SEVEN STEPS TO CURB YOUR PERFECTIONISM & ACCOMPLISH MORE
By Ida Abdalkhani, Founder at Ability to Engage
I grew up in a depressed rust-belt city surrounded by pollution and decay. I escaped, vigorously pursued my undergraduate studies and leadership activities at Ohio State, added an MBA with honors, helped build multiple brands at one of the world’s largest consumer products companies, backpacked around the world, and started my own company. All before the age of 30. You may think I’m an overachiever—and you’re right. But underlying my achievements was a quest for perfection. I have always needed things to be “just right.” It’s likely one part genetics and two parts learned behavior. I’m better than that now. But let’s look at what was wrong.
Checklists. Everything either black or white. Hypercritical. You might as well do it, because no one else can do it as well as you. Dissatisfied. I never experienced a perfect dinner, because there was no such thing. Even at 5-star restaurants whatever I ordered seemed sub-par. The meal of the person beside me looked better. Sound familiar? If so, you may also be a perfectionist. Wait, sorry. Perfectionists don’t like gray. You are a perfectionist. And you need an intervention.
You feel you’re the best in everything you do, even in those things you’re not that interested in. You are your own harshest critic, but that’s ok—because it helps you over deliver. And to be honest, our culture has indulged your behaviors. Perfectionists, give it your all! Better yet, give it 110%. We never say “good enough,” never give it 60%. Your friends and family come to you for your advice, even on topics that aren’t in your sphere of knowledge, because you can do anything.
So you may not have pondered what being a perfectionist is doing to you—to your health, your relationships, or your potential.
I know, because this happened to me.
I aimed to be the best in everything I did, even if it wasn’t something that fulfilled a passion or core purpose. I gave my all to my Fortune 100 job, even though my gut told me that a corporate life wasn’t my future. I would put in 80-hour weeks for something that didn’t feel right. For years. It’s mind-numbing when I look back at it, but it happens to perfectionists all the time. And it’s probably happening to you, right now, which may be why you are reading this.
My job was making me sick because my perfectionism was keeping me up at night, working late hours and eroding my relationships. But what was the cure? I decided to throw caution to the wind. I turned my back on my fast-track career and submitted my two-week notice. Then I did another very non-perfectionist thing. I quit with zero plans for what I was going to do next. I was so overwhelmed by the idea of not knowing my future, of not having a path in front of me, that I decided I would try something totally different. For once, I would purposefully not have a plan. Instead, I wanted to enjoy the journey. So I bought a one-way flight to Europe and imagined backpacking around the world, with no plan, but seizing every opportunity. I had no idea when I would come back, what countries I would see or what path I would take. I would figure it out as I went. And you know what? It was THE MOST AMAZING, INVIGORATING, LIFE-CHANGING endeavor of my life. Not my first love, my college degree, my first house, or my first job. But this seemingly simple thing—having no plan—changed my life. It made me realize that I needed to stop being a perfectionist. Why? Because I realized that the best times of my life would never have made it onto my checklist. Perfectionism would not lead to happiness.
I know you fellow perfectionists out there are cringing. But here are 7 reasons why imperfection should not make you cringe:
- We trade-off our health in our quest for perfection. We forget to eat or we eat cookies at our desks because we don’t have time for proper meals. Sleep is minimized to enable a perfect presentation. The 80/20 Rule doesn’t apply to perfectionists.
- We ruminate on the smallest of things, asking ourselves how we possibly could have made that mistake. We generalize small mistakes, in a process called “globalization.” We replay these negative thoughts and extend them to other areas of our life, causing damage to our confidence and mental health.
- We are constantly disappointed, making relationships with others difficult. Are you always telling your partner, “Just let me do it!”? Or complaining to him/her that something else needs to be done after he/she has just finished a task? Our own desire for perfection is toxic to building genuine relationships built on love and an understanding that we are all imperfect.
- We focus on outside markers of success vs. internal growth. We need the accolades of our managers, family, and friends as a measuring stick of our worth. Instead of feeling great because someone complimented us on our promotion or how great our hair looks, how about we focus instead on measuring ourselves by how much we are living out our dreams? How much we are fulfilling our passions? Instead of external expectations dictating my worth, how about how many days I woke up happy this week?
- We fear failure. We think that failure must be blamed on imperfection. But failure is often where we learn life’s greatest lessons! It’s what makes us stronger, wiser, and more able to tackle what life throws our way.
- We de-prioritize family, friends, and making memories. I can’t tell you how many times I missed out on dining with friends or going to an event because I had too many things to check off my to-do list. I would stay home to clean and miss out on creating connections and forging my own life narrative in a meaningful manner.
- We miss out on life! We are always thinking about the future and what’s next. We get a college degree and immediately look to the next task we can conquer, be it another degree, a job, or having a family. We place our happiness in the future. I’ll be happy when … (fill in the blank). We are so concerned with what comes next, that we forget to enjoy the process of getting there. Happiness now? What’s that?
