Breaking the perfection habit


I’m not a perfectionist. In fact, when I painted my walls I didn’t paint near the windows because I didn’t want to do the detail work. When I accidentally address an envelope upside down, I don’t get a new envelope.

You know what? Doing those things hasn’t made my life any worse. It hasn’t made me unhappy, and it’s freed me up to do other things besides worry about if what I do is perfect.

I have a good eye for how well something has to be done in order to accomplish what I need to accomplish, and it’s one of my favorite traits about myself. The good that comes from a lack of perfection is that I can set a lot of goals for myself because I get them done.

Here are the reasons I can’t stand perfectionists:

  • Perfectionists procrastinate because they’re scared of not being perfect.
  • Perfectionists are hypercritical to the point that they can’t support people around them.
  • Perfectionists can’t finish a project because they can always think of a way to improve it.
  • Perfectionists are phony, because no one’s perfect and they can’t handle showing that in themselves.

Here are four things to think about if you’re letting perfectionism dictate your life:

1. You get more done if you don’t sweat the details.
My disdain for details started when I looked around at all the people who are disappointed with their lives. For the most part, these are people who wish they’d done something that they didn’t do for fear of failure. In the worst cases, these people have whole lists of such things. Then I saw a bumper sticker that read, “What would you do if failure were not an option?”

When I went through my own list of what I would do, I decided that if I stopped worrying about failure I’d be able to do a lot more. So I started focusing on just getting stuff done instead of getting it done perfectly. Details fell by the wayside.

I also noticed that once I stopped worrying about doing something perfectly, I didn’t have nearly as much reason for procrastination. It’s easy to start something if you tell yourself that getting it done 70 percent perfect (as opposed to 100 percent) is OK.

Believe it or not, in most cases 70 percent perfect is fine for what we do. The trick is to balance fearlessness with attention to detail and understand when you need to concentrate on each.

2. You do better work if you aren’t worried about perfection.
Here’s a story I heard from Alexander Kjerulf, who was talking about David Bayles’s book “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking“:

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced. All those on the right would be graded solely on their works’ quality.

His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the quantity group; 50 pound of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on quality, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an A.

At grading time, the works with the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of clay.

Think about this in your own life, even if you’re not using clay. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. But you can’t practice if you think only of perfection. Practice is about making mistakes; perfection comes from imperfection.

3. Working the longest hours doesn’t mean you’re doing the best work.
Usually, the hardest worker in an office is a perfectionist. This begs a few questions: Why does this person need to work harder than everyone else? Is she slow? Is she stupid? Is she avoiding her home life?

The people working the hardest are usually stuck on getting all the details perfect, but they’ve lost sight of one of the most important things — which is that you look desperate if you work more hours than everyone else. The person working the hardest looks incompetent, either at managing their workload or at managing their family life.

Of course, you don’t want to work the least number of hours, either. But you want to fall somewhere in between. People who work very long hours are inefficient and sometimes get so little sleep that they’re performing at the level of a drunkard at work. So cut back your hours, and even if you do things with less attention to detail in order to get them done faster, they might actually get done better because you have a better handle on the time in your life.

4. Stop procrastination by stopping perfectionism.
One of the biggest productivity problems is procrastination. And one of the biggest contributors to procrastination is the feeling that we need to do something perfectly.

The key to ending procrastination in your life is to be honest about what you’re really doing with your time and energy. Look closely at why you’ve made the bar so high that you can’t even start. Procrastination can only flourish in a situation where perfection is so clearly demanded and so intrinsically impossible that inaction seems preferable to action.

So be honest with yourself about why being perfect is so important to you. Perfectionism doesn’t make people happy, and often makes them nutcases.

And remember those clay pots — they represent all the creativity and excitement you could unleash if you’d let the attention to detail slip a little.

49 replies
  1. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    My grandmother used a wonderful old Irish expression: If a man on a galloping horse wouldn’t notice, don’t bother. Paying attention to detail IS important,but focus on the details that matter. (E.g., try for no typos, but don’t make yourself insane changing every “which” to “that” and vice versa.) There’s nothing worse than working with an ultra perfectionist who just won’t let go. I do have some sympathy for perfectionists, but when their need to control gets in the way of my need to get something done, I’m not going to be happy.

