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Questioning perfectionism
May 8, 2014 3:45 PM   Subscribe

I've always thought my focus on perfectionism and doing things right was a good thing, but now I'm questioning it. How do you figure out the right level of perfectionism?

I always try to do things well. If it's schoolwork, I do a thorough, high-quality job. If I'm reading something important or writing an important reflection, I try to get in the best environment for it, since I see it as a waste if I (for example) read something important but not in the right environment that lets me take the time to think about it, or take notes, or whatever. I want to maximize the opportunities that I have, and not do them half-assedly.

But the problem I'm seeing with this focus on maximizing opportunities and high quality is that, for schoolwork, the time I spend doing any individual piece of schoolwork is high, and as a result I don't do enough of it and I fall behind. And with books and writing, because I always want to be in the best environment to do those things, I read few books a year and rarely write.

I've always thought it was worth it - quality over quantity. But lately I'm thinking that (for example) not reading a ton of books and trying to get the most out of them (marking them up, writing notes, being in the right environment) is making me read fewer and there's a point where doing fewer things is bad, even if I do them better. I won't go on a date if I don't feel I'm in the right environment; won't post an AskMeFi question that isn't well-written, etc.

I think the discipline to do things more perfect than others is generally a good thing, but it's also hindering some parts of my life and using up a lot of time.

How do I figure out what level of perfection is right? Interested to hear your experience if you have gone through this before.
posted by suburbs to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
May 2001, the month before I turned 36, I was diagnosed with a serious, incurable condition. I had been going to college part-time and intermittently for a few years, while raising and (later) homeschooling my kids. I had mostly A's up until that point but was not making good progress towards completing my education. My reaction to the diagnosis "It is time for me to start making more B's."

I enrolled in a couple of classes that very summer, starting in June. I went through 13 or 14 rounds of ass-kicking drugs that summer before I got medically stabilized that fall. I later a completed a Certificate in GIS, got divorced, got a job...etc. Basically, I finally got a life when I decided to lower my standards.

If you can do things that well and still do all the things that matter to you and your life is full and happy, more power to you. But if you aren't getting all you want/need out of life, I highly suggest you shoot for more B-grade work. B-grade work isn't terrible and I still made a lot more A's than I really expected to. But I just got a fuck-ton more done in my life. Letting my standards slip a bit finally gave me a life instead of continuing to wait for Godot.

To this day, I get told a lot of what I do is crappy and not good enough. But I am seeing slow yet measurable forward progress on a lot of goals so I have gotten fairly good at turning a deaf ear to the endless criticism and only paying attention to constructive feedback of the sort that helps me move numbers in the right direction to accomplish the things I want to get done in the years I have left.

The army has a saying that I keep much more in mind these days: Sometimes, a 90% solution now is better than a 100% solution later.

In the army's case, we are talking about saving lives, winning battles, winning wars, national security, etc. Sometimes, perfectionism just isn't at all worth the very real cost involved.
posted by Michele in California at 3:55 PM on May 8 [9 favorites]

With schoolwork in particular, there's a fairly easy shorthand for how to assess how much effort you should be putting into something -- how much of your grade is it worth?

If you've got two papers and one of them is worth 10% of your American History 101 grade and the other is worth 25% of your World History 101 grade, you probably want to devote about 2 and a half times as much time to the latter assignment overall.

This isn't foolproof -- you may have homework that is barely worth anything but mandatory to complete -- but it'll give you a rough guideline of how to divide up your available time.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:56 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I'd argue that it's vastly more valuable to be able to do an ok job at something under a wide range of conditions than to be able to do a "perfect" job if you have the exact right conditions. You'll get more overall value out of practicing dealing with distractions, skimming, encountering a wide variety of ideas, and hitting deadlines than in practicing setting up little learning bubbles for yourself. The former conditions are the ones you're going to see in the wider world.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:02 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

Some tasks will take 50 percent of the time/effort available to get to 90 percent completion. Some tasks will take 90 percent of the time/effort available to get to 50 percent completion. Taking a step back at the beginning and figuring out which kind of task I'm about to start has saved me untold time and effort, because then I get to see whether "perfection" is remotely achievable on that particular task.
posted by Etrigan at 4:16 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Minimum viable product. If you're not delivering the minimum on time your perfectionism is holding you back.

I practise dancing by doing drills and repeating each movement a set number of times before recapping and moving on to the next. Lately i was making no progress with this and was in the doldrums and found an online dance course that promises to move me up to advanced level within a few months.

