Lately I’ve been wondering whether doing well academically at school and university was such a good thing in the long run. I now suspect those early successes came at a price – the entrenchment of tendencies that possibly held me back from reaching my full potential: perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure.
I earned brownie points and felt better about myself if I got good marks. And I beat myself up if I didn’t do as well as I thought I should. I couldn’t just dash off a piece of work and hand it in early, because it had to be really good. No pressure! So I’d procrastinate, then spend a long time trying to make it perfect, and finally just about get it in by the deadline (and it never was perfect).
This became a pattern in my life. The perfectionist in me just couldn’t let myself do a shoddy – or quick – job of anything. Consequently if I didn’t feel confident of doing something really well, I put it off. Perhaps because I’d never given myself the chance to fail at something that mattered to me, I was subconsciously afraid of doing anything badly.
At work this usually led to last minute marathons and a lot of angst – I constantly doubted my ability to do a good job while at the same time demanding this of myself.
It also held me back from taking risks, trying new things, because what if I failed?
With hindsight I can see how crazy and self-defeating this behaviour is. I can now see how these three traits are intertwined, with perfectionism at the core. This character trait leads to both fear of failure and procrastination (and why does it seem to be more common in women than men?).
I wish I’d understood this when I was working long hours and giving myself a hard time about producing the perfect piece of work.
But that’s what happens when you’re stressed and overwhelmed by work – you lose the ability to see things in perspective.
Maybe you’re a perfectionist and you think perfectionism has stood you in good stead in your career and life in general? I used to think that too. But what about all the time you spend honing things that just don’t need to be perfect? Or if you’re a procrastinating perfectionist like me, all the time wasted avoiding getting down to those things you’re afraid of doing badly? This is all time that could be spent more productively (and I don’t mean doing more work!).
So how to break out of the cycle?
One big step in the right direction is to accept that “done is better than perfect”. That almost always, good enough really is good enough. These may be cliches but there’s a reason why they’ve been used so many times!
The time you put into a perfecting a report or other piece of work yields diminishing returns. Is that extra couple of hours spent improving something really worth it? In most cases probably not.
Another positive step is to forgive yourself if you “fail”. If you get used to doing this then the fear of failing (or doing something less than optimally) diminishes and you’ll be more prepared to take risks or give yourself permission to do a good enough job.
At the end of our lives we won’t regret not having spent more time at the office polishing that long-forgotten report. We will regret not spending more time with loved ones or following our passions and doing the things we dreamed of doing.
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