  2. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    I agree, Penelope. My boss drives me slightly insane about the little things. I have had to reprint pages and pages AND pages of a document simply because one word was missing an “s”. I believe in paying attention to the details, but sometimes being a perfectionist is wasteful.

    I appreciate when people make little mistakes like addressing the envelope upside down because it shows that they’re human.

  3. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    As a recovering perfectionist, may I suggest the idea that perfectionism can behave like a disease, one that is lining the pockets of countless therapists, I’m sure. The reason I find deadlines liberating is I have to jump in, head first, and get to done without obsessing over details.

  4. AjiNIMC
    AjiNIMC says:

    This is much similar to current web world, we can it “release early release often”. Web world is just another representation of our real world, now world does not enjoy (or demand) the perfection but rather the creation.

    I remember how I got in touch with Penelope through a broken link on the blog post :).

  5. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Two things I learned while working with a bunch of OCD cases on a nuclear submarine:

    Better is the enemy of good enough.


    Work smart all the time. Work hard when you need to.

  6. Bill Walker
    Bill Walker says:

    As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, this article hits home — but only to a degree. For me, it conjures the idea that there are degrees of perfectionism, though it does not specifically say this nor does it address this continuum.

    I’m not the obsessive, overworked perfectionist that Penelope primarily describes, but I do appreciate doing things right. For the competent person, that doesn’t automatically equate to doing things slowly.

    The clay pot example demonstrates that we can and should learn from our mistakes, which, even for the perfectionist, is an excellent lesson.

    The last point I will make is that the difference really is often in the details; that is why corporations engage in very specific branding practices, you want your hair to be cut and styled perfectly, and revered chefs pay so much attention to presentation.

    Imagine, for example, if you noticed the color of your bank’s logo was way off; it just doesn’t look good. So, I understand the need to foster progress through doing rather than agonizing, but I profess there is still importance and value in (certain) details.

    * * * * * * *
    Bill, I like the examples you use. They show that each of us, in any situation, has some things that require attention to detail no matter what, and the other things, no doubt do not. The trick is to know which is which.


  7. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hmmm…a Google search for “Is 99% satisfaction OK?” turned up the following (some of these are in the U.S; some in Australia…FWIW,

    99% ACCURACY =
    ·6,150,000 deaths in airplane crashes each year
    ·46,720,000 letters lost or delivered to the wrong address each year
    ·21,000 incorrect drug prescriptions each year
    ·6,000 incorrect surgical procedures each year
    ·At a 200-room hotel = 220 dissatisfied guests each year at a 200-room hotel (based on 75% occupancy and 2.5 nights average stay)
    ·A new born baby in Australia will be given to the wrong parents every day.
    ·7,630 mismatched shoes will be sold every year.
    ·29,315 pieces of mail will be mishandled every year.
    ·315 entries in Webster's dictionary will be misspelled.
    ·58,600 credit cards will have incorrect information on the magnetic strip.
    ·12,00 income tax returns will be processed incorrectly.

  8. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    sorry…forgot an addendum to my post above re: “99% accuracy” which is…

    Is it OK if I allow myself a little slack and let myself off the “perfectioin” hook, while I expect perfection from other?”

  9. PMB
    PMB says:

    Hahaha, Peter, that’s a good point. And as an engineer, I appreciate that often perfection is necessary. Without people that can function in this manner, our society would fall apart.

    On the other hand, I feel you miss the point of the article. The Author recommends doing a “good enough” when that is all that is required. She is not arguing that we should stop paying attention to detail when it is absolutely necessary.

    anyway I found this blog specifically so that I could leave this comment:

    Penelope, this was easily the best article I have read on Yahoo finance this year.

  10. Roxanne
    Roxanne says:

    Penelope is a SLOB! I would hate to hire her to paint my walls. I like a job done right and she isn’t going to do it that way. She’s also a hypocrite – says that perfectionists are hypercritical and don’t support the people around them. Looks who’s talking! She gets the feeling that she doesn’t measure up to people who strive for quality and excellence so she tries to pull them down to her level. As a manager, I would indentify her as a corner cutter and someone who is OK with mediocrity. Doesn’t cut it among professionals who can exact near perfection almost as naturally as breathing. What a crock!


