Many people think that striving to perfection is a positive characteristic. The truth is that if you want to survive as a freelancer, you have to overcome perfectionism.
A while ago, when dealing with the topic of procrastination, I shared my opinion that the habit of putting things off is the mortal enemy of sanity and success. The same goes for perfectionism.
Even though procrastination and perfectionism are brothers from completely different mothers, their results are identical: tasks are not finished on time (if finished at all), and it doesn’t feel like working, it feels like going through a meat grinder day after day (mildly put).
Perfectionism is the worse brother. Its poor results are not related to laziness, but people rarely die of laziness, you know.
What destroys people is their anxious mind, self-imposed stress, and the average perfectionism pack includes all that.
Here’s what psychology books say: “This constant strive for perfection often leads to depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders…” I’ll just stop here because reading all this makes me think that the only reason I haven’t committed suicide yet is that I haven’t found the perfect way to do so.
I am a perfectionist. Or actually, I should say “I used to be”, because I’m seriously trying to overcome perfectionism. Not to completely erase it from my personality traits list, but to maintain the healthy amount which makes me a motivated dream-accomplisher instead of a person who can find flaws even in the best of dreams.
I started my transformation by realising the huge difference between a high achiever and a perfectionism sufferer. They both set impressively challenging goals, but high achievers are interested mostly in reaching the goal – they feel proud of the whole thing, even if the details are not perfect. At the same time, perfectionism sufferers will keep questioning the quality of their own work, unable to feel thoroughly satisfied.
Are you a high achiever, or a perfectly miserable perfectionist?
Do you recognise these symptoms in your work process:
– You find it hard to start a project that makes you genuinely excited because you think you’re not prepared to do it well. It never feels to be the right time, it never feels to be the right mood.
– You waste so much time and effort on minor tasks that you never get to start working on the significant projects that can help you achieve your own dreams.
– Once you’ve already started working on an interesting project, you constantly get in the mood where you think you’re not doing well enough. You change, and change, and change details to the point that you can never finish the project and let go.
– Even if you somehow manage to finish something big and show it to the world, you make sure everyone knows that you don’t think it’s good enough.
Your answer is “Yes”? Then do everybody a favour and start dealing with your perfectionism right now!
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1. Practice Failing
I’ll shortly give you some valuable tips on how to overcome perfectionism in your daily freelance routine so you can finish your work well, on time and without getting overly frustrated. But what I recommend doing first is dealing with the problem in a broader sense – becoming someone who doesn’t obsess over every tiny detail, a person who can relax and enjoy life.
If you don’t do that, your Mr Perfect self will keep eating you for every project that you have ever turned up without fixing everything YOU knew needed further fixing. He will still make you feel miserable for not being good enough.
The great news is, not being good enough is something you can practice and eventually embrace.
You can start your not-being-perfect training by entering competitions at things you’ve never been particularly good at. You won’t be the winner, obviously, but you won’t feel totally suicidal and disappointed because you never expected to win in the first place. Do it a couple of times, and you’ll get used to the sensation of failure without taking it too personally. Then you can go to the next level – competing at things you’re fairly good at.
I entered a singing contest. I don’t totally suck at singing, but by no means can I compete with gifted vocalists. So I went out there and I could hear myself squawking falsely at times, but I had fun against all the odds! Then I overlooked my spontaneous perfectionist urge to start singing lessons right away and moved on to my next far-from-perfect exercise.
I know being unsuccessful in your own field of specialisation is hardly the same. But these psychological tests will help you become less obsessed with perfection. Few people are good at embracing failure. Try to master this art – now that’s a super cool challenge for your perfectionism!
2. Analyse Your Past Experience
Others’ experience is never convincing enough. I bet you’ve had many people telling you that when things don’t go the way you’ve planned, they often end even better than what was expected. “The Universe knows best!” Such beliefs sound a little sectarian, but you can actually find proof in your own past.
Remember that terrible person you wanted to spend your whole life with? They broke up with you and you were devastated, you cried a river, then ate an ocean of ice-cream. It was six years ago.
Accidentally you met their present spouse yesterday, and you saw how unhappy they were together, because the spouse, just like you, loves travelling, but your ex refuses to travel further than the couch. You had imagined you could change that. Obviously, you could’ve not.
That was personal life. Do you want some freelance working example? OK. I was once involved in organising a fashion photo shoot for a bridal collection. The budget was tight, but we had hired highly-paid professionals, and we couldn’t afford to pay them for an extra day of shooting. We had to get it done on the fixed day, no other options. It turned out to be a cold rainy day, though, and what we had planned was a sunny photo shoot at the beach.
Long story short, we ended up with some amazing pictures of models with wet dresses and running mascara. It was a great success! And we wouldn’t have achieved that if the art director of the whole thing had acted like a perfectionist who insists on sticking to his specific ideas.
