Perfectionism is a trait that sounds like it should be positive — who doesn’t like things to be perfect? It brings to mind exacting order, flawless execution, something done over and over again until it shines.
And that’s great, if you’re talking about practicing a speech or nailing a recipe. But if you’re launching a business, perfectionism isn’t only not going to help you — it can sink you completely.
Perfectionism is the pursuit of getting every detail just so. But oftentimes, you become so busy obsessing over the little things that you lose sight of the big picture. In the start-up world, perfection truly is the enemy of good.
Luckily, perfectionism can be overcome. I know this because I’ve done it myself. Here’s how.
Make a checklist
Many perfectionist tendencies are actually rooted in fear and insecurity, Matt Plummer, founder of the online coaching service Zarvana, tells Harvard Business Review. “Many perfectionists worry that if they let go of their [meticulousness and conscientiousness], it will hurt their performance and standing.”
The problem is that the relentless pursuit of perfection makes it incredibly hard to actually get anything done. Rather than focusing on the outcome, which can feel unsatisfying, focus on putting processes in place and sticking to them. A checklist is an excellent tool for punctuating the end of a task.
When making this list, it’s important to be realistic. To help yourself prioritize, try writing out only the immediate next step in a project, rather than trying to tackle the whole thing at once. For instance, if you want to hang a shelf, your first action can be “take measurements.” This keeps your list from getting too unwieldy, and before you know it, ignored.
See obstacles as challenges, not deal breakers
Because perfectionism is primarily fear-based, it’s especially easy to fall prey to the idea that obstacles or mistakes are reasons to quit.
For entrepreneurs, though, overcoming obstacles is part of the job. Rather than letting your fear get the better of you, reassess the concept of failure by thinking of it as research. Why didn’t things go the way you wanted? Take what happened and use that information to learn from it.
If the idea of learning from your mistakes triggers an endless spiral of rumination, try learning from your successes, suggests Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist and the author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit.
“By reflecting on the pathways that led to your successes, you’ll be able to see that you achieved a meaningful end despite not doing everything completely flawlessly or being 100% certain of success in advance,” she writes. Then, you can adjust your habits based on experience, rather than neverending deliberation.
If you want something done, delegate
When you’re starting a company — especially as a bootstrapped founder, like me — you wear all the hats. You get to know all those hats better than anyone, or so it seems. But eventually, you realize they don’t all fit, and it’s time to bring in other people better suited to wear them than you.
Perfectionists want to wear all the hats, all the time. Delegating means relinquishing control, and for someone who’s obsessed with getting everything just right, that can be terrifying.
The hard truth is this: You don’t actually have to do everything yourself in order for it to be done well. In fact, certain tasks are better left to someone else. When I launched my company, Jotform, I was a one-man-band of tech support, marketing, engineering, you name it. But as my business grew, I was happy to hand off some of those tasks to people trained specifically in those fields, allowing me to spend my time on the things that I’m best at. Your time and energy is a finite resource. Use it wisely.
Nothing will feed your perfectionism quite like a project with no time constraints. But without a boss breathing down your neck or a set timeframe to draft a report, how do you stop yourself from wasting hours on a given task? Easy — create a deadline, and stick to it. That second part is the most important. Like any habit that requires self-discipline, a negotiable deadline is as good as no deadline at all.
As with making a checklist, it’s important to set deadlines that are realistic. Perfectionists tend to expect themselves to accomplish more than is possible, and beat themselves up when they fail. Boyes suggests assigning a time limit to your tasks, and forcing yourself not to fall into the trap of repeatedly going over every detail. Be aware of how you use your time, and “look for where perfectionism might be creating problems/imbalances,” she says.
Not everything needs to be done perfectly — in many cases, “well enough” is totally sufficient.
[T]rying to do everything well — and exerting the same level of detail, effort, and energy to all your endeavors — leaves you feeling stressed and exhausted all of the time, and as though you never get to work on what is most meaningful to you,” Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical psychologist and author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook, writes in Psychology Today.
Instead, Szymanski suggests taking a step back and identifying what is actually meaningful to you — what you want your life to stand for. Begin by identifying three “A tasks,” areas in which you want to dedicate 100 percent of your effort. Next, write down your B tasks, where you can give 80 percent and still get the job done well. Then there are the C tasks, which “essentially no one, including you, sees or regards as significant” and finally the F tasks, which “have become time-consuming but that, in reality, don’t matter.”
Trying to be perfect at everything will inevitably lead to disappointment and put you at risk of burnout. After all, launching a startup is hard enough without driving yourself crazy worrying about every last detail. Instead, let the crooked staples go, and quit fussing over the font. You’ve got real work to do.