Every night, for two weeks, Steve sat with his family for dinner and went over all the possible trade-offs of buying one model over another.
What’s the best design? Do we care more about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or is it more important that our clothes feel soft and last longer?
An otherwise mundane task like choosing a washing machine to purchase was approached with the same intensity of a high-stakes decision.
Of course, we’re not talking about any ordinary Steve.
He’s been called a visionary, a revolutionary — and even an “evil genius.”
As CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs was all of those things. But first and foremost, he was a ruthless perfectionist. As Rebecca Greenfield writes for The Atlantic, along with his creative ambition, his drive for beauty and perfection caused him to both hurt himself and others.
“Perfectionism is the disease that plagued Jobs,” writes Greenfield. “It pushed him to not only make the iDevices we cherish, but to make unreasonable decisions.”
Many of us are familiar with this constant drive for excellence. We fear mediocrity. And as entrepreneurs, we often convince ourselves that lowering our standards by even a fraction is akin to dropping the ball.
Maybe we don’t take our perfectionism to the extreme like Jobs did, but the pressure to be better and better hinders our productivity in other insidious ways.
How perfectionism is self-sabotaging
When all of our time is spent on seeing what’s missing or broken, we can’t make real progress. In the world of business, this often shows up in the form of delayed launch dates, missed deadlines, and “productive procrastination.”
Take me, for example: I’m a recovered perfectionist. Fourteen years ago when I first launched my company, Jotform, I obsessed over getting every detail right. From small software improvements to larger structural decisions, I spent nights worrying that I would fall short.
Needless to say, this led to a spiral of time spent micromanaging and prioritizing unimportant tasks. Meanwhile, I was missing out on opportunities to grow our customer base, forge business partnerships, and help even more organizations enhance their productivity with user-friendly forms.
“Perfectionism is a double-edged sword,” writes Rebecca Knight for Harvard Business Review.
“On one hand, it can motivate you to perform at a high level and deliver top-quality work. On the other hand, it can cause you unnecessary anxiety and slow you down.”
It made sense for me to spend so much time trying to make my business stand out when it was a new venture. Striving for excellence helped me set high personal standards and work hard toward them.
But at a certain point, it was turning it into an unhealthy habit — one that compromised my health, relationships and even happiness. In other words, my anxiety about not dropping the ball led to exhaustion, which in turn, became a self-fulfilling prophecy of not being able to do it all. Author and former clinical psychologist, Alice Boyes, puts it this way:
“Perfectionism is often driven by striving for excellence, but it can be self-sabotaging if it leads to suboptimal behavior like continuing habits beyond their usefulness, overdelivering when you don’t have to, or overthinking every decision you make.”
Eventually, I started to question my pursuit for perfection. More importantly, I asked myself whether the example I was setting for my team, was a healthy one? And how could I turn things around without losing momentum?
Flexibility is the pillar of mental wellbeing
It’s easy to become so invested in a certain outcome that we lose sight of what’s in front of us. Rigidly pursuing perfection may create the illusion of progress, but all it does is promote self-defeating behaviors.
Living a balanced, fulfilling life requires flexibility.
Through self-reflection, one thing became clear in those early days of building my business: insecurity was the root cause of all my striving.
Once I identified the real problem, I was able to come up with an action plan to help break the cycle. Here are a few strategies that have helped me overcome unhealthy perfectionism over the years:
1. Don’t confuse ruminating with problem-solving
Constantly mulling over a problem won’t offer a solution. As Boyes notes, when you ruminate, “you tend to focus on all the bad things,” she explains.
“So you can’t trust what your ruminating mind is telling you.”
The next time you find yourself anxiously rehashing past events, disrupt the cycle by distracting yourself with a podcast for 10 minutes or getting up for a quick walk. Spending even a short time on a mundane task can get you out of the negative headspace that leads to obsessing over details.
2. Focus on progress, not achievement
Perfectionists often procrastinate out of fear they won’t be capable of taking something on. If you’re dreading and avoiding that new project, it’s a sign you’re confusing high standards with self-worth.
“People who are perfectionistic in this way only feel good about themselves when they are over-the-top successful; thus proving beyond a doubt that they have worth,” writes psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps.
“But then, anytime they even approach a goal — making it seem less extraordinary — they sense that they must do more. So they continually raise the bar for themselves.”
By reminding yourself of the progress you’ve made, rather than the achievement itself, you can retrain your mind to focus on the positive.
3. Embrace failure
Fear of failing is perhaps the biggest hurdle plaguing most entrepreneurs. But embracing failure doesn’t mean dropping the ball — it means recognizing the lessons learned from our mistakes and being more gentle with ourselves. Acclaimed author, Brené Brown, sums it up perfectly:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best,” she writes in her book The Gifts of Imperfection.
“Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”