Pursuing perfection in your work may seem like a noble pursuit. After all, many would attribute at least part of Steve Jobs' legacy to his incredible attention to detail and refusal to accept anything short of perfection. Perfectionism may have served Jobs well at times, but for the average professional, an unrelenting drive for perfection can create significant inefficiencies.
Perfection is a deceptive goal. It's like trying to climb a mountain that has no summit. You never know if you've achieved it. The goal is not to deliver something that is perfect but to deliver something that has impact. Perfectionism creates psychological barriers to getting work done and causes you to spend time on work that has little impact, particularly in three parts of your workflow:
- Getting started on a piece of work
- Reviewing and advancing others' work
- Finishing work
To overcome these perfectionism-induced sinkholes of inefficiency, you can change your mindsets in these areas and adopt some new practical tools:
Avoid empty-handed thinking.
If you have a strong desire for perfection, you probably don't like to share your opinion until fully formulated. This likely leads you to keep your ideas inside your head, which makes it difficult for you to advance your thinking quickly because your brain has limited capacity to hold information in its working memory.
To avoid getting stuck while getting started, avoid empty-handed thinking. With nothing in your hands, your thoughts are confined to your head. Instead, adopt some system for capturing what you're thinking at all times, whether that be a notebook, an online journal, a Pinterest board, or the voice recorder on your phone. To overcome the psychological resistance to allowing ideas out of your mind, match your expectations of your thoughts to their lifecycle. In the same way that you wouldn't get upset with a three-year-old for saying, "I and George" rather than "George and I," don't expect too much of your thoughts in their earliest forms.
Give feedback based on best practices, not preferences.
If you have perfectionist tendencies, your team likely finds it frustrating for you to review their work, just as many found it difficult to work with Jobs. You likely spend a lot of time redoing team members' work until it looks the way it would have if you had done it yourself. When giving feedback to your team, you may struggle to articulate what was wrong with their work because your changes are often driven more by a feeling than a clear gap between their work and expectations.
The common consequence of this behavior is feedback overload. When employees are overloaded with feedback, they get frustrated easily and are constantly overthinking things, they focus too heavily on the most recent feedback, and they lose the ability to self-assess their own performance.
The first antidote is to ask yourself if the changes you are considering are based on your preference or best practice. I worked with one manager who would remove any drop shadow added to images or shapes in a presentation. Another manager added shadow and the rest didn't care either way. Your preferences aren't always better, though they feel better because you're used to them. It can be ok to ask team members to do work that is purely preferential, but when doing so, make sure it's clear that it is your preference.
It's also important to vary how you give feedback. Rather than always making direct changes yourself, rotate through the following other approaches:
- Add comment boxes suggesting changes or asking questions
- Recommend changes or ask questions in a separate document or email
- Provide a summary assessment of the work and ask a few high-level questions
Follow a completion process.
Perfectionism is perhaps the most counterproductive when you're trying to finalize work. You keep reviewing and tweaking work ad nauseum because it's impossible to know when you've hit perfect. There is never a guarantee that the work is perfect, creating an unsatisfying and slow process.
The way to circumvent this is to put your trust in a "completion process" or checklist rather than in your ability to discern whether work has reached perfection. When writing an email, for example, your checklist might include checking for spelling errors, making sure you have the most important point at the top of the email, and checking to see if it's addressed to the right person. Rather than asking yourself whether the email is perfect, you go through the checklist, and once you do that, you're done. As long as you trust the process, you can trust the output to be as perfect as it needs to be.
Perfectionism is not a bad mentality at its core; it's simply a strength exaggerated. You likely seek perfection because you want to do great work and have an outsized impact on the world around you. This is wonderful. Don't let perfection deceive you into making it the primary goal. Instead ask yourself, "What's the minimum amount of work I can do to create the greatest impact?" Then you'll achieve much more than you are today and avoid the psychological burden of pursuing an unattainable goal and the unpleasantness of annoying your coworkers.