A recovering perfectionist

perfectly aligned desserts

I describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. As I’m working on something, there are always aspects—always—that don’t seem quite right, don’t seem complete, don’t seem good enough. I just need to put a little more time into them: try some other approaches, do a little more research, refine some wording or design, or maybe completely rethink where I’m coming from on it, etc., etc. If I just do a little more, then the result will be so much better, will be “right”, will be something I can be proud of. But doing more rarely makes that nagging feeling of inadequacy go away. “I could have done better,” is a constant background refrain in my head.

That’s a terrible way to get anything done, whether it’s designing an app, writing an email, or organizing my closet. First, it pretty much guarantees a feeling of failure, no matter how well you do end up doing. I could have done better. Next, there’s a huge opportunity cost in continuing down these perfectionistic rabbit holes. You know, little things like the rest of the project or the other parts of your life; I hear those can be fairly important. Lastly, continuing to make changes to something doesn’t mean you’re continuing to make it actually better. As you continue to focus in on parts that aren’t quite right, and go through version after version, your vision is skewed. You overthink. You lose what little impartiality you had and can never see it the same way again. And you risk the end result seeming more like a series of pieces cobbled together rather than one, cohesive whole.

I know this is a terrible way to get anything done, and I’ve developed many strategies and tactics to move past it, but that perfectionist tendency is always there. I’m a recovering perfectionist, not a recovered one. I’m not sure if the latter even exists.

What I’m usually aiming for today for most of a project is “good enough” and “complete enough”. Early drafts, it’s not even that. For a first draft, I just want something down, even if it’s total crap. It’s a lot easier to edit a piece of crap than it is to edit something as you’re in the midst of putting it down. Before I start writing or designing, I try to create an outline of what I’m going to create and what I need to do. Identify parts that would be nice, but not necessarily required. Then I go ahead and create a good enough and complete enough version—a minimum viable product for as I get those inevitable this could be better feelings, I jot down quick notes about what I’m thinking, what I might do, then move on.

This is the most important part, to have something complete that I could move forward with if I need to. Then, if there’s additional time, I can work on making improvements and folding them into a new “release candidate”. This works pretty well when there’s a due date—a hard cutoff date after which changes just aren’t going to make it in, (at least not in this release.) Or if there’s not a due date, if there are other people waiting to get something from me, and stretching the project on longer and longer will make it more difficult for them, then I’m usually still pretty good. I struggle at times. I forget to make an outline sometimes before diving in to the details. I start making edits in the midst of writing or designing. But I usually catch myself and right the ship before I get in too deep.

The worst is when it’s something for myself. Especially if it’s something that others are going to see. Especially if I feel it will really represent me and others may judge me on it. Things like adding something to my professional portfolio. Or organizing and decorating my home. Or, perish the thought, writing a post for my professional blog. [emoji – big eyes and/or grimace]. I have a huge collection of partially started personal projects of all kinds that have never seen the light of day. I haven’t posted on this blog in almost 4 years, but I have at least eight posts in some stage of creation that I’ve started since then.

So what to do? That’s a much bigger question than I want to address in this post. I’ll come back and include links to resources on dealing with perfectionism. For right now with this post, I’m doing two things. One, I decided I would write this post in one pass without stopping, then allow myself one editing pass before publishing it. (I’ve already blown that, though, editing while I was writing. But I’m pushing forward now and will publish the post.) And two, I would add a note to this post and others in the future mentioning anything I thought was incomplete or still needed work, and ask for the reader to add any thoughts or helpful links in the comments. Rather than going on and on trying to “complete” the post before publishing, or worrying that I’d be judged for not covering certain aspects, I’ll just be honest with the reader and make some quick notes.

That was a revelation for me, that I could just be honest and say “this doesn’t seem quite finished, but I wanted to get it out to you for now as is.” It was a revelation despite the fact that I do exactly that at work. And nobody’s going to judge me for doing this. (Honestly, not many people are likely to read this.) Everybody has moments of perfectionism. Everybody has had times when they’ve struggled to finish something. Most people who read this will probably appreciate my willingness to show some vulnerability and feel a little closer to me for it.

So here I am, a recovering perfectionist. I wanted to share my thoughts, and I thought this would be a useful exercise in fighting back the perfectionist dragon that is always looming around the bend.

And here are the edits and additions I’d like to make to this article:

  • Add a “perfectionism” header image to this post
  • Consider adding section headers
  • Maybe find a good perfectionism quote
  • Include some links to resources on dealing with perfectionism
  • General edit of the post

If you have any questions or any thoughts you feel will add to this post, please leave a comment below. Thank you!

Dessert photo, Meerts’ Desserts, courtesy of Anthony Jauneaud.

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