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The Real Curse of Being a Perfectionist

Jeff Szymanski|Author of “The Perfectionist’s Handbook"
Tuesday, 20 Sep 2011 | 11:24 AM ET

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: The Value of Prioritizing When You Are a Perfectionist by Jeff Szymanski, author of “The Perfectionist’s Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes.”

Whenever I enter a new situation in my professional life, I tend to hang back and get a lay of the land. I want to find out what’s going on, who’s doing what, and what my best strategy and input are. I do not like to look foolish. However, this is not just limited to my professional life. I really don’t like to look foolish at anything. I hate appearing as though I’m unsure, unskilled, or worse - awkward. I always like to put my best foot forward and show my potential to others. I sometimes even devalue the activity if I’m not good at something. My philosophy is - if I’m not good at it, then it must not be worthwhile.

The Perfectionist's Handbook
The Perfectionist's Handbook

Does any of this sound familiar?

The desire to feel good, appear skilled, and be competent is not the problem—and it’s completely understandable to want to avoid feeling embarrassed, clumsy, or out of your depth. Besides, who doesn’t want others to see them as intelligent, athletic, musically talented, and so on? But how do we go about achieving this? We insist that we have to excel at everything we try. After all, if we aren’t trying our best, aren’t we just agreeing to lower the bar? Isn’t that lazy?

Are we willing to be average?

When you take a step back, you quickly recognize that trying 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. You do know that there are time and resource constraints. However, we tend to forget these constraints and forge ahead when we’re operating on automatic pilot - only to run out of time at the end of the day with a still-long to-do list while wondering what just happened. In other words, you have to actively and regularly remind yourself that you have both limited time and resources.

Instead ask yourself, “What do I want my life to stand for?” Be strategic about when to give 100%, rather than waste effort on less important tasks.

Consider doing the following exercise:

  • Think about the various skills and tasks that you need to accomplish at work. If you had to pick three of them at which to excel - the ones that leave you feeling most satisfied and for which you would like to get an A if you were still in school - what would these be? These are the activities at which you would throw 100% of your efforts. Write these down on a piece of paper as your “A Tasks” - where to give 100%.
  • Now consider your B tasks. These are aspects of your job to which you could give 80% and still feel that they turned out well even if you didn’t do them “flawlessly.” Keep in mind that you can reallocate the additional time you might have spent perfecting these activities to other, more critical areas. Write three “B Tasks” down on your piece of paper.
  • Now consider whether there are tasks that essentially no one, including you, sees or regards as significant. These are activities that truly require only minimal effort and time, for example, making sure that the e-mails you send to subordinates have no spelling errors and use proper capitalization. What are tasks that could receive a C - that is, just be average? In other words, when you really sit down and think about it, what aspects of your job do not need to stand out? These are tasks you can complete as efficiently as possible and then move on to more pressing issues. In other words, sometimes it is more effective to “lower the bar.” On your piece of paper write your three “C Tasks”.
  • Finally, are there any tasks that have become time-consuming but that, in reality, don’t matter? These are referred to as F tasks. These endeavors don’t give you any satisfaction once you complete them, nor do they garner you any recognition when finished. However, to this point, you’ve assumed that you still needed to work hard at them. List these three tasks on your paper.

Remember, you have limited time, energy and resources. Be strategic about where to excel and devote the lion’s share of your efforts. Redistributing time and attention from less important, less valued tasks to more important ones will pay off!

Jeff Szymanski is the executive director of the International OCD Foundation and one of the country’s leading experts on the complex and often misdiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Szymanski holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. In addition to leading OCD training of U.S. professionals, Szymanski is part of an international program in China to teach therapists the techniques to treat OCD, a first in the country. He is the author of the book, “The Perfectionist’s Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes” For more information, visit www.jeffszymanski.com

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks

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