I’m a perfectionist. If you know me personally, this is probably not news to you.
I like things to be just so, and it’s hard for me to move on from any situation that’s not yet perfect.
Over the last couple years, though, I’ve gradually realized that across-the-board perfectionism has a steep price, one that I’d been paying unwittingly. But I think I’ve found a compromise, a way to embrace perfectionism while avoiding much of this cost.
Let’s start by examining the cost of across-the-board perfectionism.
The Price of Perfectionism
Okay, here’s how I see it.
The higher your standards for an activity, the more time it takes to complete that activity.
Since your time is more or less fixed, having high standards for one activity reduces the time available for all other activities. This isn’t a problem for truly important tasks (like regular exercise or your favorite hobby), but when applied to all activities, it’s a major problem.
“But wait,” you say, “isn’t this blog about becoming more productive? Can’t you create more time by working more efficiently and keeping your standards very high in all areas?” Yes indeed, and increased efficiency is a great first step! Since you only have 24 hours in a day, though, you’ll eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. You can only do so much.
In other words, if you apply a single standard (“It must be perfect!”) to every activity you engage in, you will have time for relatively few activities.
Let’s look at an (fictional) example.
Tim the Perfectionist
Tim demands perfection from himself in everything, and it shows. His house is spotless, he’s extremely productive at work, and his day is ruled by routine. Tim’s life is predictable and productive.
Tim has few hobbies, since taking up a new activity represents a huge time commitment for him. He really only has two pastimes: gardening and running.
Tim’s garden is something to behold. Sprawling yet neat, it dominates his backyard. Tim’s meticulous record-keeping and careful planning have led to year-over-year increases in yield, and he now grows more produce than he and his wife can eat. He regularly brings his neighbors fresh kale, tomatoes, and squash (which they’re happy to accept).
Tim’s also a runner. He runs nearly 50 miles a week, and in local races he regularly beats decades-younger runners. He keeps precise records of this hobby, too: he’s been recording his daily mileage, his caloric intake, and his sleep habits for nearly twenty years.
To be blunt, Tim can’t half-ass anything. He reaps the rewards of his across-the-board perfectionism (excellence in all pursuits) and lives with the downside (relatively few pursuits).
Tim is happy and productive. There is nothing wrong with being Tim.
But what if you don’t want to be Tim?
An Alternative to Across-the-Board Perfectionism
Maybe you’re like me. You like having high standards, but you also like trying new things. You want a handful of hobbies, not just one or two. Maybe, like me, you find the weight of across-the-board perfectionism to be crushing. Who has time to spend 45 minutes cleaning the fridge every month?
I’ve found a workable solution. Like most answers to complicated problems, it’s a compromise. I call it intentional perfectionism.
Intentional perfectionism is simply making a conscious choice about what activities to be a perfectionist about.
I have an actual list. Here it is:
- playing the trumpet every day (no exceptions)
- writing this blog twice a week (no exceptions)
- bringing my “A” game when advising students (and most other work tasks)
- making coffee (exactly 20g of beans per 330g of 203° water)
- keeping a zero-based budget every month (to the penny)
- tracking every calorie I eat
- keeping my desk completely clean
- requiring my clothes to fit just the way I like
If it’s not on this list, dude, let it slide.
This might seem like too simple a solution for a problem as ingrained as perfectionism, and I’ll be transparent: it doesn’t work every time. But I’m constantly surprised at the difference this mindset has made for me.
I can immediately think of four major hobbies I currently enjoy that wouldn’t have been possible under my old, across-the-board perfectionism mindset:
Many of my friends are way better at these things, and I’m okay with that. It’s the price I pay to do them at all.
Implementing Intentional Perfectionism
Do you struggle with perfectionism? Got five minutes? Make your own intentional perfectionism list and try it out for a week! If it doesn’t work, you’ve lost nothing. If it works (as it has for me), you’ll find yourself experiencing less stress and more fulfillment.
And that’s well worth five minutes.