(Photo by golbenge)
My name is Tracy and I am a perfectionist.
That is not bragging; it’s an admission. Perfectionism is a real problem.
Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. (See Wikipedia)
The good news is, that like a recovering alcoholic, I’m usually aware of it. Eckhart Tolle says the “awareness and ego cannot coexist” and the same is true for perfectionism.
What causes people to be perfectionists? I came to my own conclusion that it’s a product of being introverted, shy, which I most definitely am. Shyness seems to be coupled with insecurity. And because I’m shy I have to make sure everything I do is as good as possible, and ideally far better than average. The obvious problem from that is, if you’re afflicted with this, that you won’t attempt things unless you’re certain you’ll be judged as excellent. Or, if you do, you’ll spend too much time researching and perfecting your plans, and not enough time applying the 80/20 principle to get more done.
The not-so-good news is that perfectionism is never fully in remission. Even when I think I’m being highly self-aware I still catch myself procrastinating in some area of my life or even or aspects of projects where I am managing to make progress. Procrastination is probably the major side effect of perfectionism. In The War of Art author Steven Pressfield says that the thing we are most resistant to doing, where we are procrastinating the most, is almost certainly the thing we should get to work on. But what if you don’t know what to do?
Learn by doing
There is no other way. No matter how much planning and research you do you will never understand a topic, or even understand how to learn about it, until you start trying. There will always be holes in your understanding, and you can’t fill all of those before you get started. “Learn by doing” is a familiar cliche but I need to remind myself of this on a regular basis.
All that said, jumping in without trying to plan or educate yourself is just intellectually lazy. After procrastinating for as long as possible, often without knowing it, I tend to shoot from the hip – just to get something done. And that is just is much of a problem. Often, this results in bad decision-making and far less-than-perfect outcomes. Forcing myself to have a “bias for action” to overcome the shyness, introversion and insecurity is fine but there needs to be a balance of action and planning.
Since there can be no perfect balance I’ve found that a see-saw approach can work, where planning and action take turns being on top. Learn/do/learn/do and learn by doing. “Iterating” mitigates risk while allowing to learn and make progress. Working with this way makes sense, but we also need to “ship” at some point.
Deadlines to the rescue
If you can keep a promise to yourself, that’s what a deadline is, then you can essentially guarantee that procrastination can do only so much damage. If you can’t keep a promise to yourself then deadlines will become just lies and disappointment, and that will lead to nowhere good. Start as small as you need to in order make sure promises are kept. Go bigger as the wins stack up.
Remember, when you don’t know where to start, that you can only really learn by doing.