This Is How You Beat Perfectionsm

written by

This Is How You Beat Perfectionsm

In case you’re wondering: Yes. I put that typo in the headline on purpose. Because one day, I’d like to be that kind of person. One who doesn’t sweat the details but still delivers remarkable work. An imperfectionist. 

After all, you still understood the title and clicked on it, right? Maybe you even clicked on it because of its flaws. That’s because imperfections stand out in an environment where everything seems perfect.

In this sense, the “mistake” created the magic rather than ruining it.

There’s a similar concept in Japanese culture called Kintsugi (“joining with gold”). It’s the art of gluing broken pottery back together and decorating the splices with gold or silver (see featured image). The cracks become part of the beautiful history of an item, not something to be ashamed of.

What follows is an ode to imperfectionism. We’re going to look at the underlying problems of perfectionism and three practical ideas to overcome them.

If you’ve ever struggled with perfectionism, this is for you.

The Subtle Problem of Perfectionism

I’ve been a die-hard perfectionist pretty much my entire life. I can’t tell you why. But what I can tell you is that perfectionism has made me miserable. Here are a few of many examples:

  • A typical blog post takes me about 10 hours to finish. On a good day. One time, I obsessed for days over a single heading. A freaking heading! I couldn’t think about anything else. I couldn’t sleep. I constantly felt on edge. Perfectionism consumed me and spit me out like a saliva-coated sunflower seed.
  • I also need constant approval for my work. As a freelancer, I can get so anxious once I submit an assignment that I slam my email refresh button until my index finger hurts. When the feedback is positive, I’m relieved. But when it’s negative… oh boy. I question my right to exist as a writer.
  • I can rarely relax in social situations. When I’m with friends or get to know new people, I always start ruminating, What do they think of me? Is this conversation going well? Too little silence, too much silence? How can I make a joke that isn’t offending anyone but also isn’t a dad joke?

And here comes the worst part: For a long time, I used to be proud of my perfectionism. I thought it was a virtue. Obsessing over every last detail, burning out in trivial situations, and only publishing flawless articles — these things were, to me, signs of honest work.

But in reality, this created a vicious cycle.

In my head, my work was only worth something if I invested an unhealthy amount of time and energy into its creation. It was self-sustaining torture.

The ultimate problem with perfectionism is that your work looks, in fact, amazing to others. But to you, the process (and often result) feels everything but amazing.

When Perfectionism Becomes Pathological

Now, there is such a thing as healthy perfectionism. This is what psychologists call adaptive perfectionism. Essentially, you strive to make the best out of a situation. But then again: when something doesn’t quite go as planned, you’re not too bitter about it.

Here’s an example.

You want to write an article. You take your time to think about the structure and contents, but you’re not afraid to write the first sentence. When you’ve finished the draft, you go through it again for readability and typos. You polish it to look nice. And once you know you’ve done your best, you send it off.

This is a case of high standards, not perfectionism. Which is helpful. 

By contrast, there’s maladaptive perfectionism. In this scenario, you re-read the article dozens of times, rewrite the whole thing, and stay up the whole night looking for improvements. (Yup, that happened to me. Multiple times.)

This is when perfectionism becomes pathological. And it’s not something to be proud of anymore. You’ll tell yourself things like:

  • “If I fail at work, I’m a failure as a person.”
  • “The fewer mistakes I make, the more people will like me.”
  • “If I don’t perform well at everything, people won’t respect me.”

But obviously, these thought patterns are utterly wrong. In fact, people love seeing other people be clumsy and make mistakes. That’s the “pratfall effect.” Blundering makes us more attractive because it makes us relatable. It makes us human.

So here’s the irony:

Trying to be perfect all the time makes you seem less perfect than embracing your imperfections. Humans are deeply flawed by design. To pretend you’re perfect is to pretend you’re not human.

Now, let’s explore some practical ways to deal with perfectionism. 

How to Beat Perfectionism

Something crazy happened when I realized I struggle with perfectionism. I became a perfectionist about solving my perfectionism.

LOL.

I started combing through articles, studies, books, YouTube videos. And then I applied them. The greatest antidotes I’ve found came from Stephen Guise’s work, including his book How to Become an Imperfectionist.

Here are the core mantras:

  • “Don’t care about results. Care about putting in the work.”
  • “Care less about doing it right. Care more about doing it at all.”
  • “Don’t care about failure. Care about success.”
  • “Don’t care about timing. Care about the task.”

These alone have been incredibly helpful. But I want to dive deeper: Here are the three most impactful lessons I learned and how you can apply them.

