The Perfectionism Trap: Why It Kills Your Productivity and How To Overcome It

a year ago   •   3 min read

By Zero Machina

A healthy dose of perfectionism is a good thing.

But there's a dark side to perfectionism if we don't keep it under control. High standards allow us to achieve our goals and be the best that we can be. But when we're stuck in the perfectionism trap, it becomes a major roadblock to our success.

In this article, we'll explore why perfectionism kills your productivity and how to overcome it in your own life.

Why Perfectionism is the Enemy of Excellence

There's a difference between striving for excellence and holding yourself to unrealistic standards.

The former is about doing the best you can with what you have. The latter is an unrealistic and all-consuming quest for the impossible.

Perfectionism is the enemy of excellence because it's never-ending. You can always find something to criticize, creating space for over-analyzing and second-guessing yourself.

It's a vicious cycle that zaps your energy and motivation, leaving you feeling exhausted before you even start.

The Need for Approval

Perfectionism is largely driven by the need for approval.

Perfectionists constantly seek validation from others. They need to know that they're doing the right thing and that they're good enough.

This need for approval leads to people-pleasing behavior and low self-esteem.  The fear of judgment or disappointment is a negative spiral that leads to procrastination—if we don't take action, we can avoid potential failure. We also might avoid taking risks or speaking up.

The need to be perfect can be all-consuming. And it's often the reason why people never get started on their goals (or lose sight of it along the way).

How to Overcome Perfectionism

In James Clear's book Atomic Habits, he shares a story about a film photography professor at the University of Florida.

On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann separated his students into two groups.

Students on the left side of the room were put in the "quantity" category. They'd be graded based on how many photographs they produced. For the final class grade, he'd add up the number of photos generated and assign a grade: One hundred pictures earned an "A," ninety pictures earned a "B," and so on.

In comparison, the students on the right side of the classroom would be placed in the "quality" category. They'd be graded primarily on the quality of just one photo. And they had all semester to polish it to perfection. An image that was near flawless would receive an "A."

Uelsmann was surprised by the results. Upon completing the school term, the best photographs came from students in the "quantity" category. These students were taking massive action. They experimented with various photography techniques to enhance the quality of their photos and learned from their mistakes along the way.

The students in the "quality" category were trapped in theory-land. They sat around and generated ideas for how to make their one required photo perfect. And this resulted in one mediocre photograph.

The lesson here is that action is the key to success, not perfectionistic tendencies that lead to excessive planning and strategizing.

Escaping the Perfectionist Trap in Your Own Life

We tend to compare ourselves to people who aren't perfect, then proceed to hold ourselves to unrealistic standards. It's crazy.

But people who seemingly "achieve perfection" aren't perfect. Their path was paved with mistakes and failures.

The key to overcoming perfectionism is to, first, realize that no one is perfect—yes, even the people you put on a pedestal.

And once you remind yourself of this, then the key to escaping the perfectionist trap is to take so much action that you eliminate your tendency to over-analyze.  

Here are a few tips to help you focus on taking action:

  • Set a time constraint for tasks and projects.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes.
  • In the spirit of Jerry Uelsmann's experiment, focus on putting in reps instead of fixating on the perfect outcome.
  • Celebrate your progress and collect your wins, no matter how small.

Don't let the need for perfectionism hold you back from taking action and achieving your goals.

Accept mistakes, build on them, and watch how success emerges over time.

Next Steps

If you're stuck in the perfectionism trap, know that you're not alone. It's a common roadblock that holds people back from achieving their goals. The good news is, you can overcome it by focusing on taking action and giving yourself permission to make mistakes.

Want to learn how to leverage your time so you're more productive in work and life? Check out our article: How to Invest Your Time Wisely For Greater Productivity In Work And Life.

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