The following is an extract from author and psychology professor Jennifer Wild's book, Be Extraordinary: 7 Key Skills To Transform Your Life From Ordinary To Extraordinary.
Think of the most contented people you know. Are they perfect, the highest achievers? Or have they perfected being just good enough, and knowing when to cut themselves some slack? Do you dare to be average? Or are you one of the increasing numbers of people who suffer from perfectionism? Perfectionism can be so debilitating that it stops us from finishing tasks. Even worse, it can stop us from starting all together.
Take this example. Your boss asks you to write a report. Due in one week. A lot is riding on it. Make a mistake and the company may be asked to redesign the website. You want to get it right. You want it to be perfect. You tell yourself it should be perfect.
You open a new document and type ‘Report’, stare at the blank page and motivate yourself with stern self-talk. ‘I should write while I have time’ ‘I should get this done perfectly’ ‘I should be able to whip this off’… then your mind wanders to dinner and you wonder if there’s a delicious way to roast beets with onions. Your fingers do the walking and next thing you’re online scrolling down the google searched recipes. That report? What report?
Does this sound familiar? You tell yourself you should do a perfect job and the next minute, you’re avoiding it altogether. Perfectionism is cooking and has dished up a plate of procrastination. But that’s not the only problem it causes. While we’re delaying starting, perfectionism will trigger bouts of worry, clouding our thinking and making us poor problem-solvers. We’ll lose valuable time and end up stressed, unhappy, and unfocused.
What level of perfectionism is just right?
A touch of perfectionism may be helpful once we’ve wrapped up a task and need to check our work. It can help us spot mistakes. But perfectionism becomes a problem when we’re pushing our high standards at the expense of our wellbeing. We insist on doing things the ‘right’ way even though this ends up making us unproductive, inefficient and tense.
To spot signs of perfectionism, tune to the kinds of thoughts filling your mind. Thoughts with ‘should’ are signs of perfectionist thinking. ‘I should write a perfect report.’ ‘I should exercise every day.’ ‘I should be witty and clever.’ Then take stock of how easy it is for you to get started with important tasks.
Do you put things off? How stern is your self-talk? Do you motivate yourself with the internalised voice of a past disappointed, frustrated teacher or critical parent? Can you let others help out or do things have to be done your way? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, chances are perfectionism is cramping your style. The key to kicking perfectionism is discovering that you reach your goals more swiftly when you soften your standards.
Dare to be average
Giving yourself permission to do an average rather than a perfect job makes it easier to start. The fear of failing to live up to superhuman standards instantly dissolves. And once you start, you unlock the likelihood that you’ll keep going. So, make the focus to cross the start line rather than aiming perfectly to reach the finish line.
Use the 3 minute carrot
It’s easy to start something if you have permission to stop after 3 minutes or to keep going. Most people decide after 3 minutes to keep going because they discover, through starting, that it doesn’t feel as tough as they thought it would.
If you need to break your first step into tiny tasks to get started, do it. It’s manageable to complete a small step like ‘write an outline for my business plan’ before the bigger step ‘write the background section.’ Completing the small step gives a sense of achievement and a breath of success to motivate next steps.
Get ahead of should thinking
When our thoughts include ‘should’, we may hear the inner voice of a critical parent or teacher with their expectations for perfection. ‘You should exercise, do your homework, clean your room, reply to that email, wash the dishes, write your thank you cards, pay your telephone bill and so on.’ Replace ‘should’ thinking with the kind of reassuring, balanced encouragement you’d extend to a friend.
You’d never expect a friend to be witty and clever all the time. You’d never judge a friend as a failure if they wrote emails with typos rather than with stellar grammar. You’d encourage your friend to try their best and you’d accept that this was more than good enough. Apply the same standards to yourself. It’s far more motivating to start tasks knowing your best is good enough rather than cracking the impossibly unforgiving whip of perfectionism.
Cut the critical self-talk
When faced with tough work like writing a report from scratch, translating stock market trends into simple English, or writing a sales pitch for a new product or house – get cosy with compassion. Compassion lowers stress hormones and without those molecules running riot through your body, you’ll be more able to focus.
Give yourself a gentle nudge, you can do it, of course you can. Before you start, picture in your mind’s eye two people who appreciate you. Then remind yourself that you’re in a safe place in your home or at work and that you have what you need to get going on the task at hand. Take a few deep breaths and get going. A bit of kindness you extend to yourself can help you to feel calmer, more optimistic, and better able to problem-solve the task you face with your full focus.
Prioritise your values not your achievements
Judge your success on whether or not you achieve your values – such as being kind, reliable, honest and caring – rather than whether or not you achieve your ambitions. You’ll feel happier as a result.
Be a scientist
Experiment with dropping the behaviours that keep perfectionism going. Send emails without over-reading them. Write a draft report within a set time limit. Speak up in a meeting without rehearsing what you’re going to say. Accept a helping hand.
Note what happens? Does the over-checking and over-preparing do anything other than keep you stressed, unfocused and in your head? The more evidence you gather that nothing bad happens when you soften your standards, the more you’ll be able to leave perfectionism behind and lead a happier, more productive life.
Be Extraordinary: 7 Key Skills to Transform Your Life from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Jennifer Wild is out now in paperback, published by Little, Brown, £13.99. Available to buy here.