How Overcoming Perfectionism Can Make You a Better Worker

Do you sometimes feel that, no matter how hard you try, your work is never good enough? Maybe other people admire what you do, but you find it difficult to believe them? These and other signs may suggest that you’re a perfectionist.

While people often flash out their perfectionist tendencies in job interviews, this isn’t a desirable trait. In fact, an obsessive strive for perfection usually does more harm than good.

In this article, we’ll explain how perfectionism can impact your work and how you may be able to turn it around to your advantage. You’ll see that overcoming perfectionism is possible. But first, let’s define the term. What does it even mean to be a perfectionist?

What Is Perfectionism, and How Is It Different From Being a High Achiever?

Perfectionism is a mindset of a person who sets incredibly high standards for themselves. Those standards produce unrealistic expectations that are either impossible to meet or meeting them means the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. However, a perfectionist doesn’t see it like that. In their mind, what others see as perfectionism seems like a way of proving themselves.

On the surface, you may think that perfectionist tendencies help you excel at work. But more often than not, that’s not true. If you notoriously put the bar too high, you’re setting yourself up for constant disappointment. This isn’t just detrimental to your workplace productivity. It can also take a toll on your mental health and cause low self-esteem.

It’s worth noting that there is a difference between a perfectionist and a high achiever. They are motivated by different things. A high achiever thrives on a sense of accomplishment, and this motivates them to seek excellence. A perfectionist, on the other hand, is often motivated by fear: a fear of not being good enough, of failing, or of what others will think about them.

If you’re not sure if that’s you, read on. In the next section, we’ll offer some clues to help you assess whether or not you display perfectionistic behavior in the workplace.

How to Find Out If You’re a Workplace Perfectionist

Sometimes, it may be easy to confuse a perfectionist for a healthy high achiever. It’s important to identify which one you’re closer to.

Below, you’ll find a list of typical perfectionist behaviors that are obstacles, rather than helpful in the workplace. See if you can recognize any of them in yourself.

  • Whenever you don’t meet your own expectations, you experience negative self-talk: Self-criticism can be useful in some situations. But if your mind does it even for the smallest reasons, it may be a sign of perfectionism.
  • Your sense of self-worth depends on your work outcomes: Whenever there is a crisis at work, your self-esteem drops. You have a hard time feeling good about yourself unless every aspect of your work is impeccable.
  • You procrastinate on tasks due to the fear of failure: One study has shown a correlation between putting tasks off and perfectionism. A common reason for procrastination among perfectionists is the worry that what they produce will fail.
  • You try to avoid mistakes at all costs: Do you believe you can’t afford to make mistakes or else something terrible will happen? Not being able to accept one’s mistakes is a common trait among perfectionists.
  • You spend lots of time on unimportant tasks, where the stakes are low: This often makes you feel like you’re wasting time, as you feel busy but rarely accomplish something of substance. It keeps you from risking imperfection in more important areas.
  • Your colleagues, friends, and family often point out that you have unrealistic expectations: To you, it seems that this is what you should be able to accomplish. Others are often surprised that you imagine it’s possible.
  • You often experience self-doubt at work: Perfectionist thinking is characterized by self-defeating thoughts such as: “I’m never good enough,” “I shouldn’t make mistakes,” “Asking for help means I’m weak,” etc. Such thinking makes it hard to build and maintain self-confidence at work.

All the above traits can have value in certain situations. From the evolutionary standpoint, always striving for better has allowed humans to survive. Focusing on what was missing helped our ancestors to be sensitive to danger and learn how to plan in advance for the times of scarcity.

But those same mental tendencies are maladaptive in the modern workplace. Perfectionism tends to have negative consequences for both your productivity and wellbeing. That’s because it keeps you in a constant state of feeling inadequate, which reduces motivation to work.

Luckily, there are many things that can help with overcoming perfectionism.

Overcoming Perfectionism: Make Your Perfectionist Tendencies Work in Your Favor

If you have perfectionist tendencies, this likely means you also have big dreams and ambitions. You’re not afraid of working hard, and you care about the results of your job. These are important advantages not to be overlooked.

But what if you could let go of perfectionism and come closer to becoming a high achiever instead? This is entirely possible. Below, you’ll find some ideas for overcoming perfectionism and improving your performance and mental health in the process.

Become Aware of Your Perfectionistic Thoughts

As Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Meta once said, “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” Becoming more aware of your perfectionist thinking will make it easier for you to change it.

How often do you think to yourself, “I’m no good,” or “I’m going to embarrass myself with this presentation”? Not sure? Keeping a thought diary may help. When you start writing down your thoughts, you’ll become better at recognizing them. This also means they won’t have so much power over you.

Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Put simply, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) allows you to reprogram your thought patterns. Working with a therapist will help you question whether your most prevalent thoughts are true (or helpful). If not, you’ll learn techniques for how to tame them.

If you can’t afford a good therapist or don’t want to see one, you can also use a workbook to make peace with your perfectionist thoughts.

Practice Unconditional Self-Acceptance

A researcher whose work can be particularly useful for a perfectionist is Brene Brown. She’s been considered a vulnerability expert for over two decades, and she often highlights the importance of self-love and self-acceptance in her work.

In fact, Brene Brown believes that you can’t truly change in a meaningful, lasting way, unless you have self-acceptance. When you’re constantly in a state of dissatisfaction (as perfectionists often are), it doesn’t motivate you to work better. Rather, you’re living in a stress response mode all the time.

Practicing self-acceptance can be a powerful antidote to this.

Limit Your Use of Social Media

The social media posts and self-help gurus telling you how to improve can easily perpetuate perfectionism. Productivity and hustle culture can make anyone feel like they’re not enough. If you combine this with your existing perfectionist tendencies, you may set your standards even higher — because it seems like that’s what everyone else is doing.

To soften unrealistic expectations powered by social media, avoid looking at your notifications and updates — especially at work. It will make it easier to connect with your reality, instead of with what you imagine someone else is doing.

Set Goals Alongside Your Co-Workers

If you tend to overshoot your work goals, there’s a simple trick you can use to deal with this. Next time you create your weekly work plan, do it alongside your work colleagues. It’ll help you see how much other people in your workplace are fitting in their week.

This doesn’t mean you have to lower your ambitions. However, it may help you see what realistic goals look like so you can better set your workload boundaries.

Make Mistakes and Be Imperfect on Purpose

This may sound a bit radical, but it works for a lot of people. To overcome perfectionism, expose yourself to making mistakes — or even make them on purpose. Let them be small but visible. Here are a few ideas:

  • Purposely sending an email with a few typos
  • Improvising during a presentation, rather than rehearsing it before
  • Openly admitting that you’ve sent incorrect information to your boss
  • Coming to a meeting 10 minutes late

If you can make a few inconsequential mistakes on purpose, you may be able to learn that the world doesn’t end when you do. This will loosen up your perfectionism and help you enjoy your work more, as you won’t always be driven by horrible “what-if” scenarios.

A Good Time Tracker Is a Perfectionist’s Friend

A frequent problem for perfectionists is that they aren’t aware of how much they’re already doing. When you always expect the impossible standard from yourself, you may turn a blind eye to the progress you’re making and only focus on what’s missing.

That’s why a time tracker can be a perfectionist’s best friend. It gives you an idea of how much you’ve actually accomplished and how long you worked in a given day, week, or month. This may make it easier to appreciate yourself and rewire the unhelpful mental patterns.

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