The other day, my daughter was watching me as I typed a story. She commented on how impressed she was with my ability, constantly spitting out words without regard for punctuation or spelling or paragraph breaks. I laughed, because I knew that what she was watching was garbage -- and something that years ago would have caused me so much anxiety as to never even engage in it.
The truth was that for years, when I wrote, I would painstakingly proofread every sentence as I wrote it, constantly word-smithing and changing context to develop the perfect sentence. And, in the end, more often than not, that entire written piece ended up in the trash bin.
This was also true about most of my failed endeavors throughout my career, which were not so much failed as never started. The problem was that I would rarely act on an idea until I had researched and analyzed everything about the idea, often causing me to delay so long as to see someone else do it.
From business ideas to books to new careers to podcasts, all were mired in perfection paralysis.
Understanding this issue took some time, and it took a few important events in my life to finally get me to abandon the perfectionism that was holding me back. So, if any of this sounds familiar to you, then here is how you can take control of your perfectionism and start making progress towards your important goals.
Admit You Are a Perfectionist
Like any intervention, the first step is to admit that you have a problem. And, like most people considering an intervention, this is not easy to do. I would venture to say that if you are still reading at this point, you most likely relate and have some level of difficulty with perfection paralysis.
Also, by admitting that you are a perfectionist, you must admit that there is a better way. This also means that you must be willing to engage in imperfect activities with uncertain and imperfect outcomes. As Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously put it, "If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late."
Take It Slow and Small
The most important thing to do is to pace yourself. If you try to ignore your perfectionism all at once, you will most likely fall flat -- just as if you tried to lose 50 pounds in a week. It requires the same patience and perseverance as any significant habit you intend to change.
Next, do not try to overcome perfectionism with audacious tasks first. In addition to just being challenging, this will put you into the uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory of not knowing how you would react.
Instead, start small. For me, it was free writing, or learning how to permit myself to vomit words onto a page without proofreading or reviewing or judging as I went. Next was an incrementally larger change, with pro-bono consulting projects. I did them for free because I wasn't sure how the results would look if I divorced from the perfectionism I was so accustomed to delivering.
In the end, my writing improved, as did my consulting, and I was able to not only be more productive but also start and engage in more activities and projects.
Sometimes, big change requires force. Imposing catalysts, such as real deadlines for projects, are great for forcing you to act and complete tasks regardless of whether they are perfect. People can also make great catalysts, and the right ones are great at holding you accountable for your deliverables and deadlines.
I will end by saying that there is nothing wrong with perfectionism, but when it starts to hold you back from actually doing something, it becomes a problem and a sign that you should take action to remedy it.
Now, it is time to end and go back and proofread, because true to what Ernest Hemmingway said about writing, "The first draft of anything is shit."