Perfectionism. The modern Achilles Heel. We try so hard to do everything right and yet somehow just end up burned out and exhausted. Is there a way out?
What is perfectionism?
If you don’t deal with perfectionism, then give yourself a pat on the back. I suspect, though, that we’ve all had to face it at some point in our lives. Whether it is our own perfectionism or that of people close to use, it’s a Western expectation that’s hard to avoid.
Perfectionism is the need to feel, appear, or be perfect. It is a myth perpetuated in many ways. Images of perfect vacations, movie star bodies, and pristine homes. Discussions of the best way to eat, exercise, and sleep. Comparing ourselves to test scores, medical scores, sports stats, and FitBits. News articles, self-help books, magazines, and more spread the glossy allure of a perfect life out before us.
Some people argue that perfectionism is primarily fear-driven. There are high expectations placed on us throughout our lives (internally and externally) that we constantly try to meet. Our fear of not living up to these expectations drives us to try and do everything exactly right. We aren’t actually trying to do things well for their own sake, we are simply scared to lose love or status.
I think this makes a lot of sense. I know I do a lot of things just because I don’t want to hear complaints from anyone or be blamed for anything. On one level this makes me more careful and encourages me to think things through before acting. I’ve probably saved myself a lot of embarrassment and avoided hurting others over the years. On another level it’s kind of a crummy way to live, always second-guessing everything you do. No wonder we are all so stressed!
How is excellence different?
There is also an argument that perfectionism is simply the negative manifestation of excellence. The culture of excellence encourages people to always strive for success, take risks, work hard toward a goal, and persist no matter what. The key difference between perfectionism and excellence is that there is an understanding that excellence cannot happen without failure. If you are taking risks and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, then mistakes will happen, you will do things wrong, and you will keep going.
I prefer excellence over perfection if it means I can mess up and still be considered successful. On the other hand, the culture of excellence still has an underlying assumption that you give 100% of your time and effort to everything and never quit.
That seems like a high bar to achieve. I mean, do I really have to give 100% to everything? Even that committee I was volun-told to be on? What about that time-sucking paperwork I’m pretty sure no one will ever look at? And do I really have to be excellent at making sure my home looks perfect at all times?
Western culture has high expectations at work and at home. The combination of high expectations and perfectionism is often burnout. Too many people strive to be excellent or perfect at everything and are unable to let anything go. They are constantly pushing to meet completely unrealistic expectations and run themselves into the ground instead.
Burnout is a very real thing. I think most of the blame for burnout lies at the door of employers and society that asks too much of people. However, we also need to learn to take responsibility for our own part in this. We must realize that not being able to say NO to the constant demands allows these social expectations to perpetuate. We have to learn that striving to be perfect or excellent at everything is hurting us in the long run. (Read my blog pst on burnout here.)
Are there times when striving for less than excellence is OK?
I’d like to argue that the answer is an emphatic YES.
Not everything needs your 100% effort and attention.
Not everything needs to be done at the highest standards.
Sometimes 80% is good enough
I finally started letting go of perfectionism years ago when I suddenly realized that not everything in my life deserves my 100% attention. Let me give some examples of what I see as appropriate less-than-excellent work.
I really like my car to look clean inside and out. However, it doesn't have to be 100% pristine every time I give it a wash.
Certain reports or forms I need to fill out don’t require my 100% attention. Yes, I want them to look intelligent and be spelled correctly, but I refuse to give two hours to compiling a perfect data set that someone will look at for 60 seconds. These jobs are definitely 80% jobs.
Eating. I don’t eat 100% healthy food all the time. I used to try and it was exhausting. Now I aim for good food 80% of the time and let the other 20% be what it is.
Social media. I’m not really a social media gal. I try to keep up with all my various accounts, both professionally and personally, but the fact is that I don’t get a lot of joy out of it. I’ve learned that for me, posting to social media is not something I need to do at the highest level of excellence all the time (which is exactly why I’m not on Instagram). Sometimes just posting is good enough. It doesn’t always have to be brilliant.
