Our commitment to quality can become an issue when we don’t know where to draw the line, says Shelagh Donnelly

Do you feel good inside if a colleague comments that you’re a perfectionist? It’s nice to have our efforts recognised, yet you may want to receive such comments as cautionary flags that merit closer consideration.

I’m speaking from experience, as a recovering perfectionist. In the past, if someone commented on my perfectionist approach to work, I heard that comment as a compliment. After all, this meant my colleague had noticed the high degree of care and commitment I brought to my role. That was a good thing, right?

Not necessarily. It’s good to have an eye for detail and to place a high priority on the quality of the materials we produce. That said, there really can be too much of a good thing; look at any group of first graders coming down from a sugar high on November 1st! Our commitment to quality can become an issue when we don’t know where to draw the line in trying to achieve a certain standard. High standards are important, yet perfectionists often work toward self-imposed standards that are not only unnecessarily high; they’re not expected, needed, or valued.

Are You Inadvertently Frustrating Colleagues?

If a colleague has ever commented that you’re a perfectionist, you may want to consider whether you’re investing your energies in the right direction – for, while being known as a perfectionist may represent a badge of honour to some, it can be frustrating to work with a perfectionist.

We of course want to be known for the quality of our work. If we tend to aim for perfection, though, consider some of the problems associated with such an approach. Let’s start with perceptions. You may think the extra time you spent polishing a document or presentation until it was just so a good use of your time. Your colleagues who were waiting to review or use that document, though, may feel nothing but frustration with the length of time it took to secure that deliverable from you.

Let’s say your executive is scheduled to give an important presentation. Will you create and proofread your slide deck, correct any errors, and then turn it over? If you’re a perfectionist, and you know the importance your executive is attaching to this presentation, you may think to yourself, Hmm. I can do better. You may adjust the font size, replace a photo or graphic here, change the colours or style of a chart there, reformat something else, and perhaps edit or reposition some text.

You then proofread it again and find something else to tweak. Sound familiar? When we edit and re-edit work that was good enough once we made corrections after our initial proofreading, we’re not making the best use of our time and resources.

Is Perfection Another Word for Overkill?

Time is a commodity. In reworking materials over and over, we may be delaying getting our deliverables to our stakeholders. We either cut it tight with timelines or – and I’m speaking from experience – we use personal time to meet business deadlines. Both approaches are problematic. However inspired you may be in honing a presentation to the nth degree, your executive would probably prefer to receive the slide deck sooner rather than later so they can begin rehearsing and preparing to deliver that critical presentation.

A perfectionist’s perspective on what constitutes a good use of time may, to colleagues, represent a misuse of time and compensation. Your efforts may be seen as well-intended overkill that detracts from other priorities. By extension, that could imply a lack of judgement on your part.

In Other Instances, the Extra Time and Effort Go Unnoticed

In many cases, principals (bosses) and other colleagues are blissfully unaware of the extra hours perfectionist Assistants sometimes put in. If you’re using personal time to ensure you’re polishing presentations or other deliverables and getting them in on time, ask yourself why you’re taking this approach. In many instances, it comes down to wanting to please or impress others, and to secure approval. It’s also believed some pursue perfection out of a niggling concern that we won’t live up to the perceptions others have of us.

Whatever the reason, we can put undue pressure on ourselves, often working extra hours to make things perfect – or as close to perfect as possible. Do you remember Mary Poppins? Even she acknowledged she was only practically perfect… albeit in every way!

Why We Pursue Perfection and the Problems That Can Bring

It’s unsurprising that so many people strive for perfection. Think of phrases you’ve heard over the years that reference the term “perfect.” People heap praise on a baseball player who’s thrown a perfect game and express admiration for a singer whose performance was pitch perfect. When we look back on a particularly special time, we may refer to the perfect ending to a perfect day. We’ve grown up hearing perfection praised; who hasn’t been told that practice makes perfect?

In fact, when we strive for perfection, we may inadvertently set ourselves up for what’s referred to as performance paralysis– not completing a task or taking longer than necessary to do so. Perfectionists sometimes put off beginning an undertaking. You may shuffle the task around on your desktop or to-do list until circumstances are just right… and yet that incomplete task remains top of mind, and you may find yourself stressed out over it rather than dealing with it.

Faced with the need to make a decision, do you give equal consideration to each decision you make? If that’s the case, you may be overthinking some of them. There are other performance implications. However well-meaning a perfectionist may be, hits to productivity – the perfectionist’s and their colleagues’ – may instead hinder performance and prospects.

Perfectionists can fall into a habit of procrastinating and missing out on a great deal. Who doesn’t know someone who chose not to apply for an appealing career opportunity because they didn’t meet all the prerequisites, or fussed that they wouldn’t perform well in an interview? Or someone who kept their head low and chose not to participate in something because they thought they hadn’t yet achieved the skills, education, or experience necessary for success?

Choose Resilience Over Perfection

If you’ve recognised yourself while reading this, you’re in good company. That doesn’t mean, though, it’s a desirable state of mind. Join me and do yourself a favour in choosing to focus on resilience over perfection.

Resilience can be defined as our ability to adapt to and bounce back from adversity. Think about it in terms of how readily we adjust to change. We’ve all had an abundance of opportunities, in recent years, to practice adjusting to situations and recovering from challenges. When we work on our resilience, we’re working on both self-awareness and our awareness of others. Recognising that our perfectionism may have negative consequences, not only for ourselves but also for our colleagues and other stakeholders, is in and of itself a reflection of emotional intelligence.

Reclaim Priorities

The next time you’re tempted to edit or rework deliverables that are already accurate, and already good enough, think of me. Imagine me standing alongside you, asking if you and your colleagues might not be better off if you instead pressed “send” or otherwise closed the door on that task.

Instead of working through lunch as so many Assistants do, how much more refreshed would you be when you tackle your afternoon priorities if you instead went for a walk, listened to music, connected with someone in your network, or did a bit of reading? If you’re working remotely, whatever your age, consider setting a timer for 10 to 20 minutes after a lunchtime walk to sit back and close your eyes. Perfectionists and those with perfectionist tendencies may be interested to know it’s recognised that short early afternoon naps can benefit adults’ state of relaxation, alertness, and performance, including memory and reaction time.

Wouldn’t you rather enjoy your lunchtime re-energising instead of tackling a task you didn’t accomplish earlier because you’ve been polishing other projects to pieces?

Think about how you use your personal time. If you’ve been relinquishing it in the quest for perfection, be intentional in reclaiming your time. Be prepared: it takes time to change habits we’ve developed over the years. Give yourself credit each time you’re able to resist the siren call of perfectionism. It may be challenging, yet think again just how much practice we’ve had lately in working through change… and how much your wellbeing and career both stand to benefit!

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A compelling speaker, trainer and thought leader, Shelagh (think “Sheila”) Donnelly lives in Vancouver, Canada. She walked your walk for almost three decades, and is the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. Shelagh brings her authentic, positive and ... (Read More)

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