Geetanjali Mukherjee

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Lesson I Need To Keep Learning

This is a blog post I have been putting off writing for days, ironically, because of today’s post topic - perfectionism. 

I have written about perfectionism before on this blog, and I know it is a common topic, one that everyone is familiar with. I thought I knew that I was a perfectionist and that it was a tendency I had to guard against, but I didn’t exactly realize how much it was affecting almost every aspect of my life. Probably I still don’t. 

I have been feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the things I need to do. I am fortunate, I have a lot of projects going on right now, many of them with other people, all of them work I am excited about, or was at one time. But right now, the number of obligations have grown beyond the point that I feel I can handle, and I am feeling the pressure. More than feeling it. 

Part of the problem is that I said yes to too many things and many of them are either coming due too close to each other, or have just been put off for too long and I feel guilty not completing them. I made lists and looked and re-looked and tried to get things off my plate - but unless I was willing to go back to people and say “Sorry, I took on too much and can no longer do this”, I didn’t know how to get it all done. And it seemed like I wasn’t really willing to do that - to tell people I was going to disappoint them. 

So the solution became: I will do it all, just work harder and faster and feel more stressed till it is all done. Not a great idea, right?
But it seemed to me like I had no choice.

Until a few days ago, I was meditating and I had a lightbulb moment - maybe I am approaching some of this all wrong. Maybe I can do it all without losing my sanity - by letting down my standards some. Now I am not suggesting I phone it in, I am suggesting that I ask myself what is the reasonable standard that this task requires and then do it. 

For many things, when someone asks me to do something, I immediately decide it will be done the best way possible in the world. Even if they ask me to do A, I tack on B through E tasks. And then do them at 120% level. Now this was always appreciated, but it meant I did everything very slowly and couldn’t complete many projects. I started to think that I was either lazy or inefficient, and searched through the productivity literature for ways I could improve my productivity, increase efficiency and cut down on procrastination. 

I did all that. But it never occurred to me that one of the biggest things holding me back and causing my productivity to plummet wasn’t the fact that I was lazy or procrastinated too much, but that I was a perfectionist about every little aspect of every project. And that meant that sometimes I avoided working on something because it wasn’t up to my impossible standards and I didn’t know what to do about it. Or that I avoided taking on anything that was too challenging - for fear that I couldn’t do it (read: couldn’t do it excellently). Or that I added on unnecessary elements to things that didn’t need them, and added time and effort that could be spent elsewhere. 

This finally dawned on me this week, and I realized that I would need to go through my list and see where my need to do something perfectly was holding me up. 

The thing with perfectionism, at least for me, is that while it’s one thing to acknowledge that I have this problem and need to guard against it, it is another to see exactly what aspects of the project am I being perfectionistic about, and what is just doing a good job? Or being conscientious? 

For instance, I am helping my mom with a publishing project, that I will share more about later. My role in it is mainly to format the document, edit and proofread and take photos. Do the aspects that a publisher would traditionally. But the publishing industry has changed, and no one dedicates months to a book project like they used to. Even indie publishers who care about the final product, accept that their book won’t be perfect, and probably aren’t even looking for that. I know that my mom wants me to do an ok job, and move on to other things. A wrong comma or a few extra spaces or a missed italic doesn’t bother her very much. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop myself from wanting to spend the next several weeks perfecting the project, making sure there are absolutely no errors to be found. Since I am starting with something that is quite rough, that would be a challenge. And yet I am not sure anyone other than me cares, so clearly I could dial down the level of proofreading and editing and just get on with it. 

The same obsessiveness has been making several other projects take much longer than it should to complete, or in some cases, even get off the ground. I was offered a wonderful opportunity to work with someone on a project that I have very little knowledge in. I was very excited, but then since they gave me leeway in the timeline, I decided I must read every possible book on the topic and become a subject expert. I did this because I felt that was the only way I could even begin to know how to approach the project. But it was only recently that I realized that I was asked to do this not because of my subject matter expertise, but my ability as a writer. I don’t need to know everything possible. I don’t need to spend months on background reading. I need to know enough to understand conversations and then trust the other person who is the expert. I was using the need to know a perfect amount of information to deal with the anxiety I felt about beginning the project. 

I hope by writing this post that someone reading it recognizes similar tendencies in themselves, and is somehow helped. I know writing it down clarifies for me what specifically my perfectionism is about - it is rarely about falling short as I thought it was. Usually its about not knowing how to begin, or wanting to be able to control the outcome. Whatever it is, getting a handle on my perfectionism can have a huge effect on my productivity, and yours too if this is something you struggle with. Before chasing off to read about tomato timers and caffeine pills, see if changing the parameters of your project and how you are approaching it doesn’t make a significant difference to your productivity levels. It sure did for me. 

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