Do you seek praise and approval from the people around you?
Is it difficult for you to accept being second best?
Do you often sacrifice your own well-being in order to complete a task perfectly?
Are you generally stressed and anxious?
If you’ve answered yes to more than three of the questions above, chances are that you’re a perfectionist.
I feel your pain.
I know the anguish that lurks beneath the polished veneer of perfectionism. I understand the hours that you have given to making each and every project perfect. I get it because I’m a reformed perfectionist. After years of stressing myself out trying to get everything just right, I came to a significant realization: trying to be perfect all the time was making me a very unhappy human.
My perfectionism peaked in art school. As a student I would spend too many hours working on projects with work often rolling into the weekends. I also had a tendency to be unrealistic about what I could accomplish in a given time frame or within the limits of my skill set.
Like that one time I turned a simple CD cover design assignment into a sewing disaster. We were asked to create a cover for The Arctic Monkeys song I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor. Simple enough, right? Not for me. I decided to stitch together fabric from a pair of shiny hot pants and material from a pair of jeans. Together they would form the outer case of the CD cover and would open with a zipper. But there was one complication: I had no sewing experience. I spent an entire weekend wailing over a sewing machine, cursing my design concept and snapping at my poor family. Eventually I enlisted the help some fashion designer friends, got a crash course in stitchery and finished the project at the last hour.
Perfectionism can’t make peace with the concept of “good enough.” And since perfection is ultimately unattainable—nothing’s perfect, right?— it never leads to a true sense of fulfillment. When you’re in that place it’s impossible for creativity to flow.
Thankfully, you don’t have to live like this anymore. There are simple steps you can take to move past the need to be perfect and into a space of creativity and exploration.
1. Create a jar of awesome
Yes, this is indeed as awesome as it sounds. This is an idea I learned from author Tim Ferriss. Perfectionists often neglect to give themselves praise for good work or to celebrate their victories. This invention seeks to celebrate all of your achievements regardless of how big or small they may be.
To create your jaw of awesome, simply:
- Find a suitable vessel for your awesomeness (think: mason jar or shoebox)
- Create a bright and inspiring label for your jar clearly stating that this is indeed a jar of awesome
- Each time you experience a win (i.e.: meeting a deadline, trying out a new tool or technique, receiving positive feedback from a colleague or client, adhering to a regimen of self care, etc.) write it down on a piece of paper and pop it into the jar of awesome
- Remember to take a moment to bask in the glow of achieving something awesome!
The next time you sense the looming shadow of perfectionism—this may look like harsh criticism of yourself or doubt in your abilities—open up your jar and get inspired by your awesomeness.
2. Take a step back
I always feel a certain degree of stress when a deadline looms on the horizon, yet I know the best thing I can do in this scenario is… nothing. Moving away from the project may seem counterproductive, but I’ve found that it helps me accomplish my goals.
So, take a step back. Breathe. And do nothing. Or at least nothing that pertains to your work. Go for a walk, head to the gym, read a book or play or listen to music. Choose an activity to jolt you out of work mode. For me it was the treadmill. While writing this article I did some work and then walked away. The next morning while on the treadmill, words started to pulse through my mind. I jumped off the machine and began furiously scribbling in my notebook. (I carry a notebook with me everywhere—you never know when inspiration will strike).
I find giving projects the chance to breathe supports the creative process, which generates more ideas. Productivity and creativity do not reside in cramped, stressful quarters. Create some space!
3. Become a time management ninja
A perfectionist will work tirelessly on a project until it is perfect. This is not realistic, especially when faced with a looming deadline.
Allocating a specific amount of time for a project forces you to be more productive. When we have too much time we tend to squander it by procrastinating and before we know it we’re up all night racing to meet a deadline.
Create boundaries for yourself by sticking to your own set of internal timelines. This kind of structure will give you more creative freedom in the long run.
4. Stay focused on the big picture
This one is connected to number 3, with additional emphasis on staying focused on the end goal. It is easy to get lost in the details of a creative project and lose sight of the end goal or big picture—which is completing the project!
When I first began as a designer I was very much guilty of this. I would spend far too much time getting lost in meticulous details. This level of perfectionist behavior can hurt a project. The truth is that you could work endlessly on a project trying to make it perfect. A deadline saves your sanity—and the project—by giving you a goal to meet. Tell yourself that everything needs to be completed to the best of your ability within a specified time frame.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail (i.e. fail spectacularly!)
I am a big fan of the great stoic masters like Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and Greek philosopher Epictetus. I believe a lot of wisdom can be gleaned from their words, in particular their timeless guidance tor overcoming perfectionism. They view perfectionism as an extreme way of thinking which can lead to depression and frustration—never satisfaction or happiness.
In order to overcome perfectionism, they suggest embracing pragmatism. Pragmatism encourages action, the very thing perfectionism interrupts.
Epictetus emphasizes this by saying:
We’re never going to be perfect — if there is even such a thing. We’re human, after all. Our pursuits should be aimed at progress, no matter how much it’s possible for us to make.
6. Cultivate self-acceptance
I will let you in on a little secret: you’re not perfect. Neither am I. Nobody is. Once I accepted this fact, it freed me. I was no longer a puppet controlled by perfectionism. I was uninhibited and could finally create authentic work. I rediscovered the joy of creating and became much happier.
The root of perfectionism lies in the belief that we are not good enough. Self-acceptance is a key step to moving beyond the need to be perfect and embarking on a happier path.
Go forth and be your wonderful imperfect self.
About the author
Sarah Healy is a freelance writer, designer, and adventurer. She has worked in animation studios creating award winning apps, and for large corporations helping them to tell their unique story through branding and visual creations. She can usually be found competing in ultra-marathons or undertaking crazy bike expeditions and is currently traversing Australia with little more than a backpack and a smile.