Is perfectionism all bad?

Published by Nela Dunato on in ADHD, Productivity, Thoughts, Tips for creatives

I’ve complained about perfectionism before, and talked about how badly it affects my own personal projects. I see it badmouthed on blogs and social media all the time. It’s a modern boogeyman that incapacitates many creative people, and that makes it a very popular subject.

But then I heard someone ask a question that made me think:

Is perfectionism all bad?

That’s a great question.

Most human emotions and mental hang-ups aren’t 100% bad – they evolved to help up during a time when the world looked very different. Fear is the most famous example: when it runs our lives it can destroy it, but it can also save it when we encounter physical danger.

Is there a good side to perfectionism? I believe there is.

Perfectionism is a sign of high standards

High standards are good. They make us do better work and strive for better skills. They prevent us from putting out junk into the world. That’s good. There’s plenty of junk out there already.

The problem occurs when our standards become unrealistic – when we expect of ourselves to have the skills or resources that are beyond what we’re currently capable of, and take that as a sign that we’re not ready to do the work yet.

If this conclusion leads us toward practice that will help us acquire those skills, that’s great, but that’s not what perfectionists often do. Instead, we just drop the idea of doing that work at all, or try to will ourselves into being better already, and end up disappointed.

The key difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism

Unhealthy perfectionism blocks creativity, while healthy perfectionism feeds it.

Unhealthy perfectionism prevents us from trying to do the project. Healthy perfectionism leads us to practice, and that makes us more ready for the project.

Unhealthy perfectionism causes us to see ourselves as failures, because we compare ourselves with advanced professionals and don’t measure up. Healthy perfectionism leads us to seek peer support, critique and mentorship so we can one day reach the skill level of those pros.

Unhealthy perfectionism blocks creativity, while healthy perfectionism feeds it.

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There’s a right time and place for perfectionism

I’ve found in my work that perfectionism can show up in different phases of the process, and in different ways – some of them healthy, while others are certainly not.

When perfectionism shows up at the very beginning of the project, the usual result is that we don’t do anything. This is the type of inner voice that says “You can’t do it right, so don’t even bother.”

When our idea is very new, there’s no place for perfectionism of any kind. Now is the time to write and sketch any and all ideas for potential solutions. Use as much paper as you need, and just get it all out of your head.

The development phase of the process can still suffer when perfectionism strikes. It can make us feel inadequate. We want to be farther ahead than we are, and we lose motivation and momentum. At this time, again you need to show your inner critic the door and just keep working.

The very end of the process is when having a healthy dose of perfectionism can help, but only to a certain point. That’s why it’s very helpful to have deadlines.

For example, in my meticulous logo design process for clients, I spend hours tweaking every curve in the drawing until the result is, in my opinion, perfect. This is the type of project where the stakes are high, as logos tend to be used for decades. There’s no “second chance” with this one – what I send to the client will get printed on business cards, posters and even cars.

But client projects have deadlines, so I know that’s when the work has to be delivered.

The problem with personal projects, or any type of project that doesn’t have a deadline, is that we can keep tweaking to no end. There’s always something to fix and improve before we share it with others. That’s when perfectionism becomes unhealthy again.

My tips to keep perfectionism in check are:

  1. Don’t let it poison the initial stages of your project.
  2. Always set a deadline by when your work needs to finished, whether it’s perfect or not.

A tight deadline will force you to overcome perfectionism.

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Sean McCabe has a rule for perfectionists that says:

90% is good enough.

He explains it by saying that the amount of work (in hours and energy spent) it takes to get from 90% to 100% is the same amount of work it takes to get from 0 to 90%. That sounds like his math is all wrong and illogical, but if you think back to a time when you considered something 90% done and continued tweaking until it was at 100%, it probably took way more than you expected. That’s the problem – when you’re perfecting something, you’re investing an unreasonable amount of time for marginal, barely noticeable gains.

Deadlines will force you to live with “good enough”.

Suddenly a project that could have stretched over 6 months will be magically done in a week. How is this possible? It’s because you’re prioritizing the features that have the most impact on the final work, and don’t sweat about the details that no one will notice.

Hackatons are based on this premise – you have 12 or 24 hours to complete a project from scratch, and it has to be functional. And it works. I’ve personally witnessed people willing to give up because they had a bug they couldn’t fix, but after encouraging them to continue working, they’ve kept trying and succeeded just minutes before the time was up.

Deadlines are magic. You’re able to launch a website, an ebook, an app or a computer game in a week. You’re able to complete a dozen illustrations, or sew an elaborate costume in a ridiculously short amount of time. You pull off things you previously couldn’t imagine – all because you were willing to release the need for it to be perfect.

You can always make the 2.0 version better – but first you need to have a finished version 1.0 that you can improve.


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2 responses to “Is perfectionism all bad?”

  1. I struggle with this all the time with my artwork, Nela. Even though I do set myself deadlines, I usually go over them even if it’s not by much. Ultimately, though, I know when a piece of my art is DONE and if it isn’t, then it isn’t and saying it’s done won’t make it so! I remember stopping on a piece because I was so over the deadline I’d set myself but then a few months later I just had to go back to it. I just knew it wasn’t finished. I have a feeling that art-making doesn’t always conform to any of the rules we try to make for it as I seem to control my perfectionism much better in other areas e.g. writing a blogpost. Maybe it’s just because I don’t have so much ego bound up in that…

  2. I certainly know that feeling, Cherry!
    I’ve found myself having to finish some paintings in time for an art show, and after the show I went back to work some more on one of them until I was happy with it. There’s another one that I didn’t do my very best on and will definitely going back to that one as well.
    I agree that some rules don’t apply to art in the same way they apply to books, events, digital content, design… since you’re doing art purely for yourself and your own enjoyment, and if the feeling is off, that’s a sign it’s not done yet. But with the things that we do for other people’s enjoyment and value, we could do better with deadlines ;)

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