Know When to Quit: The Downsides of Perfectionism

Perfectionism has its uses but needs to be kept in check.

Always giving your all in the workplace is an admirable trait. That push for perfection is often how great things get accomplished in art, business, and just about everywhere else. There comes a point, however, where perfectionism provides diminishing returns. Always trying to get something precisely right in the workplace has a tendency to backfire. Productivity halts when you can’t keep a drive for perfection grounded in the necessity of reality.

Even though many successful people were perfectionists (Steve Jobs, Beethoven, Margaret Thatcher, and many others), perfectionism sometimes does more harm than good. Author Anne Lamott said it best: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

She’s right — perfectionism can be a total productivity killer. Psychologists consider perfectionism a handicap despite the impeccable work that sometimes comes from that mindset. Burnout rates are much higher, as are stress and anxiety levels. Perfectionism is also a form of procrastination that drastically lowers productivity. Those people who aim the highest get derailed by a particular detail or aspect that, for the most part, is insignificant.

That lack of productivity is a huge downside in the workplace, especially if other projects are being neglected. The balance between perfectionism and productivity is a fine line. After a certain point, there’s no shame in saying “that’s good enough” and putting the project to rest.

The Benefits of Saying “Good Enough”

Nobody advocates doing slipshod work or haphazardly rushing through projects. Yet there are some big benefits to knowing when to wrap up a project and focus energies elsewhere. If you find yourself wasting time and energy trying to get something exactly right, think of these benefits to putting perfectionism in check.

Moving On

It’s important to cross all I’s and dot all T’s when working on a project. That isn’t necessarily perfectionism — that’s just being careful, which is a good thing. What isn’t so great is when you end up spending all your time on a few minor aspects. For a perfectionist, these finishing touches are completely nerve-racking. At this stage,  an overwhelming fear that the work isn’t good enough takes over.

Those fears are typically the result of setting the bar impossibly high, which is a common trait of perfectionists. High standards are a good thing, but they don’t help when they’re unattainable. At a certain point, there’s the need to wrap up the project and move on to the next one. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s absolutely necessary in order to be productive.

Avoid Overthinking

Have you ever watched a movie that was just a little too over the top? Or read a potentially great novel that wore out its welcome by dragging on for too long? In cases like that, it’s easy to see the effects of overthinking. Sometimes a great idea becomes diluted the more it gets worked on. That’s the problem with perfectionism — a strong concept gets tinkered with too much until it just doesn’t work anymore.

Overthinking slows us down and hinders our work. That problem gets worse the more time we unnecessarily spend on a project. One study found that overthinking hinders performance. Researchers found that our initial instincts are often correct, but overthinking slows things down and leads us in the wrong directions. 

Freeing The Burden

Perfectionism weighs heavy on the mind. There’s the belief that nothing is good enough and that the work we’re doing is garbage. Having high standards is a wonderful thing, yet too much is truly burdensome. The weight of perfectionism slows us down and grinds productivity to a halt. That’s why perfectionism needs to be let go.

Instead of striving for perfectionism, consider attaining excellence. Excellence is all about self-improvement and doing better, even if it leads to some messiness and imperfections. It’s a clear distinction from perfectionism that more practical.

The Deep Roots of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a powerful force that is almost impossible for some people to avoid. That’s because studies show that perfectionism takes hold through our genetics. The drive for perfection is written in our DNA, making us predisposed to this type of behavior. Denying our nature is a difficult.

Perfectionists don’t’ always inherit the trait from their parents — at least not genetically. The other contributing factor to perfectionism comes from upbringing. Environmental factors, such as pressure from parents and teachers, can also push someone to perfectionism.

When a child is told they’re not good enough, sometimes they withdraw and give up. Others put in an unhealthy amount of work of trying to become perfect. That motivation of thinking nothing is good enough might pay off when it comes to grades and work. It also takes its toll both mentally and physically.

From childhood to adulthood, the drive towards perfection can lead many to great places. Still, it hurts as often as it helps. Like all things in life, a balance needs to be achieved between the two. A touch of perfectionism mixed with strong productivity can go a long way in work and in life.

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