceptable?” Perhaps a team member performed a task differently than you might have, but it was perfectly satisfactory given the circumstances. Learn to trust and let others do their work, even though it may not be done the way you do it.
I had a boss who prided himself on his writing ability and insisted on reviewing every single document we wrote, even internal memos circulated only in our department. They came back littered with red marks. But the only thing that changed was style. Was it really necessary for him to change my writing style, sentence structure, and word choice to reflect his preferences? He should have asked himself, “Is this document technically correct? Is it understandable?” If it’s acceptable, who cares how it’s worded! It’s no wonder he worked 60 hours a week and had a heart attack.
Do your high standards in housework keep family members from helping you? Are you not satisfied even when they help? Does your young son offer to set the table, and instead of being easygoing and flexible in your standards, you berate him because the fork is in the wrong spot? See if he ever takes initiative again.
Have you ever managed to claim a small victory by getting your sweetie to pay the bills or perform a small chore, and then complain that he or she did it incorrectly? I have a friend whose husband offered to go to the grocery store (normally her responsibility) so we could get a cup of coffee. Upon our return, she rifled through the bags and started berating him for buying the wrong type of peanut butter, getting cheese curls, and not using the coupon she had cut out. At some level, isn’t peanut butter just peanut butter? When good enough will do, let it go.
Benefits to the Recovering Perfectionist
When you’re able to let go of small things instead of being bothered by them, there aren’t as many situations that provoke you to speak up. You’ll feel no need to mention the occasional blooper; you just let it pass. Strive toward performance criteria that are adaptive, realistic, and attainable. When good enough will do, leave it alone. People will appreciate not having to conform to your way of doing things. People don’t like being told they have to change or that they’re not good enough. Role model high standards when appropriate and others will be inspired to follow your example.
Besides letting up on others, we must let up on the demands we place on ourselves. Perfectionism is not a positive character trait, to be worn like a medal. By its definition, perfectionism is unattainable. So if you call yourself a perfectionist, you have a particularly unrealistic standard for your behavior. You will never achieve the levels you demand of yourself. Your attempts at perfectionism will affect your feelings about yourself in negative, undesirable ways. You inflate the importance of mistakes, critical feedback, and minor flaws. You distort their significance. Instead, relax. You’re bound to make mistakes. Learn from them, and then let them go. You’ll find you’re able to accomplish much more as well.
Make it a productive day!™ (C) Copyright 2004 Laura Stack, MBA, CSP. All rights reserved. Portions of this newsletter may be reprinted in your organization or association newsletter, provided the following credit line is present: “Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity Pro”® and the author of Leave the Office Earlier. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or send an e-mail to Laura@TheProductivityPro.com.”