Problems With Perfectionism (And Resilience as a Solution)

February 28, 2022


Has anyone ever suggested you’re a perfectionist? If so, is this something in which we should take pride? Or is it a cautionary flag, one that merits our attention?

I’ve described myself as a recovering perfectionist. In the past, if someone commented on my perfectionist approach to work, I took it as a compliment. After all, this meant my colleague had noticed the high degree of care and commitment I brought to my role. That was a good thing, right?

Not necessarily. It’s admirable when we take care with the tasks before us, and when we’re committed to our role and our workplace. It’s also beneficial if we have an eye for detail, and when we place a high priority on the quality of the materials we produce. You’ve likely heard the saying, though, that there being too much of a good thing.

These positive traits can become an issue when we don’t know where to draw the line in trying to achieve a certain standard. High standards are important, yet perfectionists often work toward unnecessarily high, self-imposed standards that aren’t expected or necessary.

If a colleague has ever commented that you’re a perfectionist, you  may want to consider whether you're investing your energies in the right direction. For, while being known as a perfectionist may represent a badge of honour to some, working with a perfectionist can come with some challenges.

We of course want to be known for the quality of our work. If we tend to aim for perfection, though, consider some of the problems associated with such an approach. Let’s start with perceptions. You may think the extra time you spent polishing a document or presentation until it was just so was a good use of your time. Your colleagues who were waiting to review that document, though, may be frustrated by the length of time it took to secure that deliverable from you.

Let’s say your executive is scheduled to give an important presentation. Will you create and proofread your slide deck, correct any errors, and then turn it over? If you’re a perfectionist, and you know the importance your executive is attaching to this presentation, you may think to yourself, Hmm. I can do better. You may replace a photo here, change the colours or style of a chart there, adjust a font size, reformat something else, and perhaps edit or reposition some text. You of course proofread it again, and find something else to tweak. Sound familiar? When we edit and re-edit work that was good enough once we made corrections after our initial proofreading, we’re not making the best use of our time and resources.

These days, perhaps more than ever, time is a commodity. In reworking materials over and over, we may be delaying getting our deliverables to our own stakeholders. We’re either cutting it tight with timelines, or – and I’m speaking from experience – we’re using our personal time to meet business deadlines. Both approaches are problematic. However inspired you may be in honing a presentation to the nth degree, your executive would probably prefer to receive the slide deck sooner rather than later, so she or he can begin rehearsing and preparing to deliver that critical presentation.

A perfectionist’s perspective on what constitutes a good use of time may, to colleagues, represent a misuse of time. Your efforts may be seen as well-intended overkill that detracts from other priorities. By extension, that could imply a lack of judgement on your part.

In many cases, principals (bosses) and other colleagues are blissfully unaware of the extra hours perfectionist assistants sometimes put in. If you’re using personal time to ensure you polish presentations or other deliverables and get them in on time, ask yourself why you’re taking this approach. In conversations with other assistants with perfectionist tendencies, it often comes down to wanting to please or impress others, and to secure approval. It’s also believed some pursue perfection out of a niggling concern that we won’t live up to the perceptions others have of us.

Whatever the reason, we can put undue pressure on ourselves, often working extra hours to make things perfect – or as close to perfect as possible. Do you remember Mary Poppins? Even Ms. Poppins acknowledged she was only practically perfect, albeit in every way!

It's unsurprising that so many people strive for perfection. Think of phrases you’ve heard over the years that reference the term, “perfect”. People heap praise on a baseball player who’s thrown a perfect game, and express admiration for a singer whose performance was pitch perfect. When we look back on a particularly special time, we may refer to the perfect ending to a perfect day. We’ve grown up hearing perfection praised; who hasn’t been told that practice makes perfect?

In fact, when we strive for perfection, we may inadvertently set ourselves up for what’s referred to as performance paralysis – not completing a task, or taking longer than necessary to do so. Perfectionists sometimes put off beginning an undertaking, shuffling it around on the desktop or the to do list until circumstances are just right … and yet that incomplete task may stay top of mind, sometimes causing unneeded stress. Faced with the need to make a decision, do you give equal consideration to each decision you make? If that’s the case, you may be overthinking some of them.

There are other performance implications. However well meaning a perfectionist will be, hits to productivity – the perfectionist’s and their colleagues’ – may instead hinder performance and prospects.

Perfectionists can fall into a habit of procrastinating, and missing out on a great deal. Who doesn’t know someone who chose not to apply for an appealing opportunity because she or he didn’t feel they’d perform at a high enough level in the interview? Or someone who chose not to participate in something because they thought they hadn’t yet achieved the skills, education or experience necessary for success?

If you’ve recognised yourself as you’ve scrolled through this article, do yourself a favour. It’ll take effort, yet you can choose resilience over perfection.

Resilience can be defined as our ability to adapt to and bounce back from adversity. Think about it in terms of how easily we adjust to change. We’ve all had an abundance of opportunities, over the last couple of years, to practice adjusting to situations and recovering from challenges. When we work on our resilience, we’re working on both self awareness and our awareness of others. Recognising that our perfectionism may have negative consequences not only for ourselves, but also for our colleagues and other stakeholders, is in and of itself a reflection of emotional intelligence.

The next time you’re tempted to edit or rework deliverables that are already accurate, and already good enough, think of this article. Ask yourself if you and your colleagues might not be better off if you instead pressed “send” or otherwise closed the door on that task.

Instead of working through lunch as so many assistants do, how much more refreshed would you be when you tackle your afternoon priorities if you instead went for a walk, listened to music, connected with someone in your network, or did a bit of reading?

Think about how you use your personal time. If you’ve been relinquishing it in the quest for perfection, be intentional in reclaiming your time. Be prepared that it takes time to change habits we’ve developed over the years, and give yourself credit each time you’re able to resist the siren call of perfectionism. It may be challenging, yet think again just how much practice we’ve had lately in working through change … and how much your wellbeing and career both stand to benefit!

About the Authors: 

Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspire assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant

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