The Dangers of Freelancing Perfectionism

Are you a freelancing perfectionist?

You know who you are. Even now, while you’re reading this very post about the dangers of perfectionism, you’re consciously or subconsciously beating yourself up because you think you’re not good enough.

Why?

You think you should be able to write faster, code faster, or translate faster. You think your work should be more than good–it should be the very best. You think that you’re not earning enough, even though you’re living comfortably.

And the list goes on, and on, and on…

Guess what?

Stop it!

You’re only hurting yourself, and by extension, your freelancing business. In this post, I’ll explain why perfectionism is such a danger for freelancers. I’ll also share some tips on how you can overcome perfectionism. Finally, I’d like to hear how being a perfectionist has affected you.

What’s Wrong with Being Perfect?

We live in a society that strives towards perfection. All around us we read books, blog posts, and magazine articles tell us that we need to be better than we are. Self-help is a popular genre.

It’s no wonder that so many of have become perfectionists.

Many of us have come to think of striving towards perfection as the road to success. Some of us might even list as one of our strengths–and perfectionism can be a strength, to a point.

Every client wants to hire the freelancer who pays careful attention to detail and avoids making mistakes. Everyone wants to receive high quality work.

But perfectionism has its drawbacks too.

The real trouble with perfectionism is that no one can do it. Not even the very best of us. No matter how much you want to be perfect, you won’t ever be able to make it happen.

Why Perfectionism Can Hurt You

Perfectionism can lead to some pretty serious problems for the freelancer, including:

As you can see, the consequences of unbridled perfectionism can be severe. It’s one thing to be very good at what you do. It’s another thing to not know when to stop.

But if you’re a freelancing perfectionist you need to stop, for your own sake and for the sake of your freelancing business.

How to Stop

Perfectionism can be a bad habit. If you engage in it long enough, it becomes second nature. You do it without really thinking about it.

So, if you want to stop an over-perfectionistic attitude you’ll have to think about it. Here are seven steps you can take:

  1. Let yourself do something less than perfect. Pick something that won’t really make a difference. For example, you could leave your bed unmade one day. Or you could wait a day before answering a not-so-urgent email.
  2. Practice telling yourself you are good enough. It’s likely that you are much harder on yourself than anyone else would be. Affirmation can help. Tell yourself every day that you are good enough at what you do.
  3. Pay attention to praise. One characteristic most perfectionists share is that they have trouble accepting praise. However, you should pay attention praise. Most people won’t bother to give it unless they mean it.
  4. Be reasonable with yourself. Most perfectionists hold themselves up to a ridiculously high standard that they would never expect anyone else to meet. Pretend you are hiring someone to do your work and ask yourself what you would expect of your employee.
  5. Stop comparing yourself with others. Perfectionists also have the tendency to compare themselves, usually unfavorably, with others. However, the fact is that no matter how good you are at what you do there will always be someone who is a little better.
  6. Set limits and stick to them. Perfectionists can wear themselves out with overwork and excessive worry. Pick a time each day when you will finish. When that time rolls around, stop working and leave your work area.
  7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you are afraid that you will make too many mistakes if you ease up on yourself, remember that mistakes are how we learn. If you don’t let yourself make them, you are holding yourself back.

Your Turn

Are you a freelancing perfectionist?

Share how perfectionism has affected you in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. says

    This is an interesting idea. I think it affects many writers. Not me! I worked for three big daily papers in the past and after you’ve had an editor give you entire hour (!) in which to both report and write a story you learn not to wring your hands over every syllable. I am also able to write extremely quickly (usually 1,000 words an hour at my fastest) so I don’t need entire days or weeks to produce a larger story. I know I’ll write accurate, readable copy so I focus my energy on the reporting, where you MUST be a perfectionist — no plagiarism, making sure your facts are correct.

    The problem is that being sloppy or lazy is in the eye of the beholder — your client! With so many people competing for work in a bad economy, I can see why some people freak out over every detail. You need to offer a terrific product but not burn out art the same time.

    Thanks for this.

  2. says

    Caitlin Kelly,

    Thanks for sharing your insights and experience. :)

    As you indicate, this is not a “one size fits all” problem. While there are many freelancers who struggle with perfectionist tendencies, there are others who do not.

    If someone isn’t sure whether they struggle with this, my best advice would be to ask someone who knows them well.

