Overcoming perfectionism: 5 science-backed ways to quiet your inner perfectionist

Some of the greatest thinkers of all time have warned us against perfectionism. “Perfect is the enemy of good,” wrote Voltaire. While Aristotle, Confucius, and other classical philosophers advocated for the “golden mean” and not chasing extremes.

Yet despite a long history of advocates for being “good enough”, we all fall into the trap of perfectionism sometimes. We see how competitive the modern workplace has become and the last thing anyone wants is for people to think they’re sloppy or don’t put in the effort.

But, as we wrote in our Guide to overcoming procrastination, this is a slippery slope. The more you chase perfectionism, the more likely you are to procrastinate and then get stressed out when things don’t go exactly how you wanted them to.

So how do you find your “golden mean” and overcome perfectionism while still feeling good about the work you’re doing?

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Why perfectionism is on the rise around the world

Perfectionism - Good enough

Overcoming perfectionism doesn’t mean giving up on getting better.

But when you’re so focused on being “perfect” that other aspects of your life (and job) suffer, then you know you have a problem. Unfortunately, this line can be hard to see.

Most of us have been told we have to be the best in order to succeed. Plus, we’re often rewarded for those actions! In one study (aptly called Doing better but feeling worse) researchers found that:

“Students with high maximizing tendencies [obsessive, perfectionist behavior] secured jobs with 20 percent higher starting salaries than did students with low maximizing tendencies.”

However, that same group was also less satisfied with the jobs they obtained and unhappier during the entire job-hunting process. So how do we separate “good” perfectionist tendencies from the more problematic ones?

The 3 reasons why we become perfectionists

First, we need to understand what motivates us to chase perfection.

Getting specific, there are three different categories of perfectionism we’re vulnerable to:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: Our internal desire to be perfect
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: The desire to live up to others’ expectations.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism: When we hold others to unrealistic expectations.

In a study of thousands of college students from the US, Canada, and England, they found that from 1989 to 2016, perfectionism rose across all categories. Self-oriented by 10%; Socially Prescribed by 33%, and other-oriented by 16%.

In the workplace, we’re most likely to fall victim to the first two.

We want to be “perfect” to show our bosses and colleagues we’re competent (this is often a result of the imposter syndrome). While at the same time, managers and bosses (often unknowingly) impose unrealistic expectations on us.

Throw in a rise in distractions, multitasking, and interruptions from email and IM and all of a sudden the math looks grave: We have less time for meaningful work, but higher expectations to perform.

Overcoming Perfectionism: 5 steps to silence your inner perfectionist

So what do we do? The answer isn’t to just be sloppy and lazy with work. But rather to search for that “Golden Mean” the classical philosophers spoke about—a threshold of “perfect” where we know we could do more, but that the results wouldn’t match the effort needed to get there.

To find our personal threshold, we need to tackle two specific issues.

First, we need to silence our own inner perfectionist. Next, we need to find ways to properly communicate what reasonable expectations are with our bosses and coworkers.

Let’s look at a few strategies for dealing with both of these:

1. Find the gap between your standards and reality

Perfectionism - uncertainty-min

Let’s start with silencing our own inner perfectionist. The problem most perfectionists have is they don’t think what they’re doing is wrong. The little voice inside their head tells them their standards are realistic (no matter how impossible or irrational they actually are).

Even worse, those unrealistic expectations are often reinforced by our own actions. Knowing your standards are out of whack is half the battle.

As the authors of When Perfect isn’t good enough: Strategies for coping with perfectionism write:

“Are your standards higher than those of other people? Can you meet your standards? Are other people able to meet your standards? Do your standards help you to achieve your goals or do they get in the way (for example, by making you overly disappointed or angry when your standards are not met or causing you to get less work done)?”

What would the costs be of relaxing a particular standard or ignoring a rule? What would the benefits be of relaxing a particular standard or ignoring a rule?”

For most deep-seated perfectionists, this statement won’t make sense. Of course, everything you do is important and necessary. Why would you do it otherwise?

However, this argument falls apart when you start to dig into this assumption.

Let’s start with some math. The Pareto Principle is a widely accepted phenomenon that states how 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. In other words, your effort follows the law of diminishing returns. In most cases, relaxing your standards even just a little bit will save you time, effort, and stress.

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2. Silence your inner perfectionist by thinking like an athlete

Now that your standards are a little more in check, let’s deal with the next major issue: the fear of failure.

In a New York Times article called Why are Young People Pretending to Love Work? the author describes the “performative workaholism” and workplace cultures that “glorify ambition not as a means to an end, but as a lifestyle.”

Work has become such a huge part of our identities that messing up is no longer seen as an option.

Now, in some instances, this drive for perfectionism can be a positive force. Think about the way an athlete trains using Deliberate Practice to hone in on every tiny detail of their skill. Setbacks or failures aren’t “all or nothing” situations. They’re opportunities to reflect, learn, and adjust your approach.

However, few of us see work failures in the same light.

Instead, we use what therapists call “maladaptive perfectionism”—collecting an archive of all the moments we didn’t succeed and revisiting them on a regular basis to feel bad.

But as psychologist Jessica Pryor writes in The Atlantic all this does is cause us to raise the bar even higher, increasing the likelihood of failure.

