5 Tips to Kick the Perfectionist Habit

Michael Law

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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.