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Perfectionism is on the rise in younger generations, according to a study published in the Psychological Bulletin. Researchers from the University of Bath and York St. John University in the U.K. measured three types:
- self-oriented, the irrational desire to be perfect.
- socially prescribed, perceiving excessive expectations from others.
- other-oriented, placing unrealistic standards on others.
Between 1989 and 2016 self-oriented perfectionism increased by 10%, socially prescribed increased by 33%, and other-oriented increased by 16%.
“Perfectionism is a pretty rampant problem,” says time management expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work. “It may be worse in an era of social media where everybody’s posting the most curated, best, perfect lives and achievements. We’re constantly surrounding by the best way, the perfect way, the right way in our personal and our work lives.”
Seeking perfection can create paralysis that hurts productivity, says Morgenstern. “You procrastinate to distract yourself from a big scary task,” she says. “You can end up wasting so much time, beating yourself up later. That insecurity undermines your confidence.”
Another hidden cost of perfectionism is that it’s much harder to delegate. “No one can do it as perfectly as you can,” says Morgenstern. “Or you procrastinate and do things at the last minute so that it’s too late to delegate. You can’t build a team if you can’t delegate.”
Instead Morgenstern suggests selective perfectionism, choosing when a task is worth an effort that’s above and beyond and when it’s not.
“The biggest obstacle for the perfectionist is letting good enough be good enough,” she says. “A perfectionist doesn’t even know what it means to not be perfect. They don’t know what good enough is. It’s an all-or-nothing way of evaluating things. Work is amazing or a disaster.”
To get past the pursuit of perfect and find a balance, Morgenstern suggests using a technique called “Max, Mod, Min.” Before you start a task, write out the maximum you could do for that task, the minimum you could do, and the moderate–a happy medium of the two.
“This allows you to break black-and-white thinking,” she says. “You can find options to right-size an approach for any task or circumstance. Defining three levels of performance for a task builds edges that help you move forward.”
For example, if you have to write a report, define the max, the min, and the mod results. For the max, you could write a report that covers all angles, includes a variety of sources, the latest research, the history of the subject and more. The max approach might take hours, days, or even months to finish. To take a min approach, you could use the information you have, frame it into a template, and call it done. This level would take the least amount of time and effort. Finally, taking the mod approach would involve adding one or two elements above the minimum.
Deciding which approach is the best will depend on the project or task. In some cases it’s the maximum, others will be the minimum, and the majority will likely fall in the moderate category.
“The act of defining three levels of performance works a muscle that perfectionists need to learn to build,” says Morgenstern. “Knowing you always have options is amazingly liberating.”
Using the Approach as a Leader
Start the practice with yourself and then your team, Morgenstern suggests. Defining three levels helps managers and employees have a clear understanding of expectations.
“You don’t want an employee to deliver a 15-page PowerPoint when you wanted a memo,” says Morgenstern. “When you give someone an assignment, talk about the levels of performance, and choose the right fit. It gets you out of the mud, enabling you to see more than one really good way to get something done.”