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How Perfectionism Destroys Your Productivity 

Perfectionism is one of those traits that’s largely classified as admirable: those who have it proudly boast about it whilst those who don’t commend those who do.

by Nabeel Ahmad on disrupt
by Nabeel Ahmad on disrupt

The idea that perfectionism destroys productivity sounds oxymoronic, right? Well, if you’re here I’m guessing that you’ve realised something has gone horribly wrong with your perfectionist tendencies. Yet, as someone with a devoted work ethic and immaculate living and working aesthetic who completes all their projects and tasks to the highest standards, always arrives promptly and is never in trouble, you’re probably left wondering why your productivity levels aren’t as outstanding as you suppose they ought to be.

Perfectionism is one of those traits that’s largely classified as admirable: those who have it proudly boast about it whilst those who don’t commend those who do. If I were a betting woman I would wager you first came into contact with the term perfectionism at school, most probably during some careers development class. I remember distinctly my careers advisor advising us to admit to any future employers that our biggest weakness was perfectionism because it was one of those appealing and ‘hireable’ flaws. Well, who doesn’t want to hire someone who will work through their lunch hour and work unpaid overtime during evenings and weekends because their low self-esteem and obsessive need for external validation pushes them into overachieving and torturing themselves to purify anything they produce from any trace of inadequacy?

As you may have guessed, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Whilst having high standards is a respectable quality, 

Perfectionism is just a glorified version of procrastination.

Nothing delays a project more than the daunting thought of unrealistic expectations, and the crushing fear of failure is hardly a healthy motivator for any successful person. The unsurmountable pressure perfectionists place on themselves is not only creatively stifling but self-destructive. Even the founder of impressionist art, Claude Monet, was haunted by his perfectionism. He was renowned for frequently destroying his paintings in frustration and was noted for once crying out in despair, ‘My life has been nothing but a failure’. Yet in 2004, nearly 100 years after his death, his Effects of Sun in the Fog sold for $20.1 million.

We’re too afraid to even try, for fear of exposing our vulnerabilities.

In a video where I explained the 80% rule for productivity, I noticed from the comments that the people who got the most from the message and advice were self-confessed perfectionists, a demographic which is, unfortunately, hardly a minority. We live in a society where failure is seen as a weakness, and anything less than perfect is seen as a failure: if your stomach isn’t totally flat, you’re fat; if you’re working for minimum wage in your twenties, your career is slacking; if your thighs touch, you’re not healthy; if your teeth aren’t blisteringly white, you’re unhygienic; if you didn’t get a first at university, you might as well have not bothered and saved getting into debt.

The society and cultures that consume us have painstakingly infiltrated our psyche to the point that we project our perfectionist expectations onto those we meet, admire or envy. Lady Gaga may be a multi-millionaire with a successful music career but look at that cellulite and love handles! Talk about letting herself go!

Because magazines, social media and gossip forums have made us more acutely aware of the art of critique, we’ve gotten to a point when we’re too afraid to even try, for fear of exposing our vulnerabilities. Our society encourages us to silently laugh, smile or gloat at the imperfections and misfortunes of others, so why wouldn’t others do the same to us? It’s better to not try than potentially give them ammo. Perfectionism is self-defeating and, therefore, painfully ironic: we become perfect by the default of never trying. Letting go of being perfect is the only way you’re going to live a more productive and fulfilled life.

My perfectionism used to be inhibiting beyond reason: my work ethic was unhealthy, irrational and honestly, pretty dangerous.

Studies have shown that the higher the perfectionism of an individual, the more psychological disorders they are going to suffer from. It’s no exaggeration when scientists claim perfectionism is an epidemic that’s destroying people’s lives; even speaking from personal experience, it nearly killed me, several times. I define myself as a recovering perfectionist; whilst I have my moments of relapse, they’ve become few and far between since I began my journey as a freelancer and developed a passion for productivity and time management.

My perfectionism used to be inhibiting beyond reason: my work ethic was unhealthy, irrational and honestly, pretty dangerous. Perfectionism is a complex psychological problem that is broadly defined as a ‘combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations’, but over time it’s become recognised by researchers as a multi-dimensional issue consisting of three kinds: self-orientated, socially prescribed and other-oriented perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionism is the most established and recognisable form of perfectionism. It defines those whose perfectionistic beliefs and behaviours are directed inwards; they’re individuals who place irrational significance in perfection and measure themselves against unrealistic expectations, are overly-critical and become severely self-punishing for their perceived inadequacies. Socially prescribed perfectionists perceive others as judging them harshly and therefore seek approval and acceptance by displaying perfectionism for the ‘benefit’ of others. Alternatively, ‘other-oriented perfectionism’ is when the perfectionist expectations are external and the individual imposes unrealistic expectations and standards on those around them

What’s this got to do with Productivity?

So, how precisely does perfectionism inhibit our productivity, besides the obvious procrastination related to a fear to start or submit. Well, largely because perfectionists focus on the results rather than the progress; they’re unwilling to take risks, try new things or innovate. Perfectionism is a safe alternative to growth and reaching our full potential. Many of us are prompted into falling down these perfectionist rabbit holes thanks to competitive work cultures, pride and fear of failure; but the truth of the matter is that we can’t change the game in our industry or take our careers to the next level without taking risks.

Subsequently, your perfectionist standards aren’t healthy for those around you, be they your team members, friends or loved ones. Whether you want to admit it or not, your personal standards will reflect onto them and alter how you perceive them, and this unconscious or conscious judgement will pollute your environments, stunting any opportunities for growth, meaningful connection and authentic relationships.

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