Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity, productivity, and, well, sanity. In The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron writes: “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”
Here are some techniques I use to break out of the prison of perfectionism in order to live and create as freely as I can in an imperfect world.
1. Remove yourself from the competition.
Don’t make life any more difficult than it already is. Most perfectionist’s are extremely competitive… because being perfect means being the best at, well, EVERYTHING.
2. Make up some rules.
Of course you can’t avoid all competitive situations. You need to make some rules. Set reasonable expectations. If you are in an organization or group that makes you feel pressured for perfection, think seriously about limiting your involvement.
3. Do a reality check.
Do your best to distinguish realistic expectations from unrealistic ones. I list them all on a sheet of paper or (on a good day) in my head and then revise them about 2,035 times during the day. Recording the different possibilities of actions allows you to sort out what is worth your efforts to meet your goal of succeeding in medical school and actions that keep you from succeeding. This activity can be extremely liberating.
4. Celebrate your mistakes.
Alright, celebrate is an awfully strong word. Start, then, with accept your mistakes. But I do think each big blunder deserves a round of toasts. Because almost all of them teach us precious, rare lessons that can’t be acquired by success. Nope, the embarrassment, humiliation, self-disgust … all those are tools with which to unearth the gold. Just like Leonard Cohen writes in his song, “Anthem:”
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
5. Add some color.
Perfectionists are color blind. They see the world in black and white. In order to get a pair of glasses on our inner perfectionist, then, we have to add a few hues to every relationship, event, and goal: we have to become a tad more tolerant of life’s messiness, unresolved issues, and complicated situations that can’t be neatly boxed up. Seeing in color is realizing that even though a certain solution to a problem worked well yesterday, it might not be right for today.
6. Break the job down.
In Dr. David Burn’s book, Ten Days to Self Esteem, he explains that “One of the secrets of people who are highly productive is that they rarely try to tackle a difficult job all at once. Instead, they break the task down into its smallest component parts and do one small step a day.”
List a few action steps you need to take to study for an exam, commit to a specific time that you will get started on these action steps, record the roadblocks that you anticipate will get in your way in accomplishing your goal (e.g, getting overwhelmed, hearing the negative voices in my head that say I can’t do it), and arrive at some solutions to the potential distractions (e.g., do it despite what the voices say).
7. Be yourself.
Become yourself. Because “nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of limitations.”
8. Believe in redemption.
All things are made right in time, so you don’t always have to get it right on the first try.