I’ve started to do organizational coaching with freelancers and small business owners, and the topic of perfectionism comes up A LOT. So I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned, and how I keep myself from slipping back into my perfectionistic ways.
How I Learned I Was Killing Myself for No Reason
I’m a recovering workaholic and perfectionist.
Part of this came from the demands of working at Silicon Valley software startups, but I made it worse for myself by giving in to my perfectionistic tendencies. I’ve learned over time that my 50% effort is probably the same as most people’s 100%.
Many years ago, I was working at a software startup, writing user manuals. They kept having me write manuals for more and more new products, and I was killing myself to do them to my usual standard of perfection (why I kept doing them all by myself and didn’t ask for more help is an issue for another post). Then one summer I had to take some time off/work reduced hours to recover from surgery. During that time I turned in a manual that felt to me like 50% of my usual perfect standard. But guess what? NOBODY NOTICED. They said, “This is great, Charlene! Keep up the good work.”
That’s when I realized I was working to a standard that no one asked for. And I was salaried, so I wasn’t getting paid any extra to work to that standard, I was ruining my life all on my own.
So, after that epiphany, over time I set up some guidelines for myself to not give in to being a perfectionist, unless it is warranted (spoiler: it almost never is).
NOTE: It’s a whole different kettle of fish if the CLIENT has a perfectionist tendencies. If I put forth a good effort for the first draft, as long as I’m paid for continued revisions, the client can be as much of a perfectionist as they like.
Tip 1: Figure Out the Expected Standards for the Project
The best thing you can do for any project is figure out what the standards are.
Here’s an example: I’ve done copy editing for several book publishers. One publisher would often give me license to rewrite things if I thought it would help clarity and rhythm. But another publisher’s goal was to get as many books out the door as possible, and wanted copy editors to ONLY focus on making sure the manuscript was free of errors or typos and that it adhered to the style guide. (Unfortunately, this standard was not communicated to copy editors when they started. It took a few projects with that second company before it became clear that “get them out the door” was their philosophy.)
Let’s say I had done line editing for the second publisher that *I* thought was needed. It would at best have been unpaid work (copy editors are usually paid by the word), but at worst could have gotten me into trouble for not following the company’s standard.
A good company/boss/client will properly set expectations. Sadly, this is more the exception than the rule, so the onus is on YOU to ask the right questions to ascertain the standard required for any project.
As a recovering perfectionist, it’s crucial that I figure out the standard, because left to my own devices, I’ll inflict too high a standard on things. After a while of doing this, it will get easier. I can remember one client I worked for, we got to a shorthand. So when they asked me to write up some instructions, I would say, “Does this need to be War and Peace or just something quick and dirty?”
So these days, when I’m working on any project, I ask myself: What is the standard? And Is my work good enough for what it’s for? And then I don’t work beyond that standard.
And, if no standard or expectations are communicated, I find out what they are, and DOCUMENT THEM, so other people don’t have to be confused. Like for that second publisher, I wrote up a copy editor onboarding document.
Tip 2: If the Client Loves It, You’re Done
If you turn in something to a client and they LOVE IT, your work is done. Even if *you* don’t think it’s “perfect.”
Let me say that again: you’re DONE if the client loves it.
I’ve turned this into a mantra for myself, the sooner I turn it in, the sooner the client will love it.
Tip 3: Trust That If There’s a Problem, the Client Will Tell You
If you’re a perfectionist, you might have a hard time letting go of a project and turning it in. I still struggle with this. I just have to trust that I did a “good enough for what it’s for” job on it, and tell myself that if the client has an issue with my work, they’ll tell me.
AND if they do have an issue, it’s not the end of the world, and it doesn’t mean that what I’ve done is “terrible.” I had an organizational client tell me that they thought if their work needed edits, that it meant it was terrible. Not true! A back and forth with the client on a project is a natural part of any creation process. And clients sometimes don’t know if what you’ve done is “right” until they see it in front of them.
You might ask, “What if they hate it and don’t tell me?” I find overthinking goes hand in hand with perfectionism. Trust me, if people don’t like it, they’ll tell you, so assume no news is good news.
If you do happen to have a client who hates confrontation and thus doesn’t tell you, well, that’s their issue, not yours.