Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 28, 2021.
The desire to be perfect can inspire people to perform at their very best and deliver high-quality work, but it also can cause "unnecessary anxiety and slow you down," Rebecca Knight writes in Harvard Business Review. Knight rounds up six expert-backed ways to "harness the positives of your perfectionism while mitigating the negatives."
When perfectionism becomes a hindrance
Matt Plummer, founder of Zarvana, the online coaching service that helps workers become more productive, explains, "A lot of perfectionistic tendencies are rooted in fear and insecurity." As such, he said, perfectionists often "worry that if they let go of their (meticulousness and conscientiousness), it will hurt their performance and standing."
However, Plummer and other experts note, in some cases the opposite is true; perfectionism can be "counterproductive," particularly when it keeps people from moving onto new tasks or dragging tasks out of fear of failure.
6 steps to let go of perfectionism
So how do you stop your perfectionist instincts from holding you back? Knight shares six expert-backed tips for "let[ting] go of your penchant for perfectionism."
1. Look at the bigger picture. Citing a Harvard Business Review piece Plummer co-authored, Knight notes that it's important for perfectionists to understand "'the opportunity cost'" of perfectionism. Plummer in the piece explained that since time is limited, "we know that choosing to spend time on one task means that we are choosing not to spend time on a million other tasks."
Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist, similarly explained, "There's a point of diminishing returns" you can reach when you give at ask too much attention. Toward this end, Plummer told Knight it's important to step back and look at the task at hand in a broader context. He said, "Ask yourself: Am I using my time wisely? Am I being productive?"
2. Reset your standards. Plummer and Boyes also note that it is important for perfectionists to reset their standards for a given task. Plummer acknowledged that this can be hard to do alone so suggested people struggling with perfectionism show their work to a colleague or supervisor before they get too far into the task. Plummer explained colleagues or a supervisor could help you see your work is "already good enough" and "that task you thought could take 10 hours could really take only five."
3. Make a checklist. Part of the problem with perfection is it can make tasks never-ending, according to Plummer. "[A] perfectionist is always going to want to keep working [on a given assignment]," Plummer said. "But the end result is rarely satisfying."
Fortunately, Plummer said there is a simple solution: a checklist. The checklist should outline discrete goals that can help perfectionists clearly see what needs to be done and how much they've accomplished.
"The perfectionist in you might fret over the font choice and sweat every semi-colon," Knight writes. "But with a checklist that reminds you to confirm you've spelled things correctly and to eliminate basic editing errors, you needn't endlessly slog."
4. Stop ruminating. Rumination, or the tendency to "repetitively mul[l] over a thought or problem without ever coming to a resolution," is an "unhealthy" and "unproductive" perfectionist behavior that gets in the way of problem solving, Knight writes. To stop ruminating, Boyes suggests spending some time to identify your triggers and find a way to disrupt the rumination cycle, such as a 10-minute mundane but "practical task … that 'breaks the chain.'"
If you find yourself dwelling on a past event, Boyes suggests taking some time to distance yourself from the episode and gain perspective, as your initial reaction may not be trustworthy. Finally, she recommends adopting a positive mind to combat the notion that something that is not perfect is not worth doing, and avoid ruminating over the looming task.
5. Talk with a third party to gain perspective. It can be hard to tell when perfectionism becomes counterproductive, so Boyes suggests asking someone you trust to help alert you. Knight writes, "Be honest and open. Tell this person that you're working on getting better." Knight advises, "Make it clear that you want to hear how you come across." Once you've gotten your confidant's feedback, think about their comments and see how they can help you make progress.
6. Track your progress. To see how your efforts are going, Boyes suggests a "weekly review" where you check in with yourself about your progress. During this review, Boyes said you should ask yourself: "Was there anything I avoided this week due to fear of making mistakes?"; "Were there any instances where my perfectionism was not worth it?"; and "Were there any times this week when I took action, even when I felt uncertain, and ended up moving things forward?"
For those headed down the perfectionist correction path, Knight offers one last suggestion, "Remember, you're not fundamentally 'changing course'; rather, you're, 'redirecting your personality'" (Knight, Harvard Business Review, 4/30; Plummer/Wilson, Harvard Business Review, 5/4/18).