However, if i hadn't started with the drills and taken classes where possible, there is no way i would be benefitting from these online courses.
posted by tel3path at 4:17 PM on May 8

One way to combat this is to set a time table for a project. Say you have a test coming up, decide to spend no more than X number of studying for the test - after you get those hours, you stop, because you know that the benefit isn't worth the cost.
posted by Brent Parker at 4:44 PM on May 8

There is no "right" level of perfectionism.

Perfectionism serves no one, especially not the doer. Strive for excellence instead -- and if you're avoiding situations because they're not the "right" environment, you're not really living. FWIW, I'd encourage you to talk to someone about what sounds to me like mild OCD. Being so rigid that you won't act unless all factors are EXACTLY how you need them to be is counterproductive and counterintuitive.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:48 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think you're on to something here, though as folks are saying, it's really a priorities question more so than a simple answer. What do you really care about? Is it school? Is it developing yourself or enjoying yourself through reading? Or maybe it's cultivating rich relationships, or new experiences, or just feeling in flow? Whatever it is, try to get clear on it for yourself and then be deliberate about putting your energy into those activities. (I know some doctors who are happy they spent 18 hours a day studying. I know some surfers who are happy they barely studied at all.) In short, let your energy and attention match your interest.

Of course it sounds simple and is frustratingly hard in practice, but I've found it gets better and better the more I take the time to step back and check in with my priorities.
posted by vecchio at 4:48 PM on May 8

How do I figure out what level of perfection is right? You realize that there is no "perfect" right? You can always look back on whatever you've done and see mistakes or where things could be better. No thing is ever perfect, not you, not me - and that's ok.
posted by Brent Parker at 4:53 PM on May 8

I think the discipline to do things more perfect than others is generally a good thing

Don't ever do that. Do it because you care about doing something well, not because you think there's a competition. Life is not a race.

Keep trying stuff, don't let setbacks get you down, and also, learn to enjoy the failures (actually you already knew this, it's just that society beats it into everyone to believe that failure is a horrible thing).
posted by polymodus at 5:01 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

There's never ever going to be enough time to give every single thing the attention it deserves. Try for "good enough" and then drill down to "better" for the things that matter most to you. So maybe you read the introduction and conclusion of every article assigned for class. Then you go back and thoroughly read the one or two each week that really interest you. Or go out on one date with every OKCupid contact that vaguely piques your interest. Then go out on a second date with a smaller portion. Then a third with one or two. That way you end up spending your effort and attention where it will do the most good. Someone else can spend their attention on the other things.
posted by MsMolly at 5:08 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I think part of the problem is having one fixed rule for right. I am a huge believer in the theory that everything requires balance and that if you are perfect in two areas you are probably letting things slide in a couple of other ones. If that balance works for you, then it works! But it sounds like it might be dawning on you that it's not working. Part of your balance equation is that you have insufficient time, so it sounds like you might want to find ways to save time.

To begin with the reading books example, you can and I would argue should have different standards or goals depending on what you're reading and for what purpose - reading a romance novel for pleasure is different than reading an award-winning science fiction novel for pleasure is different than reading an academic text for professional development. Also, talking about how you are maximizing opportunities by only reading in the "right environments" doesn't seem to maximize the ten minutes spent waiting in the doctor's office; even if the environment might only allow you to read two pages in ten minutes instead of ten pages in ten minutes, it's still two more pages than you had consumed before.

When doing coursework, falling behind is pretty clearly not doing things perfectly. Points are often deducted for late work, so at a certain point it is a wiser choice to turn in a mostly completed work on time rather than a fully completed work a week late. Lateness tends to compound itself, too - once you're behind you then don't get to troubleshoot ideas and errors in class so then it takes you longer to solve those issues by yourself and soon one week behind creeps to two weeks behind and so on.

If you are regularly falling behind in coursework, I would also suggest it is not a binary issue (turn in great work late or good/bad work on time). You may need to look outside the box of perfectionism, and see if you are in fact maximizing your opportunities. All universities I have attended or taught at have academic resource centers; most professors are happy to meet students during office hours to troubleshoot problems; you may be taking too many courses/trying to do too much (particularly if you're working full-time as well as attending school - and if this is the case, you may just have to accept that you just don't have as much time and therefore probably can't earn as high a grade as someone devoting themselves full-time to the coursework); you may be spending the hours but not using them effectively, in which case in addition to visiting an academic resource center and/or professors it might be wise to look into effective studying techniques.
posted by vegartanipla at 5:13 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Stand back, because I'm about to project all over this question.

I won't go on a date if I don't feel I'm in the right environment; won't post an AskMeFi question that isn't well-written, etc.

Is it possible you are using your quest for perfection to hide a fear of failure?
posted by Room 641-A at 5:16 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Are you going to grad school? Do you need to have a high GPA for a specific reason?

