Why Being a Perfectionist Can Hurt Your Productivity – Harvard Business Review

Do you ever “back door brag” about being a perfectionist?

Unlike other obsessions and addictions, perfectionism is something a lot of people celebrate, believing it’s an asset. But true perfectionism can actually get in the way of productivity and happiness.

I recently interviewed David Burns, author of “Feeling Good” has made this exact connection. In his more than 35,000 therapy sessions he has learned that the pursuit of perfection is arguably the surest way to undermine happiness and productivity. There is a difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and neurotic perfectionism, but in the name of the first have you ever fallen into elements of the second?

Taken to the extreme, perfectionism becomes a disorder. Burns shares the wild example of an attorney who became obsessed with getting his hair “just right.” He spent hours in front of the mirror with his scissors and comb making adjustments until his hair was just an eighth of an inch long. Then he became obsessed with getting his hairline exactly right and he shaved it a little more every day until his hair receded back so far he was bald. He would then wait for his hair to grow back and the pattern continued again. Eventually his desire to have the perfect hair led him to cut back on his legal practice in order to continue his obsession.

This is an extreme example to be sure, but there are less severe ways in which our own perfectionism leads us to major in minor activities? Have you ever obsessed over a report when your boss said it was already plenty good enough? Have you ever lost an object of little importance but just had to keep looking for it? Do colleagues often tell you, “Just let it go”?

Aiming for “perfect” instead of “good enough” can seriously backfire. This happened to me recently when I was asked to teach a workshop to the leaders of a prominent technology company. I took the time to understand their needs and personalize the materials to their specifications. And I already had materials I had taught scores of times with great results to pull from. But my obsession for making it perfect led me to scrap all of that the night before, and as a result I was unprepared and exhausted. I felt jumbled and my slides distracted from the main message. If I had shot for average instead of perfect, I would have been able to focus more on the client in the moment and things would have turned out very differently.

This left me wondering: what if trying to be average could actually accelerate your success?

Overachievers have such high expectations of themselves that their “average” might be another person’s “really good.” So instead of pushing yourself to give 100% (or 110%, whatever that means) you can go for giving 75% or 50% of what you usually might offer. This idea is captured succinctly by the mantra, “Done is better than perfect” – which Facebook has plastered all over the walls of their Menlo Park headquarters. That’s not to excuse shoddy work. Rather, the idea is to give engineers permission to complete cycles of work and learn quickly instead of being held hostage by an unattainable sense of perfection.

The word “perfect” has a Latin root; literally, it means “made well” or “done thoroughly.” Another translation would be “complete.” And yet today, we use it to mean flawless. If you must pursue perfection, at least use the former definition rather than the (unattainable) latter.

If you are a perfectionist, overachiever or workaholic you are probably used to taking on big challenges. The  nature of the obsession makes it easy to do what is hard. Paradoxically, it may be harder at first to try to be average.

To understand why, we need to understand the role of fear in perfectionism: “If I don’t perfectly [fill in the blank] something terrible will happen.” Often perfectionists are so used to this anxiety that they no longer even consciously recognize it; it’s just the fuel that keeps them working, working, working and honing, honing, honing.

While the logic may be totally false, the emotion is absolutely real. As a result, it takes greater courage for a perfectionist to try to be average than to tackle almost any other challenge. Being average scares them, so they haven’t experienced the benefits of being average.

Here’s how Burns put it: “There are two doors to enlightenment. One is marked, ‘Perfection’ and the other is marked, ‘Average.’ The ‘Perfection’ door is ornate, fancy, and seductive… So you try to go through the ‘Perfection’ door and always discover a brick wall on the other side… On the other side of the ‘Average’ door, in contrast, there’s a magic garden. But it may have never occurred to you to open the door to take a look.” (Check out a recent blog Burns wrote about what he learned about perfectionism from his cat Odie!)

If you think you are the type of person who takes on hard assignments with ease you might try to do something really hard: try being average for one day. What you find might surprise you.

12 thoughts on “Why Being a Perfectionist Can Hurt Your Productivity – Harvard Business Review

  1. Mia Sherwood Landau says:

    Yeah, and perfectionism has many disguises, too. Here are some that have zapped my productivity more than I will probably ever know – “Nobody else will do it, so I guess I’m the one who has to do it.” “I’ve got what it takes to take on this much (this many tasks, jobs, kids, commitments, etc) so I probably should do it.” “I’ll just make myself indispensible so everybody will see how valuable I am and that way I won’t… (get fired, get dumped, get criticized, etc.) Lovely perfectionistic thoughts, right? Sound familiar?

  2. Dr. Philip Rogers says:

    Food for thought. Not sure where I fit in the full spectrum, but I realize that I surely can check myself and see where I might be over the edge at times.
    Thank you, Greg.

  3. Mark says:

    I have noticed an uptick in “perfectionist syndrome” in my students over the last five or so years. (I teach university-level music students.) In the worst cases, students have gone for weeks without turning in any assignments, simply because they could not get the wording/phrasing/ideas perfect. By the time they finally admit to me the problem, it’s too late for them to salvage the grade, and they have to end up settling for grades well below their potential.

  4. Baffour Ofori-Atta Kena says:

    “Done is better than perfect” makes a lot of sense. Very insightful post. Keep up the good work,Greg.

  5. Mark in Tx says:

    Dan Sullivan has a great perspective on this that he calls the 80% approach. For most of our workday 80% is enough. The things that require better than 80% are robbed of attention if you are devoting 100% (perfection) to everything you do.

  6. Erica says:

    How intriguing – last year while at church I had one of those ‘ah ha’ moments where I thought “What if perfection meant fit for purpose rather than without flaws?”. And here you are suggesting a similar approach!

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