1. The Stars Won’t Align

Surprisingly, a significant symptom of perfectionism is procrastination. Perfectionists struggle with starting projects because they want to get everything right.

The timing. The conditions. The skills required.

It’s like in the mobile game Fruit Ninja — you waste the entire countdown until every single fruit lines up for the perfect strike. But, of course, no well-developed game delivers you the win on a silver platter. Let alone the game of life. In fact, you’ll get a much higher score if you simply slice and dice your way through everything you see. And with that, your chances of landing a lucky strike also increase.

Action fuels serendipity.

I recently encountered this when building my website. I wanted to research the hell out of all the intricacies before getting started. I wanted to get everything perfect. SEO. Design. Content.

But then, one day, after having wasted hours in various rabbit holes, I was so frustrated that I simply got started. And yes, it wasn’t perfect. The website still doesn’t look great. There are probably a bunch of broken links I don’t know about. But all that doesn’t matter.

I made progress

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you do something right. What matters is that you just do it. Tape that Nike slogan on your wall if it helps. The stars will never align. The timing will never be perfect.

One imperfect action trumps years of perfect preparation.

2. Think Binary

My favorite idea from How to Be an Imperfectionist is binary thinking. Which means that every action you perform can either be a one (you did it) or a zero (you didn’t do it).

Successful binary thinking is like flipping a light switch. You don’t think about how smoothly the switch felt. Or if you created a satisfying “clicking” noise. No, you just care about turning the light on or off.

In personal and professional pursuits, however, we over-complicate things. This is, of course, because there’s much more at stake when pitching a startup idea than getting some light in your bathroom. But wouldn’t life be so much simpler if we applied binary thinking to everything we do?

Here are some examples:

  • Don’t worry about writing a book. Write one word. That’s a win.
  • Don’t worry about your perfect workout. Do one pushup. That’s a win.
  • Don’t worry about playing the 5th Symphony. Plunk one piano key. That’s — you guessed it — a win.

In other words, you redefine success. Rather than trying to reach your perfectionist ideal (which is either impossible or toxic), you focus on small steps. Every “one” you score is a nudge that shows your efforts aren’t in vain.

It gets you started. It keeps you going.

3. Finish When You’re 90% Done

This is gonna get a little math-heavy. But it’ll be worth it, so stick with me.

The lesson I remember most vividly from university is the 80/20 rule, aka Pareto’s principle. This says you can reach 80% results with only 20% effort. Here are a few examples:

  • Sports: 20% of players cause 80% of wins.
  • Software: 20% of bugs cause 80% of errors.
  • Marketing: 20% of customers operate 80% of sales.

So far so good. But wait, there’s more.

You can apply the 80/20 rule to itself. How? Take the most important 20% of the most important 20% to gain the most important 80% of the most important 80%. And then do it again. I make this sound complicated, but the math is actually really easy: 

  • 20% effort, 80% results → 4% effort, 64% results → 1% effort, 51% results

Now, the main message here is that the relationship between effort and results is not a straight line. And this is hard to imagine because our brains are wired to think linearly. But the truth is that the relationship between effort and results is a saturation curve.

Graphic created by the author.

What does this mean for perfectionism? Getting to 100% (which is the minimum goal for every perfectionist) takes five times more effort than getting to 80%. Now, maybe this is my inner perfectionist speaking, but 80% of the results can still contain a lot of flaws.

So here’s my rule of thumb:

Stop when your project feels 90% done. Trust me, you’ll know it when you’re there. It’s this pinch of anxiety that there could be a mistake hiding somewhere. Do yourself a favor, ignore that feeling, and finish.

The remaining 10% is almost never worth the effort.

From Perfectionism to Productivity

One of the first articles I ever wrote was about the 80/20 rule. And back then, I already tackled a very similar idea:

“[F]ocusing your attention on the vital details distinguishes productivity from perfectionism.”

I never thought I’d have the self-indulgence to say this, but… that’s really well put!

Let’s face it: Have you ever cared about minor flaws when the overall result was amazing?

Say you found your dream car for an illegally cheap price, but it has a small scratch on the side. Are you seriously going to say no?

Or maybe you’re reading a life-changing novel but spot one misplaced comma. You’re not going to put that book down, are you?

Ultimately things don’t have to be perfect to be perfect. The harsh truth that perfectionists don’t want to hear is that perfection doesn’t exist. There’s only ever good enough.

Don’t care about perfect. Care about good enough.

Do your best. Let the results take care of themselves.