Hello, my name is Anna, and I am a serial perfectionist. Since grade school, I have been caught up in the details. If I clean the toilet, I will not stop until I have scraped every last mineral deposit from the bowl and disinfected the lever at least twice. I will be damned to hell and back if the bathroom smells like anything other than a lemon orchard. And that’s just the beginning. All of my school projects have to outshine everyone else’s. If I make a poster, there had to be a uniform font, a coordinated color scheme, and everything has to be lined up just right. Essays must be edited at least three times (maybe four) and they always have to exceed the number of required sources. I can spend hours deleting and rewriting paragraphs and puzzling over sentences that just don’t flow intuitively enough for me or lack the right amount of clarity and context or are too long or too short or overuse parentheses (I do like a good aside every once in a while). I have to do all of the reading for every class and make color-coordinated flash cards while I’m at it. And when the exam comes, I have to get an A.
As you can imagine, doing everything listed above is impossible. Sure, I have done all of those things many times, but when you spend all your time perfecting one thing, you neglect all the others. And so instead of doing everything perfectly, I end procrastinating, allowing me to justify throwing everything together in a less-than-perfect manner and prioritize the essentials in an adrenaline fueled panic.
I remember googling around about procrastination a few years ago, and seeing an excess of articles suggesting that procrastination and perfectionism were linked, and that they egged each other on in a vicious cycle. Even though I knew good and well that I had both traits, I told myself that the claim was ludicrous. I was the exception, not the norm. If I were really a perfectionist, wouldn’t I start things on time? Wouldn’t I have my shit pulled together, and have a color coordinated calendar, a perfectly clean apartment, freshly painted nails, and straight A’s every term?
But back then, I still sort of viewed perfectionism as a good thing. For years on end, my neurotic tendencies had actually been rewarded. Teachers and professors alike always shook their heads at me. “Perfectionist,” they’d say, and give me a big, fat A. “Overachiever.” Even my mom adored my cleaning skills. “She’s just so thorough,” she would say. And when I did things at the last minute, my picture of the final product was always so skewed that whatever I managed to get done in time required three times as much effort as everyone else’s. So I earned praise and good grades, and as the demands of my life grew, so did the cost of my so-called work ethic. But I persevered. I’ve been the curve-breaker, the bar-raiser, the person people picked for group projects because they knew I’d do all the work and get them an A because I couldn’t stomach anything less. I had a vague notion that being a perfectionist was bad, but I thought that maybe the pros outweighed the cons, and besides, my hard work seemed to have paid off. Didn’t people always say that their weakness was perfectionism in interviews, because it’s sort of a non-weakness? Wouldn’t you rather have a hyper-vigilant, particular fanatic of an employee than a sloppy one?
I slowly came to realize that my perfectionism and my procrastination were intimately bound. Sure, I’m also a big fan of instant gratification, but there’s a little more to my consistent pattern of putting things off. The first time I started to suspect the link, I forced myself to start writing an essay before the day it was due. As I was working, I had the passing thought that I wished it was due in an hour so I didn’t have to delete and rewrite an entire paragraph.
Needless to say, I had an existential crisis and ended up leaving the paragraph in and getting full points like I usually did. But perfectionism’s façade was crumbling. I started to realize that having your entire life pulled together wasn’t indicative of a perfectionist. No, no, those two things might be mutually exclusive. I was horrified. Everything I knew was a lie. My brain was spinning around in my skull. So I did what any reasonable adult capable and willing of personal growth would do.
I promptly went to bed and tried never to think about it again.
Not long later, I saw a YouTube video by Hank Green entitled, “My Secret to Success”. Intrigued, innocent, and curious, I watched the video. I expected a harsh rejection of the traditional idea of success and philosophical inquiry of the meaning of life. But no, friends, Hank really did have a secret. You know what it was?
He didn’t perfect anything he did, ever. As a matter of fact, he deliberately stayed with a project until he decided it was deserving of a B and then called it finished. Because perfect, he argued, is so subjective that it doesn’t exist, and you can never finish anything at all or do what you want to do in life if all you do is strive for perfection.
The video made me angry. You see, I was sure that if I were to do what Hank did, I wouldn’t get away with it nearly as easily as he did. As a matter of fact, I would surely fail.
Oh, and I don’t get B’s.
I tried even harder not to think about it, until a little while later during a lab meeting. (I do undergraduate psychology research and I work in a lab at my university.) My mentor was talking about how to succeed in graduate school, and he went on a long spiel about how he sat all the grad students down on their first day in his program and lectured them about the dangers of perfectionism, because they had too many responsibilities to waste their time with it. He even challenged them to try a little less hard in their required statistics course. Actually, he encouraged them to get (you guessed it) a B.
I had to stop ignoring my perfectionism issue. My mentor has a reputation for being timely and on top of everything, and he had the same advice as a minor celebrity. But as it turns out, acceptance was the easy part. Actually stopping myself from being a perfectionist has proved to be difficult.
What can I say? My neurotic tendencies run deep.
I’ve tried bargaining, (I know it’s overkill but if I read this over one more time before I turn it in then I’ll get a B on my exam tomorrow), and even throwing my hands up (Forget about it. I’m a perfectionist and I’ll never change).
And now, well, I’m taking baby steps. I try to catch myself in the act of perfecting and knock it off, which only works sometimes and not that well. (I’ve stopped myself from re-phrasing at least seven or eight sentences since I’ve started writing this, and I’m not even finished yet. Let’s not talk about how many I actually have reordered, please.) Lately, I’ve been writing small, daily to-do lists for myself that aren’t unrealistic and overwhelming, but will take up way too much time if I act like I’m drafting the Magna Carta every time I write an email. And whenever my cursor is hovering above the submit button for an assignment or the publish button for a blog, I don’t listen to that uneasy feeling telling me to check things over one more time. I just click, which is exactly what I’m about to do.
But what about you? Are you a perfectionist? Do you share my neurotic traits? Or do you find me utterly obnoxious? Let me know in the comments down below. If you blinked while reading this, like this article and subscribe to my lovely blog. Or don’t. I’m not your mom or whatever.