Perfectionism, defined as “a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”, is always something I’ve struggled with. At school, my teachers and reports always described me as ‘conscientious’, and I remember spending longer than anyone else to do my homework. Of course, it didn’t really matter back then. I always handed the work in on time; it just meant I had to start it earlier than everyone else.
My tendency to want to perform to my best only began to hold me back when I started my Masters in Coaching and Mentoring Practice, whilst working full-time. There was a lot of reading and coursework to do, and very little time in the day to do it. I remember my Supervisor asking me one day, “What standard of work would be ‘good enough’ for this particular situation? Aim for that right now.” This was a real light-bulb moment for me in that I finally realised that we simply don’t have the time or resources to do an absolute perfect job in every single situation. We need to prioritise our efforts because it’s just not realistic otherwise. I also learnt that my need for my work to be perfect was because I wanted everyone to think I was brilliant, intelligent, and knew what I was talking about at all times. Again, not exactly a realistic expectation!
Although my perfectionism relates to my academic work, it can hold us back in many other areas of our lives. We often believe that to start a new exercise or healthy eating routine, it must be perfect right from the start. When strict conditions - like the weather/motivation/energy/fridge ingredients/time - aren’t right we give ourselves the excuse to put it off until tomorrow. The truth is that these conditions are highly unlikely to occur all at the same time, meaning you run the risk of never getting started.
Below I share my top five tips to help you get over your perfectionist tendencies, and start that new project, blog post, or healthy habit today, not tomorrow.
1. Accept that you will never feel 'ready'
It’s unrealistic to believe that certain conditions must be in place before you get started, such as feeling ready or motivated. Accept that it won’t be easy or comfortable, but you can get started, despite not feeling like it. You won’t feel like it tomorrow either so you might as well start now. Often, energy and motivation comes once we get started, not before.
2. Start small
Going from one extreme to the other is not sustainable. A plan to suddenly cut out all junk food, carbs, sweets, cakes etc just like that is bound to fail. Your cravings will be at their worst this way too. The trick is to take really small baby steps. For example, want to start running? Try going for a walk first, then slowly build it up to short jogs in-between walking, then slow jogs all the way, then slowly increase your speed and distance over time. Rather than giving up a particular food group straight away, cut back first, or replace it with something a little healthier to begin with. Give yourself the best chance of success by making incremental healthier choices, rather than battle with cold-turkey urges, which are very hard to resist.
3. Accept that ‘good enough’ is perfect for what you’re trying to do
It’s impossible to get everything perfect every day. There’s just not enough time, and you’ll burn yourself out. To begin with, prioritise what you can lower your standards on, and what you’re not willing to compromise on. If you’re realistic, rational, and logical, what impact will it have longer term? If the impact is fairly minimal then focus on completion rather than perfection. Tick off your progress each day too, as this will help keep your motivation up.
4. Let go of what others think
Sometimes we want things to be perfect because we feel it validates our self-worth. We want people to approve of our work, and therefore approve of us. We can’t bear the thought of failing, or people thinking badly of us. However, we can’t possibly be responsible for what other people think of us, and frankly, it’s none of our business. What they think about us often says more about them, and their insecurities, than it does about our own worth.
5. Get used to making mistakes
You’ll soon realise they do not mean the end of the world. The more you experience mistakes or failures, the more you’ll learn from them. After a slip up, ask yourself, “What can I do differently next time to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again?” Always fearing the worst, and protecting yourself from failure or performing at a lower standard than you’d like, will usually result in no progress being made at all. Imperfect progress is much better than none.
If your perfectionism or lack of self-discipline is really holding you back, please feel free to contact me to arrange a complimentary introductory session or to discuss how Life Coaching might be able to help you move forward and achieve your life goals.
This article was written for Nutritionist & Lifestyle Coach, Claire Thornton, first appearing on her blog here.
Editorial Assistant (previously an EA)
I first contacted Alice at a time when I was feeling very low about my work and desperate to make a change. Alice listened closely to my needs and tailored our sessions to the specific challenges I was facing. She was quick to follow up after our sessions, to reflect on what I’d said, and to give me further exercises which would help with my development. Alice really helped me to build my confidence to think logically through potential risks of leaving a job and of moving into a new sector, which I did and where I have just started my first job. I have recommended Alice to many friends and friends of friends who I hope will benefit from her coaching as much as I have.