A version of this article was first published in my monthly column on Troy Media.
For her entire career, Phoebe has really struggled with how to manage her time. She has a great attitude and the quality of her work is first-rate, but it seems to take her twice as long as anyone else to bring a project to completion. Recently she moved into a new role, replacing someone who had half the experience and skills she has. And, yet, she finds herself toiling away at her computer well into the evening and still struggling to keep up with the workload. This is not a new problem for Phoebe. Up until now, she has convinced everyone, including herself, that conscientiousness is a virtue and quality work takes time. Her current manager, however, isn’t buying it. The reason she was hired was because he believed she could manage many more clients than her predecessor. Instead, she is managing less. Phoebe’s manager spotted the problem quickly. She is a perfectionist.
I’ve worked with a lot of perfectionists over the years and tried help them overcome this tendency, approaching it from a lot of different angles. Most of them have been unsuccessful. It is extremely difficult to convince a perfectionist they need to relax their standards, go with the flow, manage their time more efficiently, or live by the 80/20 rule. Now there is only one conversation I have with perfectionists: what you are doing is stealing.
Perfectionism is stealing from customers
Phoebe works for a social services agency and cares deeply about the clients she serves. When she spends 4 hours writing a letter on their behalf instead of the 2 that have been allocated, that is 2 hours she could be spending helping someone else. For Phoebe to shift away from her perfectionism requires her to care more about helping more people than in nailing the quality of any single task.
Perfectionism is stealing from the company
Phoebe is paid to manage a portfolio of clients, each of whom is a source of revenue for the organization. Her client load is 75% of what it should be. As a result, the company is not collecting as much revenue as it needs to sustain the business. While she gets paid her salary regardless, her perfectionism is putting the future of the organization - and her own job - at risk. She needs to come to terms with the fact that time is - quite literally - money. Until being a good steward of resources is more important to her than delivering a perfect product every single time, Phoebe will forever struggle with her perfectionism.
Perfectionism is stealing from family and friends
Phoebe is an ongoing source of frustration for her family and friends. She makes commitments and then often arrives late or cancels at the last minute because she is “stuck at work”. She wears her dedication to her job like a badge of honour, frequently drawing attention to the fact she works longer hours than anyone else. What she doesn’t realize is that people think twice about inviting her to something because they know they are less important to her than her work. Until Phoebe cares more about keeping commitments to other people than she does about the occasional spelling mistake, she will be trapped in her perfectionism.
Perfectionism is stealing from yourself
Phoebe is a talented artist, was a competitive swimmer in high school, and still holds the record for the most funds raised for a local charity. She keeps talking about how much she needs to get back into the gym, how great it would be to paint again, how she misses her volunteer work. But she doesn’t have time. For Phoebe to overcome her perfectionism, she needs to put more value on her own time than she does on being able to get every answer right.
Perfectionism is a form of theft. Obsessing over the right word, the right image, re-reading for spelling mistakes for the fifth time, triple-checking the math, hunting down that interesting but obscure reference, re-writing an article seven times, hitting every card shop in the city for just the right sentiment. All of these things are stealing time. Time from other tasks, other people, your employer. And, most important of all, yourself.