  11. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    PMB writes to me: “On the other hand, I feel you miss the point of the article. The Author recommends doing a "good enough" when that is all that is required. She is not arguing that we should stop paying attention to detail when it is absolutely necessary.”

    So, you point to a fine example of my imperfection.

  12. Rick Lines
    Rick Lines says:

    I like the comment above about the nuclear submarine. I can understand the frustration of co-workers trying to do something better when it is good enough.

    That said, don’t dismiss attention to detail and making things better. I think it comes down to inertia, focus, and time management.

    1)Inertia- Just get the task started
    2)Focus- What is it that HAS to be done
    3)Time Management- Do you have the time to improve a process and does it match with what the initial task and focus is?

    If you are a custom home builder you better have some employees that are “perfectionists” in a good way. You need employees that are constantly looking for problems, ways to improve, and take action to do just that. All with using the 3 points above. Your article just describes the pitfalls of “perfectionism” that lacks focus and inertia. These people are really not “perfectionists” they are lazy dreamers. Big difference.

  13. Victor Thomas
    Victor Thomas says:


    I started benefiting tremendously from being a “perfectionists” as soon as I acquired the ability to “let go”.

    My “Bad Habit” is now my most powerful ally in life.

    Not only will I NEVER send out an envelope with the address upside down, but I WILL laser print the address and apply the stamps at perfect 90 degree angles to the side of the envelope.

    Surgical neatness is my personal trademark.

    I’ve also discovered that my most pathetic effort 40 – 50% effort at almost anything I do is roughly >90% effort of a non-perfectionist.

    I consistently run circles around my peers, years of practicing my “Bad Habit” allows me to produce MUCH higher quality work in 1/2 the time it takes my “Normal” counter parts.

    Written without animosity!

    * * * * * * * *

    Hi, Victor. I think the things you write in your comment are probably true. That perfection is your trademark, that you do better work than non-perfectionists, that you do perfect work faster than most other people can. But I don’t understand what it gets you. Have you met goals for yourself that you never thought you’d meet? Are you involved in fun and interesting projects that make you excited? I can’t really tell what the purpose of all the perfectionism is.–Penelope


  14. Tim
    Tim says:

    I am sure Penelope would be thrilled if her surgeon thought it was ok to be 70% pefect. Or, maybe if her boss figured it was ok to get her pay correct 70% of the time. Close enough. No reason to sweat the details. Just make sure that all of you folks are willing to accept the quality of work that you are willing to give. If you are then I am behind you 70%.

    * * * * * * *

    I like these examples becuase they remind us that each of us has stuff in our lives where the details matter. The sugeons, by the way, are notorious for not following the details of the rules in a hospital for much of the time they are ouside of the operating room. The sugeons know that the details outside the OR have much less importance than the details inside the OR.


  15. My Decadia
    My Decadia says:

    I’m doing Geological Mappings and Seismic Refractions for Oil Industry. 1 cm on my map = 20 km on the field (areal or depth). So… I will keep my bad habbit proudly, because it will be a biiiiiiiig sin for me to even miss 1 mm.

    I hope you’ll never be hired in the Oil Industry!


  16. Mike Hudson
    Mike Hudson says:

    I’m with Peter and Roxanne on this, but I’m going to go a little further. I work in IT, managing maintenance data for the Super Hornet airplane. All of our reporting is way off because we don’t have it all. Why don’t we have it all? Because not all of the data is created. When a part is scrapped (as opposed to repaired) we never hear about it. Why? because someone thought that that was “good enough” to create data for only the repairs and not for the scraps. Now we have to deal with an incomplete data set.

    I think that the article makes a decent point, that some people overdo it with the perfectionism, but I don’t think that doing it right should be labelled in this way. There are definitely some problems that cause this kind of behavior, and they are much more complex than a single word label. Furthermore, I have never seen a person like this in the workplace. The example with the pottery class can only be phony or the result of skewing the test through bad instructions. Did the teacher tell the “quality” students that they could only make one pot? or did he tell them that the last pot they made would be the one graded?