I bet you can discover similar examples in your own past experience. You can also look back at other people’s failure and success.
3. Prioritise Your Future Projects
The worst thing about perfectionism is that we apply it to everything, no matter how important it is. Unless we have Hermione’s Time-Turner, this strategy will never work. There’s just not enough time in a lifetime for everything. That’s why things can never be perfect in all their details. They can be perfect as a whole, though, and that’s precisely what happens if we learn to make the difference between an important goal and insignificant details; between projects that really mean a lot to us and other projects that are only a source of extra money.
Again, I’ll give you an example. In the past, I used to work for a women’s lifestyle magazine for a couple of years. It was an online magazine, so we were expected to throw up tons and tons of content every day.
But I didn’t want to throw content up.
I believed I was supposed to write all my publications properly, which in my perfectionist mind meant: checking multiple sources to verify the trueness of every celebrity gossip; trying to come up with unique metaphors when describing a fashion collection; comparing and combining information from different newspaper horoscopes whenever our astrologist called in sick, and I was enforced to do her job; I wrote pasta recipes with sense of humour, for Christ’s sake!
Now, maybe it wouldn’t have been that ridiculous if I was genuinely interested in all that stuff, but the truth is I’ve never cared much about celebrities, haute couture, cooking, let alone astrology. And yet, I used to put so much effort in that lifestyle content, that I could never find the time to start any of my dream projects while working for that magazine.
The point is, you don’t have to put your heart and soul in every single project you work on. Decide which part of your work is crucial for your future plans, save your breath for it and do everything else quickly and lightheartedly. You don’t even have to worry about employers’ disapproval because employers most probably have lower quality standards than you do.
4. Make plans. Stick to them PERFECTLY!
Let’s say you’re already achieving progress in becoming that new reasonable person who can calmly accept deviations from Perfect and who gives a job the attention it actually deserves. Good. Now you can start eliminating task after task in your newly developed not-overly-obsessed manner
When I first got The Productivity Planner I stopped feeling
According to me, this is the best personal assistant – using The Productivity Planner also leads to avoiding distractions so, in the end, you end up performing better in less time. Or, in other words, you’ll start working smarter, not harder!
Read more about The Productivity Planner here (affiliate).
Even if you haven’t switched to this planner yet, it’s critical that you write down in a personal agenda everything you have to do. And most important of all, you need to specify your own deadline for every single task. Bonus tip: divide more complicated tasks into subtasks.
For example, my work schedule would look like this:
Project: Website redesign
10:00 – 10:30
Call X, Y and Z to discuss a,
10:30 – 11:00
Report all decisions to Project Leader.
Self-development: Study Dutch
11:15 – 12:15
Dutch homework for online classes.
Project: Write an article for a travel blog
13:00 – 13:45
Do the research, find pictures.
13:45 – 14:00
Plan the article
14:00 – 14:45
Write an introduction and conclusion.
15:00 – 16:00
Write everything in between.
Self-development: Study Dutch
16:30 – 17:30
Dutch online classes.
17:30 – 17:45
Make the plan for the next day.
(Don’t laugh! I know you! I know you spend an unjustified amount of time planning your own work. So you should put restrictions on that, too!)
My old perfectionist self would cross all deadlines even in this simple plan. Subsequently, I would have to work in the evening, then fit the rest of the tasks in the schedule for the day after, my work for the week would shift further and further until no free day will be left. I don’t do this anymore!
If, say, at 15:45 I’ve written only half of my text, then I should write everything else within the remaining 15 minutes and not a second more. Imagine you’re doing a test at school, time is up, and the teacher demands your sheet. Click “send”, “publish”, or whatever, and just proceed to the next point in your plan.
Make sure you cross out every accomplished task in your planner. The visualization of progress will make you feel great!
5. Let Others Do Their Work
Jobs often require the involvement and communication of many people. I assume you are always ready to interfere in your co-workers’ responsibilities. Do you check and correct their work, in order to make sure that everything is OK? Well, stop doing that!
Some people will hate you for treating them as if they are stupid. Others will be completely and utterly happy to let you do their job instead of them. In any case, you burden yourself with work which is not even yours and that totally contradicts our zen ways here!
6. Give Yourself Treats
It sounds paradoxical, but decreasing your levels of perfectionism will definitely increase your productivity. Besides, you will have more off-work time. This means you can start being a better lover, parent, dog owner or whatever.
Use some of your extra money or newly freed time to give yourself treats! It can be anything you want: special relaxing care for your body, or indulging in your favourite hobby.
At the end of the day, the perfectionist in you will have to admit that now you’re closer to perfection because you can successfully combine more roles in life.
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