How To Be Your Most Productive Self: Let Go Of Being Perfect

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We live in an era of overachievement, and in this era flaunting those achievements (we’re looking at you, social media) is totally the norm.

Because pretty much everyone’s achievements are on full display at all times, it can be easy to get caught up in the idea that “perfect is the new black,” and if you want to be successful in today’s hyper-competitive culture, you need to be perfect, too.

If you subscribe to this idea that perfection is a prerequisite for success, you’re not alone: Perfectionism is on the rise in a major way, with studies finding significant jumps in the prevalence of perfectionist tendencies over the last three decades.

But just because society is placing a higher value on perfection doesn’t mean you’re actually getting more done. “Perfect” and “productive” aren’t the same thing—and while you might think perfectionism is the key to racking up more achievements and getting more done, the truth is, perfectionism is actually counterproductive. Yes, that means your nitpicking ways are actually hurting, not helping, you.

We asked two psychologists, Dr. Laura Hamill, organizational psychologist and Chief Science Officer at employee engagement company Limeade, and social psychologist and leadership coach Erin Baker, PhD, for their insights on how perfectionism hinders productivity, why “done” is always better than “perfect,” and how you can let go of your need to be perfect, and dramatically ramp up your productivity in the process.

Understanding Perfectionism

Before we jump into how perfectionism hinders productivity, let’s take a second to understand what, exactly, perfectionism is.

Perfectionism is defined as “the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” Most experts agree that there are three types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: occurs when people are highly critical of themselves.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism: occurs when people are highly critical of others.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism: occurs when people think others expect them to be perfect, and then pressure themselves to be perfect in order to meet those expectations.

But where does the need to be perfect—in all its forms—actually come from?

How People Fall Down The Perfectionism Rabbit Hole

There are a number of different reasons people might give in to perfectionistic tendencies (or, as we like to call it, “fall down the perfectionism rabbit hole"):

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Competitive Work Environments

In some situations, perfectionism is a direct result of environment—in other words, if you work in a culture that demands perfection, chances are, you’ll start demanding perfection (of yourself and others) right along with it.

Perfectionism can be reinforced by organizational culture—when the norms, values and beliefs of an organization are characterized by fear of making a mistake and lack of trust,” says Dr. Laura Hamill. “Individual employees can have a tendency to be perfectionistic, but the culture of the organization can reinforce it.”

Pride And Personality

But not all perfectionism is the result of a high-pressure environment or an overly demanding boss. Some people have personalities that are just more naturally susceptible to perfectionism.

Though perfectionism isn't considered in psychological science to be a personality trait in and of itself, it is highly related to [one of the] five major personality traits called neuroticism.  People higher in neuroticism tend to experience negative emotions such as...anxiety much more easily than those lower in neuroticism,” says Baker. “Anxiety is one of many reasons people might be perfectionistic, so it follows that someone high in neuroticism might be easily anxious—which can also be associated with perfectionistic concerns.”

hamill_roundedPerfectionism can be reinforced by organizational culture—when the norms, values and beliefs of an organization are characterized by fear of making a mistake and lack of trust."

— Dr. Laura Hamill 

Fear Of Failure

Another reason people might struggle with perfectionism? A deep-seated fear of failure, and how failure reflects on them as a person.

People who are afraid of failure—and who correlate failing at something to actually being a failure themselves—are also more likely to struggle with perfectionism.

If they have a mindset that equates less-than-perfect as failure, and [they see] failure as a reflection of their own self-worth, then they will strive for perfection as self-preservation,” says Baker.

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How Perfectionism Threatens Productivity

So, there are different types of perfectionism that people struggle with, and different reasons people might fall into the perfectionism trap. But the end result is always the same: A major hit to productivity.

Perfectionism and productivity just don’t go hand-in-hand; having impossible standards makes it pretty much impossible to get things done. But what does that actually look like? What are some of the concrete ways perfectionism hinders productivity?

Perfectionism makes it challenging to get things started…

One way perfectionism can cause productivity to take a nosedive? Procrastination.

“People who are concerned about perfection often have a hard time getting started with their work,” says Baker. They’re so worried about doing things perfectly, they feel paralyzed to get started, and their work suffers as a result.

“Their paralysis can often lead to procrastination, missed deadlines, and work that ultimately is even lower quality than had they taken the leap and gotten started on-time,” says Baker.

...and even if you do get started, perfectionism prevents you from doing your best work

Even if you do overcome your perfectionistic tendencies to get the ball rolling on a project, chances are it’s going to hold you back from doing your best work.

Productivity is not just about quantity of work, it’s also about quality of work—[and] having unreasonably high expectations for yourself absolutely can limit your ability to do your best work,” says Hamill.  

And why is that? Hamill explains: “Because perfectionism can get in the way of trying new things, taking risks, and can stifle our ability to innovate.”

