Managing perfectionism: Making progress with your work

Managing perfectionism: Making progress with your work

Are you having trouble prioritising multiple deadlines? Are you wondering how you will get it all done in time? Do you feel that what you are doing is not good enough? Do you notice you are not satisfied with your work, despite working hard to make progress? If so, you are not alone. It is common for us to experience these feelings when we care about producing work of a high standard.

However, the relentless pursuit of a flawless piece of work often leads to feeling dissatisfied and the experience of low mood. This is described as perfectionism, a condition that can develop as a result of pursuing impossible standards. Over a prolonged period, it can lead to stress and a negative impact on our health. It can undermine our confidence in our ability, and we can lose hope in our capacity to get things done.

Expecting to do our work to high standards is motivating. It is rewarding to see our good work when we achieve good results, and we can derive a great sense of satisfaction from it. However, when pursuing the perfect result at the expense of our health and it impacts those around us, then it is necessary to make some changes.

There are many factors that can lead to the development of perfectionism. For example, in Western societies, there is a tendency to equate time with efficiency. Therefore, creating a sense of urgency, or limited time, to meet deadlines. As a result, many find it difficult to take breaks due to feeling they cannot afford the time.

We tend to be very subjective when it comes to evaluating our work, thinking it is not good enough. We believe that our self-doubt is evidence that we cannot do the work up to a high standard, and we worry about failing. We are more likely to look for the mistakes we have made, paying attention to what is wrong rather than paying attention to the progress we are making. As a result, we tend to correct and redo what we are working on to improve it to meet the impossibly high standards we set for ourselves.

Strategies to manage perfectionism

Identify self-critical thoughts: Notice when you have negative thoughts about your work, about yourself, or if you are anticipating negative outcomes. These thoughts tend to appear randomly. We do not choose them, although if we do not challenge them, they become habitual thinking patterns over time.

aOnce you notice the negative thoughts, ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful?”
As you become aware of the negative thoughts, and you get used to challenging them, you can prevent getting into these habitual thinking patterns. They are preventing you from thinking about what you can do to make progress. Then, ask yourself: “what one thing can I do now to move forward?”

Develop self-compassion: That is, treat yourself with kindness, like you would behave towards your best friend. Having the awareness that you are human and sometimes mistakes can happen. It also means acknowledging that your intention is to do good work and that you are making efforts towards your goal (Gilbert, 2010).

Take breaks: Give yourself time to restore your energy. It also provides you with an opportunity to step back from your work. This way, when you return to it, you can look at it with fresh eyes. Often, just a few minutes can allow you to notice what you can edit or correct to get unstuck.

By taking time to reflect on your work, you can make progress while preventing the negative effects of stress.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” (Voltaire)

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