Why You Shouldn’t Try to Be Perfect at Work

It’s no surprise that your work in the nonprofit world demands that you wear many hats, and all with expertise and poise. A phone call from a donor might put your afternoon in a whole different direction, while a last-minute presentation may have you running out the door. More and more development departments are being asked to do more with less—dual titles including planned and major giving and being asked to raise 6-figure gifts while managing staff and running the annual “duck race” have become the norm.

Sound familiar?

How, then, do you continually reach that level of perfection that you’re well-known for—that you strive for daily—when you feel as though you’re being pulled in all different directions?

The key is to stop thinking you have  to be perfect. Instead, strive for excellence in all that you do.

There’s a fine line between a healthy tendency for perfection and excellence, and unhealthy or disruptive perfection. Like most habits, it’s a continuum in your thinking, whether you have isolated moments (like in a one-time high-stress proposal pitch) or nonstop, always present thinking (even in low-key social situations, like a lunch with coworkers or a team-building retreat).

Here are just a few traits of perfectionists:

  1. Delegating—it’s hard for you to do. It’s easier to do the task yourself, even if you’re overloaded with projects and deadlines. Naturally, others just won’t do as good of a job as you would do. (They will, of course, but they might not do it in the same way, which makes you squirm a little in your seat.)
  2. Should I or shouldn’t I? Indecisiveness reigns. This goes beyond the occasional uncertainty about a situation or problematic issue and moves into everyday decisions, even about the small stuff. You continually tinker with projects, and maybe even miss deadlines or hold up coworkers, so you can review the job one more time and get it exactly right.
  3. Give me the “goods.” Your self-confidence and sense of worth come from others. Accomplishments and how others react and interact with you signal if you’re smart enough or good enough. (“I should have been more prepared for my donor luncheon and known all the answers to her questions! Now I’ve ruined the relationship and won’t get the gift.”)
  4. I’m not going there. Regularly procrastinating or avoiding situations that you think might make you look inferior may be routine for you, because you have a fear of failure. (“Large-group presentations unnerve me, so I’m going to decline the lunch presentation about our new community food bank.”)

Striving for excellence lifts you up, not drags you down.

The first step—the one thing, says author Erin Dougherty—in overcoming the need for perfection is to SURRENDER.

“When we surrender to the moment, to change, to messiness or imperfection, we allow the seeds of excellence to grow,” she writes. “Excellence is that drive toward raising ourselves up to our own highest good, thereby allowing our unique gifts, talents and personalities to benefit the highest good of all. … Surrender also invites self-forgiveness, an act all perfectionists need to practice daily.”

RECOGNIZE that perfection is self-defeating. If you constantly berate yourself you’ll never get anywhere. You’ll just get caught up in the wheel that endlessly spins around.

PREPARE instead of procrastinating. If you put off things to the last minute because you feel the overloaded sensation of having to do it perfectly, you might become more easily frazzled and miss a deadline. Plan and organize your time, so that you can accomplish tasks without the unnecessary stress.

ACTING AS IF. Like pretend, but for grown-ups. It’s the idea of doing the action first to get the quality you want, or acting as if you already possess that quality. If you want to feel happier, for example, first laugh or smile. In our case, if you want to let go of perfectionism, first let go of that first draft for review, even if it contains a misspelling. Check out this engaging animation of the As If Principle for a better understanding of how it works.

Looking for more ways to achieve excellence at work? Start by making the most of the minutes in your day.

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