From Perfectionism to Excellence

A bit over a year ago, I realized that I had reached the point where perfectionism wasn’t serving me anymore (you can read about it here)—if it ever had, which I am questioning today. But early last winter, I had no idea that it would be possible for me to get this far. So what has changed?

A lot. Bootstrapping as I relaunched my coaching business in the U.S. came with a couple of steep learning curves, and truth be told, I took some of them more successfully than others. Anything writing-related I have always enjoyed, and working with individual clients and groups is at the heart of my comfort zone. But the idea of making videos gave me serious anxiety, and then there were so many other things to tackle—a website, email marketing, workshop organization, networking—that it felt pretty overwhelming.  

Within a few weeks, I realized I had to devise a strategy that would keep me from wasting my time, money and energy and going crazy in the process. These are the decisions and changes I made that proved most helpful in my journey as a recovering perfectionist—and I hope you can benefit from them too!

Decide what to half-ass

This is a tough one for anybody who is caught up in perfectionism. How should you go from “at least 100 percent” to half-assing? Well, there’s only one way: You start in an area that doesn’t feel as defining to your life and work than others. If you want to find this area, I recommend you make a list of your activities during a typical day and highlight whatever takes a lot of time but is not at the core of your life or business. For me, that was emailing.

So I decided to never read an email I had written more than twice before sending it out. Have I sent out emails with typos since? You bet. Has anybody not responded or responded negatively to me because of it? Nope, not a single person. This was a good lesson for me—okay is often good enough—and by now I can apply the principle of half-assing a little more liberally. Not to my core business of serving my clients, of course, but also to other “behind-the-scenes” tasks that just have to be done.

Done is better than perfect

Speaking of “have to be done”: One of the worst downsides of perfectionism is procrastination. Some projects may seem so overwhelming that we don’t even get started, or only get started and never move toward the finish line because we feel our performance is so far from what we consider perfect. 

The worst downsides of perfectionism is procrastination

I faced this dilemma with my website. Even choosing a theme felt so overwhelming that I postponed it for weeks. Eventually, German pragmatism kicked in and I applied one of my favorite tools, time-blocking: I scheduled two hours to choose a theme. 100 minutes in I had three favorites that seemed to meet my criteria—and when my alarm went off 20 minutes later, I just clicked “Buy” on one of them. Is it perfect? Probably not. Is my website up? Yes, and people can find me. It’s done. That’s what matters.

No regrets—just learning

When you are bootstrapping, time and money you consider wasted really hurt. But it’ll happen, no matter how much you (over-)prepare. Perfectionism and fear of failure can keep you from acting. But when you act, you will get some things right and others wrong. That’s life, and it is not an easy lesson to learn for perfectionists. But it can’t be helped.

Perfectionism and fear of failure can keep you from acting

So the best thing we can do is reframe the failure as a lesson learned—which it usually is. At least it should be. See it this way, as your time and money isn’t coming back anyway. So you may as well learn from the experience and not make the same mistake again. For me, this has been true most of all in networking. For a while, I regretted paying money for memberships and events that didn’t turn out to be the right setting for me. But there’s no way I could have learned which professional groups and gatherings I enjoy if I hadn’t tried out very different ones. So now I can focus on those that give me meaningful connection and community, and I appreciate these even more.

Forget about perfectionism, focus on excellence

Maybe the most vital lesson I had to learn was to distinguish between “perfect” and “excellent” and how to show up as a recovering perfectionist—a striver for excellence. I recommend you take a few minutes to write down the first things that come to mind when you hear these two words and to direct your awareness to how they make you feel.

For me, just thinking about “perfect” leads to tightness and shallow breathing, basically anxiety in the making; “excellent” on the other hand makes me smile and gives me a sense of accomplishment and joy. So two very different feelings, and naturally I want to spend as much time with the latter as possible. Realizing this was one of those lightbulb moments that really helped me to let go of my notion of perfection.

Another approach to defining your idea of excellence, and the difference to (perceived) perfection, could be to write down which activities put you in a state of flow, probably not all the time but often enough. For me it’s writing, for you it may be something completely different—running, coding, crafts, pretty much anything. It may very well be something you consider your mental happy place, where you feel comfortable with yourself and what you do. Sounds good, doesn’t it? So let’s strive to spend much more time there!

If this resonates with you and you’d like some support in your journey to unlearn perfectionism, let’s talk! Just send me a message or schedule a free 30-minute consult through my website and let’s explore how I can help you succeed.