Think about what is on your 80% list. Cooking? Cleaning? Emails? Reading blogs? (I’m not offended!) Keeping up with the news? Whether you want to admit it or not, we all have 80% things in our lives. The only reason we feel guilty about them is because most of us have grown up in a culture of perfectionism and excellence. It’s time to make conscious choices about what we can let slide.
How do you know when to not be perfect?
So, it’s time to admit that being less than perfect is OK. You can still be excellent in life while giving your 80% to some things. The key is to not just let yourself off the hook for everything you don’t want to do. To really hack the less-than-perfect mindset you need to be a strategic about it.
There are several things you need to think through. One is whether or not doing something 80% is going to hurt someone else. You may want to give yourself permission to remember birthdays 80% of the time. Before you do, consider if it will hurt the 20% of people you forget. Maybe remembering birthdays needs to fall into a 100% category (with a few slipups allowed here and there.)
Another thing to think about is if doing something 80% will cause more problems down the road. You may think that taxes are an 80% activity, but if you get called on mistakes you made, that IRS audit is going to be a major headache. Maybe doing that 100% the first time is worth it to avoid issues later. This isn’t necessarily fear-based thinking, it’s strategic.
Here’s an additional question to consider: Will anyone notice if you do something 80%? If you only mow 80% of your lawn, your neighbors are going to see that. If you only give 80% of your attention to packing for vacation, you might forget some things and spend more time than necessary trying to find what you need.
On the other hand, there may be things you are really good at, and no one will notice if you only give 80% to it. Your 80% might look just as good as someone else’s 100%. Maybe you are really good at planning parties, throwing together a meal, or creating a professional presentation. If you can do these things at 80% and no one will notice a difference, then save yourself some time and energy.
You also need to make sure that the things you give 80% to do not create more work for someone else. Is your 80% attention on that project going to make more work for a colleague? Then it’s not your best choice. You don’t want anyone else to have to pick up your slack. The goal is to do things well enough that no one notices or takes the fall for your less than 100% work.
Sometimes what you give your attention to changes over time. Maybe your family is going through a really tough spot so you put 100% of your attention there and let work slide at 80% for a week or two. Perhaps you are planning to make some major changes in your life and 100% of your attention is going toward doing that well and you let things like cleaning and eating healthy slip for a while. There are certain rhythms to life that you need to acknowledge and roll with. It’s OK to not strive for excellence 100% of the time.
Be strategic about being less than perfect
There are ways to be strategic about how much time and attention you give to certain tasks. You can still look excellent without giving 100% to everything you do. You just have to be aware of what you are giving your attention to and be willing to assign certain tasks 80% importance.
Sometimes this happens on the fly. I often have an email slide into my inbox and my initial reaction to it is frustration because it will require a lot of effort to respond well. It’s at that moment that I stop and ask myself, “Is this a 100% task? Is 80% good enough to get this done?” Once I have those answers, I know how much time and energy to put into completing the task.
Sometimes strategy happens ahead of time. As you plan your week, ask what needs your 100% attention and what does not. It will help you know how much time to allocate for certain tasks.
Don’t let fear drive you toward perfectionism
It’s also good to ask, “Do I want to do this 100% because I am afraid of something, or because I actually think it is worth doing well?” If you are doing something out of fear for what others will think or how it might reflect on you, then it’s time to examine the underlying expectations. If the expectation of what you “should’ do is unreasonable, then it’s time to push back against the unrealistic expectation.
However, if it is your own fear keeping you from doing less than 100%, then you need to deal with your own mindset first. A very good practice to start combating some of these fears is to practice releasing fear-based thoughts.
Are you ready to be less than perfect?
So, are you ready to try and be less than perfect? Honestly, I highly recommend it as a way of life. I’m not saying that I don’t strive to be excellent, but I’m much more strategic about WHAT I give my 100% time and attention to and WHY. Trying to do it all at the highest level of excellence is just a recipe for burnout and failure.
Are there some things you can happily give your 80% attention to this week? Give yourself permission to take a break. You can use the energy you save focusing on those things that need 100% from you!