On doing it perfectly

Dear colleagues,

Heloise was trying to get started on her thesis. But she wasn't satisfied with what she was producing. After writing and deleting the first sentence for half an hour, she quit and waited for inspiration on another day.

This is an example of dysfunctional perfectionism. Heloise may finish her thesis, but there's likely to be a lot of anguish along the way.

Having advised many research students and colleagues over the years, I've found perfectionism to be one of the most common hazards. Whenever a student repeatedly doesn't want to send me a chapter draft because "it's not ready yet", I suspect perfectionism may be a problem.

For this reason, I've been on the lookout for treatments of perfectionism that can be helpful to scholars.

The most useful I've found so far is The Perfectionist's Handbook by Jeff Szymanski, who specialises in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder. As a self-confessed perfectionist, he knows what he is talking about. He tells about his own experience finishing his PhD dissertation.

"I turned in a draft and ended up in a 45-minute discussion with my dissertation advisor about whether an apostrophe at the end of a sentence needed to be bolded or not. We even printed off one copy with the bold font and one without and laid them side by side for comparison. You couldn't tell the difference, but we both agreed that you had to adhere to the proper writing style. I was worried that I would look like an idiot to the rest of my committee and humiliate my dissertation advisor, and I was concerned that the graduate school may not even accept the final draft if I didn't follow the proper style requirements." (p. xi)

The most liberating aspect of Szymanski's book is that he recognises that perfectionism can be both good and bad. To want to do excellent work is essential for high performance. It's unhelpful to say "you need to stop being such a perfectionist". It would be like stopping eating because some foods are bad for you.

Szymanski distinguishes between three types of behaviour: healthy perfectionism, unhealthy perfectionism and non-perfectionism. Non-perfectionists don't worry about their standards. Probably there aren't many of them among academics, whereas perfectionists abound. But what sort?

"As a rule of thumb, you're operating within the realm of healthy perfectionism when your payoffs are greater than your costs, you are striving for and meeting standards you set for yourself, and you value organization [i.e., being organised]. However, your unhealthy perfectionism is in play when your behavior, choices, and strategies are driven by factors such as a fear of failure, chronic concerns about making mistakes, constant self-doubting, attempts to live up to others' expectations of you, anxiety about always falling short of self-made goals, and if your costs outweigh your payoffs." (p. 61)

To address unhealthy perfectionism, Szymanski advocates an investigative approach. Basically this means you should analyse your behaviour and figure out when it's a sub-optimal strategy to try to be perfect. Szymanski analyses some of the patterns of thinking typical of unhealthy perfectionism. One seductive thought is that "more is better", which for some people is a core principle: "If a little of something is good, then more of it must be better" (p. 73).

For example, reading about theory in your field is good, indeed essential, but is reading two hours per day on the latest theory better? Not if you never finish reading and never start developing your own ideas and writing them down.

Another seductive thought is that mistakes are avoidable. Szymanski recommends changing the thought "Mistakes are catastrophic" to treating mistakes as "strategic experimentation".

Another perfectionist trap is treating every task as equally important. You want your article to be perfect, your conversations to be error-free and to play tennis better than the kids in the next court. Szymanski recommends examining your life, writing down a "top 10 list" of things that are really important to you, assessing your personal values, and deciding which tasks deserve your greatest effort - and which ones can be done at less than full effort (and hence less than perfectly), and which ones should be skipped altogether.

Some perfectionists never delegate because others can't be trusted to do a good enough job. Szymanski's chapter on this is titled "Even Jesus needed disciples".

Another trap is "just one more minute ..." This refers to keeping long hours to try to finish jobs: "I'll feel better once I get this assignment out of the way." (p. 150). Szymanski recommends taking a break and doing something nice for yourself, and provides a table of possibilities to help you get started.

The Perfectionist's Handbook is practical. It is logically structured, filled with everyday examples, and contains numerous exercises to aid self-assessment. It's worth remembering that perfectionist behaviours are habits, built up over many years. Changing unhealthy habits is not easy: it takes time and effort. Szymanski's book is a useful source of hints about which things are worth changing, and how.

11 April 2013

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Nicola Marks for useful feedback on a draft.

Jeff Szymanski, The perfectionist's handbook: take risks, invite criticism, and make the most of your mistakes (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011)

PS The high-output writing programme that I coordinate is run on principles designed to overcome unhealthy perfectionism, with slogans such as "write before you're ready" and "don't wait for inspiration to write; instead, write to become inspired." The programme is built on studies by Robert Boice, an education researcher and psychologist who treated writers with writer's block.


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