Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Working around your perfectionism: a #MindfulPhD post

It can be hard to define perfectionism. There's the fun kind that demands that you color code your jelly beans before you eat them so you can eat them in a consistent ratio, and then there's the other kind that can prevent you from turning in work, or even starting it. 

In my experience, and your mileage may vary, perfectionism is something that you can combat, work around, question, and minimize, but never fully eradicate. The line between "having high standards" and "devastating perfectionism" can shift, and instead I've developed a tool kit of strategies to keep my perfectionism in check. I'm sharing them with you today in the hopes that you can start to work with your perfectionism rather than being totally at the mercy of it. 

Strategies for working around perfectionism

  1. Set a timer or time boundaries. This used to be really important with me when I was teaching, but also came up when I was writing. Many tasks will expand to fill the time you give to them, and so setting a timer or boundary around a task can help contain the work. Instead of prepping for class every day, I would only prep the day before, and learn to work through the anxiety of "avoiding it" - my classes didn't suffer, and I had a clear time to work on teaching, no more and no less. 
  2. Get someone on your team. I had two good friends that meet me in coffeeshops and we would exchange updates on how our projects were progressing. If they saw me chasing down the same citation, or working on the same section for a few days in a row, they called me on it. We also would exchange drafts and give feedback on any stage of a document; having an outside set of eyes on my work helped me see it more clearly and avoid "black holes" of specific tasks. 
  3. Ask for clarity about the level of polish expected. When you have a big milestone or deadline, ask for as much clarity about what level of completeness is expected. Is your advisor or supervisor wanting to see only submission ready, fully proofed and cited manuscripts? Are they open to rough drafts? I used to specify with certain drafts that I wasn't looking for line edits - just help on the ideas. This would give my supervisor a clear idea of what to focus on when reading, and gave me a little latitude to not turn in the most polished draft of my career. I especially recommend this tactic if it's the first major work a supervisor has seen, or the first piece after a big restructuring or shift. Early feedback on something less polished might be way more generative than waiting until everything is totally complete only to find out that major structural changes are needed. 
  4. Start with small, actionable tasks. When I'm beginning a new project, I'm often paralyzed by what I want it to be, and the space between that goal and where I feel I am. So whenever I start something new, I make a list of easy, actionable things to do to get the project started. Starting a new dissertation chapter is a huge undertaking, for instance, but it is much smaller and more manageable to start compiling a list of sources I want to explore, or freewriting for 30 minutes about what ideas the chapter might cover. 
  5. Write down three things you love before you turn it in. This is the most important thing I have started doing, as I tend to be totally crushed by anything I perceive as negative criticism. Before I turn in anything, or launch any new venture, I write down three things I love about the work in its current form. No matter what the feedback, it is really helpful to go back and reconnect with what I find valuable about the things I create. 

So even if you can't beat it, perfectionism doesn't have to derail you totally. Working around it, and putting structures in place to combat it, can help you still move forward confidently.