5 Tips to Kick the Perfectionist Habit

Hello. My name is Mike. And I’m a recovering perfectionist.

For a long time, I believed that being a perfectionist was a good thing. I was proud of my compulsion to work and rework even the smallest assignment until it was faultless. What did it matter that it took me hours more than it probably should have? I was a perfectionist. All that mattered was that I nailed it.

When I became a freelancer, however, I realized that my perfectionism wasn’t the big pat-on-the-back that I thought it was. In fact, it was just the opposite. With my eye now always on the clock, I saw that my relentless quest for perfection was making me inefficient. More often than I care to confess, I undercharged clients because I didn’t want to admit the true amount of time it had taken me to complete the assignment. (Note: this is not a good way to run a business.)

Frustrated and anxious, I knew I had to beat the problem or kiss my career goodbye. But how? I was afraid that if I devoted any less time to my projects, I’d make some hideous mistake and ruin my career. I also afraid that being even a smidgen less meticulous might result a failure to meet–no, exceed–my client’s expectations. How could I alter my work habits without sacrificing my high standards?

Well, it didn’t happen overnight, but I did eventually come up with a workable strategy. If you suspect you might be a perfectionist too, consider these five tips to bring your obsessive tendencies under control.

Tip #1: Address the Real Problem

At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Think about it. The next time you find yourself spinning in endless circles on an assignment, ask yourself what you’re afraid of–whether you feel consciously afraid or not–and dig deep for a response. You’ll be surprised at what comes up.

Now, once you’ve isolated that fear, confront it head-on. Anxious about working with a new client? Worried about tackling a new technique? Scared you’ll miss a deadline? Run through worst-case scenarios in your head. Keep ‘what if’-ing, worse and worse scenarios, until you can’t anymore. Often when you stare fear straight in the eye, it miraculously loses its power. And you’re left free to work productively.

Tip #2: Set Time Limits

Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed the line from conscientious to compulsive. When you’re in the thick of an assignment, it’s easy to believe that you must spend so much time brainstorming, researching, writing, testing, revising or what-have-you. Often, it’s only after you’ve been working for hours on end that you realize that half the work you’ve been doing wasn’t actually necessary and that you’ve just wasted a lot of time.

Nip time-wasting in the bud by setting an objectively reasonable time limit to complete each task. If you run out of time, no matter the point you are at, stop and switch to a different task. This approach has two advantages. First, it serves as an alarm that your perfectionist tendencies may be taking over. Second, it forces you to take a breather and give your mind a chance to relax. When you return to the task, you’ll look at the project afresh–and be armed against letting your perfectionism get the best of you.

Tip #3: Trust in Yourself

Insecurity is a component of fear. And fear, as we know, is the driving force behind perfectionism. When insecurity prevents you from working productively, stop and take some time to reestablish trust in yourself. You can do this by reminding yourself of the clients who have responded favorably to your work in the past, naming them aloud, if necessary. Re-read any client testimonials you’ve received or review work that you’re particularly proud of. You might even want to say a simple affirmation along the lines of “I always produce excellent work.” Say it slowly at least ten times in a row, with feeling and while smiling.

Tip #4: Get a Freelance Buddy

In my view, freelancers are particularly susceptible to succumbing to perfectionism. We work in a highly competitive field and we often work entirely alone. It’s easy to lose perspective on the quality of our work in these circumstances. This problem can be solved by finding a freelance buddy: someone in your field with whom you can exchange ideas, drafts and tips. When you’re stuck in a perfectionist spiral, call on your buddy to help break you out.

Tip #5: Embrace the Value of Mistakes

Face it: as much as you’d like to be, you’re not perfect. Mistakes will be made in both your freelance career and life. Instead of fearing mistakes, remind yourself that there’s plenty to learn from them. If nothing else, you’ll learn that a mistake doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, it might be the beginning of a new one. Penicillin, pacemakers, microwave ovens, fireworks, and even chocolate chip cookies were created from projects that went awry. You just never know what amazing benefits an imperfect undertaking might yield.

Your Turn

Have you wrestled with perfectionism? Share your experiences in the comments.


  1. says

    I catch myself spending too much time on things a lot. I take a step back, realize what i’m doing, and then wrap it up and move on.

    Clients are usually more than happy with what I consider mediocrity; I just have to remember that sometimes. :)

  2. says

    Great post. I too am kicking this problem. I had to realize that my clients first priority and goal was to have the project done within given time frame. They could care less if the font size was 10 or 12 or if I should move something to the left by 5 pixels.

    I agree with Josh’s last statement… Clients generally don’t share the same standard or measure great work the as the one doing it. We have to figure what they want and make sure we accomplish and focus in that. That shifted focus helps me stay on task.

  3. says

    Actually I don’t really agree it’s about fear of making mistakes, letting others down etc.
    We each have our ideals on what perfectionism is and maybe to some, the above applies. There is no right and wrong answer in this.

    However, I do agree that to some extent it’s important to know when to balance time spent with the value of the project so that your energy is put to the correct varying usage. Sure we all make mistakes, doesn’t mean we ought to leave the perfectionist im us behind.

  4. says

    Many things play a vital role to get the right talent. You may find somebody who is willing to work in linked or else there are plenty of famous website which can get you right freelancer.

  5. says

    Hello, Michael. My name is Brian and I am a perfectionist.

    I realized that my perfectionism was resulting in consequences in my freelancing work when I would spend my time convinced that my website design for a local auto garage was not “good enough” until it was 100% browser compatible — including IE6, the ancient web browser that should not have taken 3 extra days to design around. I ended up wasting a lot of time with little to no benefit to the client.

    Realizing I am a perfectionist has helped me to focus on 5 key client needs while ignoring the rest, no matter how important *I* think cufon or CBC or IE6 .PNG rendering might be.

    Plus, I am tired of charging one rate but putting in an extra 5-10hours just for the sake of “being perfect.”

  6. Brent says

    I love this article. This is me to a t. I am the biggest perfectionist you’ll ever meet, and it prevents me from doing any work at all at the moment with school going on. I feel like if I’m going to produce good work I’m going to need to spend whole days working on making something perfect.

    I will definitely be making some changes. Thanks for the great article! (It’s almost perfect) :P

  7. says

    So great to hear, especially when I’m struggling with a client confrontation that makes me doubt myself. Thank you for this advice, I’ll definitely put it into practice. :-) Isn’t it sad that being a perfectionist makes you disregard hundreds of compliments because of a little criticism or insecurity?


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