Updated: Nov 8, 2018
I remember it all too well. It was the week the final project for my Master’s program was due. I was, frankly, having a bit of a meltdown. Madly working (or rather, overworking), trying to perfect my project, it felt like I was running without getting anywhere. I was frustrated with the work and details were holding me back from completion. Finally, my wise friend Kathy gave me a piece of advice I’ll never forget: “It’s better to be done than perfect.”
It’s advice that may seem counterintuitive to a lot of you. It sure felt that way to me. But Kathy was right. I was so focused on making certain details perfect that it was holding me back from completing the project altogether. I had to ask myself, why was I holding myself back from completing this important step that would close the chapter on earning my Master’s degree?
I use the term ‘Perfection Paralysis’ a lot; it describes what happens when we get so worried about being perfect that the task at hand ends up taking too long and dies incomplete. In doing so, another great idea withers on the vine and we add the incomplete project onto our inner trash heap labeled ‘Life’s Disappointments’.
It’s a well researched and documented fact that perfectionism disproportionately affects women. Authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman deconstruct perfectionism in women in their book The Confidence Code, and in reading you’ll discover that the lack of confidence women experience is the fuel that drives perfectionism. Smart, driven women are often workaholics because of a fear of criticism. They put in twice the work as their male counterparts as a way of bolstering their confidence, so they feel (over) prepared when they walk into an executive suite full of men. For these women, their work is regarded as excellent and they’re often promoted, given more responsibility and people to manage. Unfortunately for these women, this method of working is not sustainable. Operating on overdrive invariably leads to burn out, which often extends to burnout within her work team.
In The Confidence Code, we learned that men overestimate their abilities on average 30% higher than women do. It’s not that men do better work or are better prepared; systemic, social and cultural conditioning have trained men to assume, and behave with, more confidence. Women, on the other hand, apologize for their work more often and when presented with opportunity to advance, ask their superiors “Do you think I’m ready?” rather than saying “I got this.”
Lack of confidence and the ensuing perfection paralysis is not easily fixed; it requires a cultural shift that nurtures and reflects confidence in girls and women. I still occasionally am surprised by flare ups of my own perfection paralysis, but I have learned to recognize when I’m having a confidence relapse and how to steer my work back on track. My own nuggets of advice for those of you who wrestle with perfection paralysis are:
Your work is better than you think it is
You already know you hold yourself to a higher standard. Even if it’s not exactly perfect, chances are your work is way more complete and polished than necessary.
It doesn’t have to be perfect to work well
This one is self-explanatory. Just because something doesn’t have a bow on it doesn’t mean it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Better to have your project functional than inoperative and pretty.
Improvements can, and should, be made along the way
Most projects have a v.1, v.2, v.3 etc. Consider that launching and then revising with user feedback is the best way to make improvements.
Fail fast, fail forward
The business world is moving faster than it ever has; failure gives you the knowledge and experience to keep what works and throw away the rest. Sometimes it takes many iterations before a project is truly completed. Learn and gain from the process of trying and failing. With each round of failure, you’ll learn to pick yourself up and start again faster if you see each iteration as a honing process rather than failing.
Be kind to yourself
Why are we our own worst critics? Remember, yours is the voice you will hear speaking to you most often in your lifetime. If you spiral into self-criticism, ask yourself if you’d talk to a friend using the same language and tone? The answer is probably not; most women do a great job of boosting up confidence in their friends. Be your own best friend, be kind to yourself.
Change your language
So often, women use language that minimizes or undermines their voice. Don’t undermine your statements with language that questions whether your voice is valid (ie. “I’m not sure what you think of this but…” or “I know I’m not the expert but..”). By using more confident language you’ll not only feel more confident yourself, you’ll also radiate confidence to others.
Acknowledge that perfection doesn’t really exist
Thinking of your project as being on a fluctuating, changeable continuum rather than on a conventional beginning-middle-end path to completion will give you some mental breathing room. If it’s never really finished, you have the liberty to continue to make changes and improvements.