Great work—the kind of work that can change the game in your industry or take you and your business to the next level—requires a certain amount of risk. But if you’re caught up in the need to be “perfect,” those are likely risks you’re not going to be willing to take and, as a result, it’s nearly impossible to reach your full potential.

Perfectionism can mess with team dynamics

If your perfectionism is other-oriented, it doesn’t just affect you and your productivity—it can have a serious impact on your team. If you have unrealistic expectations about how your team should perform, and are disappointed whenever they (inevitably) fall short of perfect, it’s impossible to create an environment that fosters growth, authenticity, and connection. And, as a result, your team—and the relationships and dynamics within your team—can take a major hit.

“Perfectionism can lack humanity,” says Hamill. “Not only do perfectionists tend to treat themselves in unforgiving ways, they also set a standard (especially if they are in a management or leadership position) that is unrealistic and unsustainable for others. This can create a climate where people don’t feel like they can be themselves—and [it’s] one way we lose the humanity of work.”

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“People who are concerned about perfection often have a hard time getting started with their work. They’re so worried about doing things perfectly, they feel paralyzed to get started, and their work suffers as a result."

— Dr. Erin Baker 

How To Let Go Of Perfect—And Get More Done In The Process

Clearly, perfectionism isn’t doing any good things when it comes to productivity—and if you want to increase your productivity, you need to let go of “perfect” in favor of “done.”

But how, exactly, do you do that? Here are a few strategies to let go of the need to be perfect (and get a whole lot more done in the process):

1. Start Small

If you’ve been struggling with perfectionism for a long time (or, you know...forever), the thought of throwing caution to the wind and settling for “good enough” instead of “perfect” on, say, a big project or presentation, can feel totally overwhelming. And that’s ok!

When it comes to loosening the grip of perfectionism, baby steps are the way to go. “See what happens when you are not perfect…[and] experiment with letting some small things go,” says Hamill.

“Finish a project slightly before you see it as perfect. Send an email to a colleague without proofreading it first. Admit to a coworker when you are having a hard time getting started with something,” says Baker. “You will start to see over time that these imperfections do not lessen people's opinion of you, and in fact, you might find they see you as more relatable because you are human.”

Once you get comfortable letting go of the need to be perfect with the small stuff, it makes tackling the perfectionism that goes along with bigger, more important stuff a whole lot easier.

2. Put Yourself In Someone Else’s Shoes

If you struggle with self-oriented perfectionism, you’re incredibly hard on yourself—but chances are, you’re not nearly as harsh with other people.

So, if you want to let go of the need to be perfect, try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—and show yourself the same kind of compassion you’d show them if they were all caught up in perfectionism.

“If you catch yourself wanting to keep working on things to the point of perfection, ask yourself what you'd say if your coworker was in your position,” says Baker. “Would you tell them to keep working or would you encourage them to stop at ‘good enough?’

If you can tell your coworker to stop at “good enough,” you can tell yourself to stop there, too. “If you don't judge their imperfections on that thing, why would you judge yourself?” says Baker.

3. Set Time Parameters On Your Project

If your perfectionism either a) makes it hard to start your projects, or b) makes it hard to finish projects, then the best thing you can do for yourself is set time parameters.

Make a commitment to yourself to work on a certain project for a set period of time, also known as the Pomodoro Technique. So, for example, say to yourself “I am going to work on this presentation for the next 90 minutes. Once that 90 minutes is up, you’re done—whether you think the project is “perfect” or not. 

Setting strict time parameters on a project will help keep your perfectionism from getting in the way of actually getting things done—and the more you realize that “done” is better than “perfect,” the easier it’ll be to power through work.

4. Prioritize Your Perfectionism

If perfectionism is an innate part of your personality, it might always be with you to a certain degree—but if you want to stop it from hindering your progress, you need to figure out how to use it to your advantage. 

Prioritizing your perfectionism allows you to apply your perfectionistic tendencies towards the areas of your work (and life) that are truly important to you—and then loosen up on all the other stuff. 

So, for example, maybe your top priority at work is to be a great public speaker. Pour all your perfectionistic tendencies into preparing for your presentations—and then make a commitment to settle for “good enough” everywhere else. 

“Decide what you feel strongly about and what you don’t, [and] prioritize your perfection.” says Hamill. “[Then], don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Setting strict time parameters on a project will help keep your perfectionism from getting in the way of actually getting things done—and the more you realize that “done” is better than “perfect,” the easier it’ll be to power through work.

Let Go Of Perfect—And Go Get Things Done

It can be hard to let go of the need to be perfect. But the truth is, perfection is a fairy tale; it just doesn’t exist. And if you want to increase your productivity—and reach your highest potential—you need to let go of the fairy tale and stop striving for “perfect” in favor of “done.”


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