But what if that archive of failures wasn’t a place for shame and blind motivation? As Seth Fiegerman writes in The Smithsonian Magazine:

“When you see someone who’s very successful, you almost imagine that it was a foregone conclusion, that they’re a genius, that they were destined for great things. I think the big takeaway is failure and setbacks, far from being uncommon, are in many ways essential.”

When you see failure as simply a launching place for success, you break out of the need to be perfect and can understand that each mistake is a step towards something better.

3. Get more comfortable with uncertainty

Perfectionism - comfortable with uncertainty

Perfectionists have a need to see the world as problems they have the solution to. And when situations turn into the unexpected, panic sets in.

As the authors of Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets out of Control, write, perfectionists are really just in search of control:

“Their subtle but constant efforts to control everything in the world around them (and inside them) are an attempt to do the impossible: to guarantee security; to assure safe passage through the risks and uncertainties of living. Sometimes these efforts may ‘work’ for years. And the rewards for being responsible, consistent, alert to details, safety-conscious, and well organized are legion. But all this security comes at a price…”

That price isn’t just an inability to deal with uncertainty, but also feeling like “being right” is just who they are. The perfectionist, they write, sees tasks as a test of their ability not just as workers, but as people:

“To perfectionists, being wrong isn’t something negligible. It’s a threat to the very essence of their self-image…”

No one enjoys feeling uncertain. But perfectionists actively fight it at every stage. So how do you start to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable?

Here are a few tips from Zen Habits founder, Leo Babauta:

  • Ask “What’s the worst case scenario?” Uncertainty often means exposure to a lack of comfort, security, and confidence. But while your initial reaction might be fear, playing it out shows it’s not that bad. Will the world end? Will you get fired? Usually, the consequences aren’t as dire as we make them out to be.
  • Create your own safety net. A fall-back plan will help you get over the fear of jumping into the unknown. Trying creating a group of friends or colleague you trust. Or find resources to help guide you when you’re lost.
  • Try to experience the joy of the unknown. This is easier said than done, but you can also try to reframe the fear of the unknown as excitement. Not knowing means you’re not tied to expectations or specific outcomes. Think of yourself as an explorer, not a guide.  

4. Set guardrails to your effort (and remember the law of diminishing returns)

While asking “What’s the worst case scenario?” is a good exercise, experiencing that space is so much more powerful.

The authors of When Perfect isn’t good enough, call this “hypothesis testing.” In other words, run a small experiment where you either purposefully stop early or give yourself hard limits on your work.

For example, you might cut back a round of edits on a document before sending it. Or, send an email without re-reading it 5 times. As they explain:

“Carefully designed experiments will provide an opportunity to disprove your perfectionistic beliefs… If there is no consequence, you will learn that your beliefs about the importance of including all of the details are not true.”

Not only will this help you get over your own perfectionism, but it can also highlight places where your effort is better spent. It’s one of the only ways you can actually find more time in the day.

5. Ask for 30/90 feedback instead of sending something that is 100%

Perfectionism - failure

So far, we’ve focused on getting rid of your perfectionist thoughts. But what about the pressure to be perfect at work?

The truth is that most managers and bosses don’t want you to fail. It’s in their best interest for you to succeed. And they’d rather have input earlier on to help you course correct than have to deal with major issues when you send in your “perfect” final project.

One solution to this is a practice called 30/90 feedback. In an article on the 42Floors blog, Jason Freedman explains how clarifying the type of feedback you want can help curb your perfectionist tendencies and help set expectations in the workplace.

If a project is at 90%, you’re asking for line-level feedback like typos, glitches, or silly mistakes. At 30%, the reviewer skips over those things (assuming they’ll be looped in later to help with them) and focuses on the broader strokes: structure, strategy, approach.

Using this technique can help curb the socially-prescribed perfectionism in the workplace in a couple of ways:

  1. You won’t get as much work piled on you: When your managers are aware of the status of your projects they’re less likely to pile more and more on you.
  2. More feedback early on gets managers invested: When you share things early on, you’re effectively making your managers a partner in the project. They’ll be more invested and remove the uncertainty of not knowing their expectations and feeling like you have to create your version of “perfect.”

(If you want to take this a step further, the team at Basecamp put together a short guide on how to know the “right amount of perfect” for your project.)

Good is the enemy of great. But perfect is the enemy of everything.

We all fall into perfectionism from time to time. But when we remember that we’re allowed to make mistakes (and that some of the best products and ideas of all time came from screwups) we not only feel less stressed but give ourselves the space to experiment, explore, and create.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

4 comments

  1. Love this! I find myself performing as a perfectionist at work all of the time. These tips are super helpful and I’ll have to start using them, especially the one about thinking like an athlete. It’s important to remind yourself that failures aren’t the “end game,” they’re a chance to reflect and adjust your game plan. Thanks for this awesome advice!

  2. Thank you for sharing. The tips and advises are really helpful. And we should remember that no one is perfect. We should allow ourselves to be human. And human beings can make mistakes. Forgive others and forgive yourself also.

    1. Yes! One of the things I have struggled with for years is being kind to myself. In our rush to be constantly productive, it can be easy to discount or even feel bad about any time you take just for yourself or the mistakes you make. But as you said, we’re all just humans and need to allow ourselves and others to experiment and grow.

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