Could Perfectionism be killing you?

As I was agonising over what to write in this - my first ever blog – the answer became clear: perfectionism.

Over the years, the urge to make things perfect has led to some painful results:

  • Decisions can take weeks. (And occasionally years!)
  • Finishing projects can take forever. And I could have used that time for something new.
  • Stress!

One of my clients, an IT manager, was missing deadlines because he hated signing off on tasks. His perfectionistic urge drove him to keep re-working them. 

Another friend said he’d procrastinated for two years to buy a new laptop for fear that he might not make the ‘perfect’ decision.  Yesterday he guessed that the difference between his new laptop and whatever model he could have purchased instead is negligible – perhaps 0.5%. But the difference between using an almost-broken laptop versus a new one that works is 100%!  His new laptop has saved him hours.

It gets worse. A 2010 study by Prem Fry, psychology professor of Trinity Western University in Canada, followed 450 adults aged 65 and older for 6.5 years.  She found that those with high perfectionism scores (meaning they placed high expectations on themselves to be perfect) had a 51% increased risk of death compared to those with low scores.  (She found some benefits, too.  You can check them out at LiveScience.com)

"Perfectionism is a virtue to be extolled," said Professor Fry. "But beyond a certain threshold, it backfires and becomes an impediment.”

In an article published in the Journal of Health Psychology, psychology Professor Prem Fry of Trinity Western University in Canada and colleague Dominique L. Debats, University of Groningen, demonstrate that those with high perfectionism scores ran a 51 per cent increased risk of earlier death as compared to participants who had low perfectionism scores.

What are the virtues of perfectionism?

Perfectionists set high standards for themselves, which may drive them towards success.  Team GB’s cyclists attributed their success in London 2012 to a series of 1% improvements (marginal gains).  By taking a pillow with them when they travelled to races, cyclists slept better, and therefore performed better.  By washing their hands meticulously, they caught fewer colds.  British Cycling's performance director, Dave Brailsford, explained:

"The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase".

Personally I’ve found that knowing how long it can take me to finish a project makes me extremely selective about what I start.  Whilst I sometimes fear I might not be “pulling my weight”, say in friends’ social projects, selectiveness at least enables me to focus intensely on what I do choose to achieve.

How can we manage perfectionism?

I find that setting myself a time limit for research, and a deadline for making a decision, helps. 

When I shared that with my client, he decided to test a new habit: he chose to sign off on projects when he considered them 90% of the way towards being “perfect”. 

The result?  He saved 2 hours every week!

As for me, I’m off to celebrate having finally completed my first blog post.  It may not be perfect – but I am free!

What has worked for you? Do leave a comment.

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