“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Or the done. Heck, even the start.”
No matter how many times I repeat this phrase to myself, I recognize perfectionism as a constant companion in my life. This was especially true during my years in graduate school.
I recently finished my PhD in Chemistry from the University of Michigan and have been reflecting on my experiences during graduate school as I transition onward. Part of this reflection happened on a post-thesis-defense-recovery road trip where I listened to an episode of the podcast Women at Work titled “Perfect is the Enemy.” In this episode, the hosts interviewed Dr. Alice Boyes, a clinical psychologist-turned-writer, who discussed some of the ways that perfectionism can affect women in their careers and how to manage it.
I felt validated by common experiences that I shared with the podcasters, but the podcast also brought up some questions for me. As I listened, I wondered: Is perfectionism really the enemy? How can I maintain my well-being as a perfectionistic woman in STEM? As it turns out, some researchers argue that there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. Perfectionists of both types set and strive towards high expectations, but adaptive perfectionists are better able to adjust to situations where those expectations aren’t met.
So, for all the perfectionists out there, how do we use perfectionism to our advantage? I’ve come up with some challenging aspects of perfectionism and ideas for how to manage them based on tips from Boyes and my reflections from my experience in graduate school.
Difficulty starting and finishing tasks
Perfectionists can find it difficult to start and to finish tasks, whether writing a grant proposal or conducting a lab experiment. For example, I delay starting tasks because I initially worry that they won’t turn out well enough. This also means that I end up stressing later to finish on time. On the other hand, some perfectionists may have difficulty accepting that a task is finished, fearing that there is always something that could be improved. If perfectionism makes starting or finishing tasks challenging for you, you might consider:
- Starting a difficult task while “on a roll.” Take a quick break from an easier task to start something difficult. The confidence from one task can spill over into the other and intentionally limiting the time to begin a challenging task can make it feel more manageable.
- Automating difficult tasks. Use a routine to integrate difficult tasks into your brain’s “muscle memory.” For me as an early grad student, I was intimidated by reading scientific papers because I felt like I wouldn’t understand them. Following a labmate’s example, I decided to set aside 30 minutes each morning to do my best to read one paper and drink a mug of tea. By setting aside routine time and pairing something difficult (reading) with something positive (tea), I gradually found that starting to read scientific papers became less intimidating.
- Focusing on improvement, not perfection. Aim for just 1, 5, or 10% improvement on your goals, rather than mentally aiming for perfection. Any (small) improvement is better than never starting or finishing. As one of my former colleagues would say about chemical reactions: a 1% yield is better than a 0% yield!
Spending too much time and energy on details
Perfectionists can spend too much time on details of decisions that prevent progress towards larger goals. In graduate school, I sometimes had a difficult time starting a new experiment until I had considered every minute detail and possible option for how to set it up. This meticulous attention to detail usually led to well-designed experiments, but also wasted time and worry over details that didn’t always impact the overall outcome. Some perfectionists also find themselves spiraling into inaction because they are afraid that anything less than perfect will amount to complete disaster. If you struggle with spending too much time and energy on details, try:
- Developing a heuristic (or rule of thumb) for decision-making. Develop simple rules of thumb to simplify making decisions. For example, when I’m trying to reproduce a chemical reaction from the literature, my rule of thumb is to move to a new strategy or synthesis route if I can’t obtain the desired results after modifying three experimental variables.
- Differentiating urgent versus important tasks. As a perfectionist, it’s easy to conflate urgent and important tasks, devoting equal energy to things that won’t substantially advance big-picture goals. One way to define each type of task is to think of urgent tasks as reactive to a situation, like responding to a laboratory instrument failure, versus important tasks as proactive towards a goal, like answering a research question. Take time to reflect on which tasks are urgent versus important (a task could be one, both, or neither) and make separate to-do lists for each type, perhaps even dedicating a set time in your day or week to do the urgent tasks in one go.
- Pausing to break up rumination. Pay attention to your thoughts and notice when they keep you from productive action. Then, do something to disrupt the thought cycle. I’d often take an impromptu 10-minute walk around the chemistry building to mentally refresh my mind. You may find other strategies that allow you to pause and reorient like talking with a labmate, doing some stretches, taking a moment to clear off your desk or laboratory space, or listening to a song or podcast.
High and narrow standards
Holding high standards for oneself—and a narrow definition of what is acceptable to meet those standards—is also common to perfectionists, meaning that they can be overly critical of mistakes. When working with others, perfectionists may prefer to do tasks themselves to ensure that their own personal standards are met, or they may hold others to more reasonable standards than themselves. Some tips for perfectionists with high and narrow standards include:
- Trying the minimal effort. Candidly reflect on what the real minimum of acceptable effort is for a given task. Then, practice putting in that minimum effort for a relatively low-stakes task to prove to yourself that total disaster isn’t imminent!
- Practicing self-compassion. Extend compassion to yourself when you make mistakes, or when your high expectations aren’t met. This might mean using kinder self-talk, actively practicing gratitude, or treating yourself the way you’d approach one of your friends. Sometimes I have to mentally picture walking the overly critical part of myself into a room and closing the door to give myself a break.
- Allowing yourself to be pleasantly surprised. Approach others with an attitude of openness to being impressed, rather than always fear of being disappointed. This might mean pausing before responding to a situation where your impulse is to be controlling. Or, similar to the first point, share a small task with someone and observe how they approach it – whether or not it is exactly how you would have done it.
Because perfectionists tend to have high standards and to focus on mistakes, they tend to doubt their own abilities. This can manifest as impostor syndrome, where a person fears that any mistake will reveal their self-perceived status as an incompetent impostor. If you’re a perfectionist who struggles with self-doubt, you might consider:
- Not minimizing positives. Receiving compliments and positive feedback with a simple, “thank you,” rather than a “thank you, but…” The latter minimizes positive feedback and can undermine confidence.
- Asking for a feedback style that works for you. If you are comfortable with it, have a conversation with colleagues/supervisors to let them know what style of feedback helps you to learn without feeling paralyzed or overwhelmed. I felt comfortable asking my PI for weekly individual meetings during my first year in the lab to get routine feedback, which allowed me to budget time and mental energy to process it.
- Recognizing real discrimination. Real sexism and racism can reinforce feelings of self-doubt, especially in male-dominated STEM fields. Neither imposter syndrome nor perfectionism should be used to explain away the harmful effects of these forces. Educate yourself about resources available to you in your department, school, and university to report incidents and seek allies who will support you in the face of discrimination.
Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword and I’ve noticed that finding ways to use it adaptively is key. The strategies here are just a starting point for a journey that takes time and practice. Personally, I know that I’m not perfect at being an adaptive perfectionist. But I’m working towards being okay with that.
Edited by MRB.