What good is a perfect outcome if no one gets to experience the product?
I’m allergic to simplified labels, but I guess you could say I’m a recovering perfectionist. You probably share a similar sentiment as a curious reader with aspirations to improve your thinking. Perfectionist traits are especially true for people who’ve experienced demanding conditions, such as over-critical parents, bosses, or coaches. Whatever the underlying reasons, perfectionists strive to achieve flawless results and set excessive standards for themselves.
Of course, a perfectionist’s life would’ve been great if it had the same connotation as the too-common and too-selective type of autism people self-diagnose. The one that only has those toothpick-counting, Good-Will-Hunting-vibing ranges of the condition. You know, that cool trait combination that lets you solve problems like a wizard nerd by day and hook up with hot girls or boys by night. “How do you like them apples?”
Unfortunately, the downsides to perfectionism make the trait less attractive than you think. Two of the most prevalent ones are procrastination and project abandonment. Many procrastinators fear failure. We overthink every detail until we reach paralysis by analysis. Some of us might have an all-or-nothing mindset where we believe that a task short of perfection is not worth doing it.
For example, you’ve decided to write a novel after years of contemplating. You sit in front of your laptop, crack your knuckles, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and write your first line. Two paragraphs later, you realize that the text doesn’t read like your favorite writer’s work; it doesn’t flow. You start researching how to write better, join workshops, and watch 172 videos on writing. Meanwhile, your two half-completed paragraphs wait impatiently for your return. Eventually, momentum vanishes, you lose motivation and pick up another silly hobby, and the two drafted paragraphs will never see you again.
How a perfectionist can tackle procrastination
Yes, I’m describing myself above. I’m a procrastinator. But that’s changing. I’ve identified tactics that have helped me minimize procrastination, hence “recovering perfectionist.” These are mental tools I use to inspire and motivate me. I think they can help you too:
Accept the suck
My procrastination started diminishing once I realized how common negativity and resistance are at the start of a long-term task or new skill learning. I cannot recall the exact source highlighting that we engage daily in tasks that are not inherently natural for us, such as learning standard operation procedures for work or philosophy as a hobby (the source might be Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). Although humans possess a unique capability for undertaking long-term projects and acquiring complex skills, we naturally seek immediate gratification or tasks with quick rewards. Long-term projects often involve delayed gratification, time investment, and energy without immediate tangible results. This misalignment between our natural inclination for instant rewards and the prolonged effort needed for long-term goals can make initiating long, complicated projects challenging.
And knowing this helps. I sometimes use this revelation as a mantra before starting a new project, “Initiating this project might suck at first, but most people have the same issue. Starting new things is tough. Just do it!” So, next time you want to delve into an energy-consuming, long-term project, realize that the initial suck is a normal part of the process. Get over it.
Focus on process over product
A perfectionist mindset can trap you in a cycle of inaction, blocking your productivity and progress. Fixating on long-term goals can overwhelm you and trigger cascading procrastinating processes based on fear of making mistakes and disproportionate, self-imposed standards. Eventually, you convince yourself you need more knowledge and preparation and leave the project on ice.
By focusing on the journey rather than the outcome or product, you reframe the mindset to reduce procrastination. A process-based approach, rather than a product-based one, reduces your demands for perfection by focusing on a stage of the project that doesn’t need to be perfect. It also redirects the thoughts from the final product to your learning process; you start appreciating the learning opportunity and personal growth.
To recycle the novel-writing example, imagine writing for one or two hours daily instead of visualizing a 400-page book with a neat cover. Experiment with new styles and mix up your writing by disobeying the story order.
Reframing your mindset like this allows you to break down your projects into smaller, more accessible tasks. Consequently, once you have achieved a minor task, such as writing for one hour, you can celebrate your achievements, rewarding your brain and increasing motivation.
Talking about small achievable goals and rewards…
Start the egg timer (the tomato technique)
Once you’ve embraced the process, the Pomodoro technique will make sense for maintaining focus and emphasizing the process. The method involves working in dedicated time intervals, typically 25 minutes, followed by short breaks, such as 5 to 30 minutes. By adhering to the Pomodoro technique, you can eliminate the need to constantly judge yourself and instead relax into the flow of your work.
Pomodoro means tomato in Italian and refers to the shape of the kitchen timer Francesco Cirillo, the creator of the Pomodoro technique, used when he developed the method. He probably chose 25 minutes because it offered enough time to complete tasks (or partial ones) without overwhelming someone.
The technique is simple: decide on a task and set a timer to count down from 25 minutes. Once the timer rings, take a short 5-minute break. You’ve just completed one Pomodoro. Repeat these steps. After three pomodori (the plural form of pomodoro), you extend the breaks to 15 to 30 minutes.
The method works because it rewards your brain after a chunk of work, incentivizing good and productive habits. As discussed above, we naturally seek immediate gratification or tasks with quick rewards. So, the small breaks serve as a treat, a carrot, tricking your brain into enjoying the work.
If you’re like me, you’ll soon start thinking in pomodori when evaluating how long you will work on specific tasks.
Stop yourself before perfect (the 70% rule)
As you know by now, you’ll rarely perfect any task. Partly because of the abstract nature of perfection and partly because, as a perfectionist, you’d still chase another level of perfection even if you’d reached perfection. How do you solve this paralyzing problem?
With the 70% rule, you push yourself to create something to 70% perfection, an imperfect outcome but above average. This switch in mentality gives you space to learn while doing and releases you from your high-standard demands. Also, and I doubt if I should say this, since you’re a perfectionist, 70% will most likely mean closer to 100% perfect in the eye of others (but keep that argument to your implicit self).
How do you implement the 70% rule?
Upon completing a task, ask yourself if you’ve achieved 70% perfection.
If the answer is “yes,” wrap up the task and submit the work or, better yet, have someone review your work.
If the answer is “no,” identify the improvement points that will make the work 70% perfect. You must identify clear errors that improve the perfection level to 70% without focusing on minuscule and vague details. Be strict!
Recover from perfectionism
Ultimately, it’s crucial to emphasize self-compassion when overcoming perfectionism and procrastination. By cultivating self-compassion, we learn to treat ourselves with kindness and understanding, acknowledging that we’re human and bound to make mistakes.
Remember, embracing your imperfections gives you space to develop your knowledge and skills. For example, I sometimes go back to reviewing my old content and, in doing so, experience a mixture of cringe and satisfaction. Although I question my previous topic choices and written language, I realize that the reaction means I’ve developed – with any luck, for the better. So, in a way, I hope this post will make me cringe a year from now.
Hopefully, these tips will help you as you improve your work, knowledge, and skills. I use the methods whenever I want to learn something new or when working.
Take this blog post, for example. I first acknowledged that starting from a blank page would suck. Still, I reminded myself that the task would be a perfect practicing opportunity. Then, I started the egg (smartphone) timer and took the breaks I needed at 25-minute intervals. By now, I might have something close to 70%; in a moment, I’ll review the draft again to look for apparent improvements before I hand it over to my partner in crime, Anaïs.