And if my anecdotal experience isn’t enough to convince you, there are many scientific articles that have linked perfectionist qualities to anxiety disorders, eating disorders and depression. The American Psychological Association provides a great overview of the different facets of perfectionism, each with its own set of problems (The Many Faces of Perfectionism). They assert that perfectionism is a “vulnerability factor” for suicide. Literally, perfectionism can kill you.
I’m not an advocate for laziness, nor am I recommending you lower your ambitions. But I think you should be nicer to yourself. Give yourself some room to mess up, to be human, to be imperfect. After all, your uncle with the long, funny stories wouldn’t be so endearing if his recollection of events was more concise. And your friend with the slightly annoying habit of taking pictures of every plate of food you order together at a restaurant—and instantly uploading it to Instagram—wouldn’t be the same quirky friend you love, without the quirks.
So here’s my recommendation on 7 Steps to Recover from Perfectionism, that you can start doing today:
- Confront yourself
Why do you care? What are you afraid of? Recognize that many things can only be learned by making mistakes. When you make a mistake ask, What can I learn from this experience? More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.
- Turn negative thoughts into positive affirmations
We hear this is key to happiness and how to live a better life. But here’s the twist for the perfectionist mentality: Say a positive affirmation about something you would typically think of as negative. If I didn’t work out for a weekend, I would feel guilty. I would wake up on Monday and think “Argh…all that food I ate is already going to my stomach!” Instead, I now think “So glad I ate well this weekend. That is going to fuel me to get this week off to a great start!” or “All those nutrients help make me beautiful.” I now take something I thought of as negative and turn it into something positive.
- Set realistic goals
One of my favorite quotes is “Be better than yesterday.” This helped me, and still helps me, as a business owner when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on my BHAGs (big, hairy audacious goals), I focus just one or two steps out in what I want to accomplish. I no longer try to accomplish everything at first blush. Those giant leaps are not realistic and set you up for disappointment.
- Focus on the journey, not just the end result.
You’ve probably heard people say that the key to happiness is enjoying the journey. It’s also the key to the recovering perfectionist. Instead of asking yourself how good the finished product is, ask yourself “Did I enjoy this?” This is worth as much as, if not more, than the end result.
- Create rituals and a routine for yourself
This gets you into “doing mode” so that you’re not so focused solely on the end outcome. I play a song to relax and engage my routine. It focuses me on enjoying the activity instead of obsessing about the end goal. Music is a reminder that this is just another journey I’m embarking upon. Think about athletes in soccer or basketball before they do a penalty kick or a free throw shot. You see them pull their ears, pull up their socks, work their rituals. It’s a reminder that the screaming fans don’t matter; they have done this many times before. Enjoyment of the process brings them the outcome they desire.
- Learn to live in gray.
Life does not need to be “all-or-nothing.” Not everything must get done. Your constant to-do list will be there tomorrow. I used to have a to-do list and wouldn’t rest until everything was crossed off. I was in a constant state of “this needs to get done”, or “I should do that”, before I could go enjoy a night out with my friends or family. Discriminate your to-do list by grouping it four sections. This is something that David Allen recommends in his book “Getting Things Done”: Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, or Drop it Getting Things Done: Stress Free Productivity
- Lower your standards of success
Seriously, in anything you are doing—sports, music, work—lower your aim from 110% or 100% to 80% or even 50%. See what happens. Surprise! The world does not end—and your peers and colleagues probably won’t even notice a difference in your output.
And for the perfectionists out there who have been critically assessing this article wondering, “What is the outcome of all this? If I take these steps, how will it help my day-to-day life?” let me address your concerns.
You can achieve more with less and feel better about yourself! Don’t we all want this? That’s our real potential and it’s in our hands. You can evolve yourself from a self-defeating perfectionist to a self-motivated imperfectionist. A happier, healthier, more forgiving version of you is possible. Take it from me. I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m running my own company while still finding time to spend with family and friends and also take care of myself by working out and eating healthy. The imperfect me, version 2.0, feels pretty great.
Ida is the Founder & President of Ability to Engage, Inc. Ida leverages her 10+ years of brand and marketing experience at major CPG firms (Procter & Gamble and The Coca-Cola Company) and her experience with consumers and teams around the world, to develop and co-create brand equities, architectures, and consumer segmentation as well as marketing strategies. Ida also develops and facilitates idea workshops, innovation sessions, and team effectiveness workshops.
Ida holds three degrees from the Ohio State University and six patents with the USPTO. She serves as a Brand & Consumer Behavior Advisor at TechArb at the University of Michigan and as a guest speaker to MBA and undergraduate classes, non-profit organizations, and for-profit companies. She is a published writer in MBA case studies (Prentice Hall, e-Bay) and business magazines (YOUNG MONEY®), and advises multiple startups. In her free time Ida loves to help people brighten their days through Laughter Yoga.
To contact the business: www.AbilityToEngage.com