If you don't HAVE to have a perfectly high GPA/aren't continuing with school on that level, there's your answer. But if you do, then stay as you are.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:23 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

Or to restate what Room 641-A said as the aphorism I use as my mantra when I'm using perfectionism to avoid coping with something:

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Which is to say frequently we perfectionists use perfectionism to avoid completing things and opening them up to criticism, or to avoid starting them in the first place because the moment isn't right, the setting isn't right, the idea isn't right ... which all just means we're afraid they won't be as good in execution as they are in our heads, and so we avoid failure by not trying.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:47 PM on May 8 [8 favorites]

Strong 2nds to Jacquilynne, Etrigan and jenfullmoon. 1) Prioritize work and then 2) allocate energy. In the case of a course, first decide what your minimum standards are overall. Then look at the course weighting; put more of your energy into the big things. Then, consider how much work it takes you to do x kind of thing (clock yourself, or use the full Pomodoro technique, if you have to. Include your prep time and breaks) - this will help you plan your time better. Don't lose little marks for nothing if they're easy to get, but if you need to let 2 or 3 marks go here and there so you can get a solid mark on a major paper, so be it. It's essential to master juggling priorities and time, if you want/have to meet grade targets (but also, for life).
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:38 PM on May 8

It sounds like you're a college student, right? If so, does your college have a counseling service that you have access to? I found it very helpful to work on perfectionism in individual therapy at my school's counseling service. This would be a very valid thing to call them up about -- say that you're falling behind in your schoolwork due to perfectionism that you don't know how to manage.

If you think of therapy as sort of a mind-hacking, life-coaching thing, then you can see it as another opportunity for you to take advantage of. It's like a meta-opportunity: it can help you learn to make the most of all of your other opportunities by learning to balance quantity and quality so that you don't blow all your energy and attention pursuing the highest possible quality in just one area. The other advice in this thread is all very good, but if you're like me you may find that it's ultimately more useful to work one-on-one with someone, picking apart concrete examples from your life on a continuing basis, rather than trying to put more abstract advice into practice.
posted by ootandaboot at 8:33 PM on May 8

Put your tasks in order of how important they are and when they're due. Determine the requirements for the top task, meet the requirements, and then move on to the next task.

If a school problem is to write an essay, 500 to 1000 words, that addresses three points, just address those three points, keep the word count somewhere in the middle of that range, and you're done. Get it off your desk. Do the next thing on your list.

To ask a question on, say only what people need to know to understand and answer your question. "What are the best vegan restaurants in Boston?" Don't overexplain, because you'll just muddy the question and get yourself bad answers. If you're asking something of a personal nature, don't leave yourself open to the vultures who want to jump on askers for asking the wrong questions or being the wrong kinds of people.

And don't work in a vacuum. If you've just finished an essay and you have some time, ask a friend for an opinion (without straying into any violations of school policy regarding plagiarism and so on). If you're going to ask something on Ask, ask a friend first if possible.

As for dating ("I won't go on a date if I don't feel I'm in the right environment"), I'm not absolutely sure what you mean, but I recommend dating as a part of doing something you would like to do even without a date. Picnic, hike, beach, concert, movie, etc. Choose an environment you do like and take your date into that environment. "Let's go do x this weekend. It looks like the weather is going to be nice and I love doing x." If you want to make a good impression and see whether your date is someone you can get along with, it wouldn't hurt to let your date see you enjoying yourself doing something you love.
posted by pracowity at 3:01 AM on May 9

Dear OP,

I know I've beaten this drum before, but this seems like a good time to suggest that you might want to look into therapy if your insurance covers it.

I say this because there's a pretty clear pattern in your question history of something that sounds a lot like OCD, and the perfectionism you're talking about could very well be (and probably is) a manifestation of that.

From the outside, your thought process looks less like perfectionism and more like a self-defeating loop.

But lately I'm thinking that (for example) not reading a ton of books and trying to get the most out of them (marking them up, writing notes, being in the right environment) is making me read fewer and there's a point where doing fewer things is bad, even if I do them better. I won't go on a date if I don't feel I'm in the right environment; won't post an AskMeFi question that isn't well-written, etc.

Here is something you can always say about any activity ever undertaken: However much you did, you did not do more than that. Your brain is seizing on the fact that you didn't do more than you did (which it will always be able to do) and using that as a reason not to try at all.

If you let that part of your brain win, it'll keep raising the bar and eventually you'll never do anything at all, except maybe the bare essentials to get by. And you don't want that.

You can do this. Good luck.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:19 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

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