4 Ways to Prevent Perfectionism from Controlling Your Life

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Hannah Berman175
July 23, 2024 at 6:26PM UTC

The habit of perfectionism often comes across as a blessing. The tendency to care deeply about completing one’s work to the best of her ability is looked on as a powerful tool, both at school and in the workplace. When asked about their biggest flaws in an interview, many job applicants choose to claim perfectionism as their Achilles' heel in order to emphasize that they are not actually that flawed at all but rather hardworking and goal-oriented. In a society as focused on achievement as ours, striving towards absolute perfection can seem to be an absolute boon; however, a passion for perfect will only take you so far in life. You’d be surprised by all the ways in which an obsession with perfection can hold you back and impede your happiness. In many ways, that old saying is right — perfect actually is the enemy of good. 

What does "perfect is the enemy of good" mean?

“Perfect is the enemy of good” is a quote usually attributed to Voltaire. He actually wrote that the “best is the enemy of the good” (il meglio è nemico del bene) and cited it as an old Italian proverb in 1770, but the phrase was translated into English as “perfect” and made its way into common parlance in that form. Voltaire was trying to communicate that while a concept of “the best” exists, “good” will never be good enough — and he was right. Why go to a "good" restaurant when you could go to "the best" restaurant? Why bother hiring a "good" sitter when a "perfect" sitter exists? 

Evidence of this fetishization of perfection is everywhere you look in America, from idealized romances in films to pandering grade inflation in schools. As a whole, Americans are not striving for a good life, but rather the perfect life; and in doing so, they often manage to squash their chances of satisfaction entirely. 

How can it hurt you? 

There is a clear danger inherent in an obsession with perfection, which humans have recognized for centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers believed in the beauty of the “golden mean” or a middle ground between extremes (typically between excess and deficiency) because they realized a simple truth — too much of a bad thing is obviously bad, but too much of a good thing can turn bad, too. Perfectionism leads to unhappiness, and even the ancient Greeks knew it, but our society still continues to value perfection over the concept of being good enough.

In addition to ideological complaints, perfectionism creates real-world problems. It most often translates to needless extra time spent on tasks. Perfectionists have a hard time defining their work as “good enough” in any given situation and as a result are known to keep working ad infinitum, long past the stage wherein their product would be considered perfectly good. Additionally, often when mired in a project, a perfectionist’s judgment can be compromised; the act of constantly comparing yourself against yourself can grind you down until nothing you do even seems passable. This state of constant dissatisfaction is more than just an annoyance, often translating into a more general sense of dissatisfaction and moving to control more aspects of your life than it rightly should. 

How to prevent perfectionism from controlling your life.

This type of change can never happen in just one day because we are so steeped in a culture that champions perfectionism, and snapping out of that state requires more than just reading an article. Despite that, here are some ideas that might not get rid of your perfectionist attitude entirely, but will hopefully help you prevent it from taking over your every thought.

• Work towards bare-minimum completion, and then take a moment to reflect on how much more work is necessary.

So often, the perfectionist/angel on our shoulder will whisper in our ear that no task is complete until it’s perfect. Ignore those whispers and try, for once, to do the bare minimum. While writing a big report, for example, it's okay to rush through the line-level writing and then take time after finishing a first draft to assess how much editing is necessary. If you choose to sculpt each sentence to perfection as you write, you’ll never finish. This way, you’ll at least have a finished product, even if it’s not up to your normal standards. 

• Focus more on process than product.

Perfectionists feel the need to spend all their time and energy working toward a goal. Instead of focusing your energy so savagely towards an end product, try focusing on the process of working itself. It will become much easier to ditch your perfectionist attitude if you manage to feel gratified from the simple act of working hard, instead of simply feeling prideful of a finished product. Of course, that transformation takes time.

• Set strict deadlines for yourself — and don’t allow yourself to postpone them.

Perfect may be the enemy of good, but perfect has its own enemy — a ticking clock. When it comes down to the wire in terms of a time crunch, you’ll start making important choices about how to spend your time in order to create the best product, and those game-time decisions are an important skill to develop for perfectionists.

• Try to put the importance of this task into perspective.

Some assignments are important, and some are not. If you find yourself striving for perfection in even the most inane contexts, it might be helpful to take a step back. Make a hierarchical chart of importance, and allot your time accordingly. You’ll find it’s a lot easier to churn out results when you realize the relative importance of any given task. 

Is it comforting to know that you’re not alone in struggling to do away with your concept of perfection, or is it distressing to think of everyone else stuck in the same boat? Whether you take solace in the news or not, it’s true — many, if not most, people experience the pressure to push themselves toward perfection. Perfectionism is not always a bad thing; however, it’s important to recognize and take advantage of situations wherein it is appropriate to let go of your aspirations toward perfection, for the simple fact that nothing can ever truly be perfect. You'll end up much more satisfied if you choose instead to toss out perfect and become acquainted with the concept of good.

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