  3. says

    Guilty!! It took me much longer than it should have to launch my website because I felt every word had to be perfect. Finally I was able to let go of that and of course I have tinkered with the words many times since then anyway. As I always say, perfect is the enemy of done!

  4. says

    Laura, thanks for another great post! One of the hardest points for me to accept in my work is “good enough.” It’s nice to see this reminder in your article! I have found that my subconscious quest for perfectionism gets forced to the wayside in exceptionally busy work periods. There’s simply no time to re-recheck every crossed T and dotted I. I’ve certainly learned from that (clients were still happy, I was more efficient, etc.), and strive to carry that lesson forward even in the less hectic times.

  5. says

    Sue Horner & Sarah Jackson,

    Thanks for sharing your personal stories. I think it’s important that freelancers talk about this issue (although we don’t very often).

    Sarah–As you point out, this can even be something subconscious.

    Hopefully, more freelancers will read this post and learn when and how to overcome the problem.

  6. says

    Hi, Laura!

    I totally agree with the points you raised. I’ve actually read your post on the IM Social Networking site, Kingged.com and left the following comment:

    What’s wrong with wanting to be perfect? It’s an impossible dream. It’s unattainable. It’s beyond humanity to change the fact that we are imperfect; we make mistakes. The people who are perfectionists struggle with low self-esteem. They are the opposite of the over-confident kind.

    The tips given on how to overcome this are very helpful especially the part where you have to stop comparing yourself. This can be hard as sometimes it stems from how you were brought up. Hard, yes; but doable.

    http://www.kingged.com/dangers-freelancing-perfectionism/#comment-8693

  7. Jane says

    Wow.. i never thought all of the above is because of perfectionism. The feeling of not good enough, i wanted the client to say WOW except just ‘it’s good’, and comparing my work with others are very frustrating and it’s not easy to stop. i thought it’s just because lack of confidence and not perfectionism.

  8. says

    My perfectionist tendencies were a tremendous hassle, and they still crop up from time to time when I’m absolutely floored by what a colleague has done. That said, I’ve just learned how to filter them through an iterative process. Rather than obsessing endlessly over one project, I’ll work to the best of my ability to launch it, and then use feedback and my own judgment to see what can fixed next time.

    It just means I let myself bask in the feeling of a job well done, but let my mind take note of all the ways I can do it a bit better. Rather than the mantra of “it has to be perfect”, I’ve shifted it to “there’s always room for improvement” and “mistakes are not the enemy.” I’ve found that the more you work to preempt mistakes, especially minor mistakes, the greater the magnitude of the screw up when you finally DO make one. When that happens, you don’t have the buffer of the lessons learned from lesser mistakes to fall back on and will likely be devastated.

    Making errors, and letting yourself make them, are part of the continuous learning experience in our respective crafts. The perfectionist tendencies that made me fear them also kept me firmly lodged in my comfort zone. Perfectionism can paradoxicaly be the very thing holding us back from being our best.

    Here’s a final thought: in being afraid or unwilling to accept anything less than a standard of perfection, it may subconsciously lead to us not challenging ourselves ENOUGH. One thing I learned is that the best of my industry have already made the mistakes I tried so doggedly to prevent, and they got a richer understanding of the craft from them.

  9. says

    As per my opinion perfection is the key of success but it is true that it has a other shade also which has been explained thoroughly in the above article. Thanks for writing about such a sensitive topic.

  10. says

    It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the reality is that many, many clients will be extremely happy with work that, to you, is ‘just good enough’. I’ve handed in work that I was a little ‘meh’ about, simply because I couldn’t figure out how to get it perfect and had run out of time, and been surprised at how delighted they were.

    That’s not saying that you shouldn’t do your very best for clients, of course, but it takes a phenomenal amount of effort to get it that 5% better (this is the case with a lot of things), and if you know a client will be happy without you busting your gut for that extra 5%, let it go. Especially when it’s the difference between making deadline or not.

  11. says

    WOW thank you for providing knowledge and wisdom through your valuable content. I have truly opened my mind to the dangers that are out there. Thank you for explaining the dangers of freelancing. i truly appreciate it so very much! :)

  12. says

    Hi Laura,
    Another tremendous article blog from you. Thanks for focusing on the point, where lots of people are doing wrong. Lots of people doing fault when they are trying to be perfect. They are all afraid of making mistakes. They should belief they have to make mistakes to became perfect.

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