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Strive for Excellence, Not for Perfection

Recently I taught a course called Excellence: When Perfect Is Not Good Enough. Here are some of the behaviours the participants wanted to develop:

  • To accept my mistakes
  • To let go when the task is done
  • To set a reasonable time limit and finish within that time limit
  • To leave work at work, to be home at home
  • To think more positively
  • To know when to stop

All of those behaviours are ones we expect to be able to do most of the time. But for perfectionists, they have an added level of overwhelming difficulty.

I checked the Gage, Oxford, and Collins dictionaries for their definition of perfect, and they all said faultless. I take that to mean something that cannot be improved upon. For the vast majority of us in our everyday lives, perfect – faultless – is impossible.

Yet these days, with continuous social media posts, too many of us are striving for perfection. Even worse, we are lying about it on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms, tweaking our posts… in effect cheating, to appear to others that everything in our lives is perfect.

This is seriously bad for our brains, for our minds, and for our self-esteem. Because striving for perfection (which is to strive for something that is impossible to achieve) causes us constant self-criticism, endless hard work, long, long hours, and the feeling that no matter how much we try, what we do is just not good enough.

I encourage you to strive for excellence, which I define as doing the very best you can with the time and energy you have now. The key word is now because perfectionists tend to believe they can always use more time and energy later. That is magical thinking. If we don’t have enough time and energy to finish something today, we are going to have that work added to what is already waiting for us tomorrow.

“Perfectionism is a set of beliefs, feelings, and behaviours aimed at excessively high and unattainable goals,” says Dr. David Burns, Stanford University Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences.

Perfectionism Costs

I asked participants to give themselves a score out of 100% of their daily thinking time for the following “costs” of their perfectionistic thinking: high anxiety, horror of mistakes, too much planning, not enough doing, avoiding some challenges, fear of failure, long hours, stress, exhaustion, little joy in their accomplishments, relationships being affected by their criticism, procrastination, and feelings of guilt and panic. They scored between 2-5% for each. They were shocked to see that this added up to more of 100% of their daily thinking time.

How to Change Perfectionistic Thinking

The best way to change a thinking habit is through the Tiny Habits approach. (see Use Tiny Habits to Reach Your Goals)

  1. After I step out of bed in the morning, I will say, “Today I will do the very best I can with the time and energy I have now.” Then I celebrate.
  2. After I notice I am thinking, “I must, I should, I have to …”, I will congratulate myself for noticing my irrational thinking. Then I celebrate.
  3. After I have noticed several times that I am thinking, “I must, I should, I have to, I will change my thinking to “I prefer ….., I would like to ….,” Then I celebrate. (see Disputing Your Irrational Thoughts)
  4. I recognize that using a checklist or checking my work carefully a couple of times is sensible. Telling myself, “I must never make a mistake, or it will be terrible if I make a mistake,” is completely irrational. Obviously, we want to keep mistakes to a minimum but actually our brains are designed to make mistakes. Mistakes are what make us creative, innovative and so successful as a species. (see I am Proud of My Scatterbrain)
  5. After I have noticed something I don’t like about myself or my work, I will look for 5 qualities I do like about myself. Then I celebrate.
  6. After I have a setback, I will tell myself, “I can handle this, I can get better at …” Then I celebrate.
  7. I accept that the only thing I can control in this life is my own thinking, my response to multiple situations. Perfectionists tend to spend too much time planning (making the perfect plan) and not enough time doing. Life is messy and Murphy’s Laws seem to hold more often than not. They are:
    Nothing is as simple as it seems
    Everything takes longer than you think
    If anything can go wrong, it will
  8. I spend enough time planning (with Murphy Laws in mind), then get started. I will need to adjust the plan as I go but the important thing is to keep going.
  9. I teach myself to believe and say, “Done is better than perfect.” Once something is done, if I have additional time, I can always polish it. The important thing is to get it done and celebrate when I do.
  10. When my perfectionism causes me to procrastinate on starting something I really want to do and get done, I will encourage and reassure myself by saying, “Once you are started, you will be in the mood to keep going.” And I will start with a very easy step.

Be kind and compassionate with yourself. Choose one of the above steps and work with it for several days. Celebrate every step forward, remind yourself you can get better in small increments, and learn from the missteps.

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