    Also, with regards to “the one who works the longest and hardest is the least competent or whatever.” See, I thought it would be good enough to not get the quote right. Do you get the gist of the quote? Probably. Could I make my point better if I had copy pasted the quote exactly? Definitely. Back to the quote, I have never seen that to be true in my years. I used to work in food service. You know what happened to the hardest workers? They had the highest productivity, the cleanest work stations, and the quickest promotions, and they certainly earned it. Right now, we have a bottleneck where one person does all of the reporting for us. Guess who the hardest working person is. You got it. It’s not because he’s incompetent or some kind of weird perfectionist, it’s because he’s the only one qualified to do his job. Yes, we’re working on hiring someone to help him out, but until then, he’s the first one in in the morning and the last one out.

    You, Penelope, have made a decent point, but have made it horribly and given it a horrible label. Many people will read it and say “this is edgy, she must be right,” and those people should get their heads out of their asses.

    I think I’m done writing about this because I’m too angry. Is that good enough or should I try better?

    * * * * * *
    We each decide on the details of our lives that are important. Since blogging is very important to me, I am always very careful to not comment on other peoples’ blogs when I’m angry. I don’t want to convey that image of myself, and I don’t want to be an instigator of angry discussion. For you, this detail is less important. That seems fair. Everyone needs to pick which details matter to them…


  17. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    I’m going to disagree with all the angry comments here. I called myself a perfectionist just this morning. And then I wasted 30 minutes of my time trying to perfect something that was fine the way it was. Some things should be perfect, but most things don’t have to be, nor should they be. I learn much more from making mistakes then when I obsess over doing something right the first time. That’s what life is about – living, not perfection. Great article, thank you.

  18. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Like the Greeks say, “All Things in Moderation”

    I think your right on in that perfection can be counterproductive. Perfections that I know often do end up missing deadlines and losing sight of the bigger picture due to their lack of ability to see past a few minor errors. My roommate is a first year teacher for Teach for America, and all he does is work on his school work. He leaves around 7:00 a.m. and doesn’t come home until usually around 11:00 p.m. A couple of times, he’s even shown up at 5:00 a.m., slept a couple of hours, and gone straight back to work! Like your article referenced, he basically showed up to work drunk. I completely believe his obsession with trying to find the perfect lesson plan has made him overlook the fact that delivery is just as important as preparation. However, details are important to certain types of job, especially in the financial industry.

    My boss often tells me about how I frequently make careless errors, but he also has mentioned to me several times that I am one of his only assistants in twelve years that has literally been able to finish all the work. I’m at the point where there is nothing more to do! Like you, I’m not a detailed person by nature, and its something I have to work on continuously. I really think that in work its best to know how to balance the details with the bigger picture. More importantly, as a boss, I think its important not to constantly harp on your employees about details. A good balance of catching mistakes and helping your employees see the bigger picture is the best balance. Details are important at times, but the bigger picture is what will move an organization or project forward.

  19. Sherri Leigh
    Sherri Leigh says:

    Who has time to be a perfectionist these days? Like you, I have also identified which tasks need to be done a particular way and which ones just need to be done. Not only does this approach free up that precious little commodity called time, it also makes those “no-fun” tasks more bearable.

  20. Alan
    Alan says:

    I agree with you. Those reasons show much that being a perfectionist is a serious thing. Too much worrying will get us nowhere and will certainly affect everything we do.

  21. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    * * * * * * * *

    Believe it or not, I read all the Yahoo comments. And I found this one, which I think is great. So I have copy and pasted it here. From Scott Carpenter:

    Actually, I work in an emergency room, and the Dr who is the perfectionist sucks. he sees few patients, which means YOU are waiting in the waiting room 4 hours. He also lacks a clear concept of the big picture, cuz he’s stuck looking at all the details over and over again. you want someone who has a good concept of throughput and the ability to make some real decisions.

  22. Albert
    Albert says:

    Hello Penelope,

    I must say that I had a kind of mixed reaction to reading your article at first. Yes, I read it a few times. Perhaps it’s just the perfectionist side of me that really likes to take in everything and consider everything being said. Overall, I found your article very enlightening albeit rather critical of what you consider perfectionism.

    It seems to me what you’re saying though is that procrastination is often the consequence of perfectionism, but more important a balance is needed between quality and quantity to equate to efficiency.

    Perfectionism isn’t altogether bad. Only if taken to the extreme. Excellent article. Thank you.

  23. Bob Zartman
    Bob Zartman says:

    I think what is mainly being discussed here is the distinction between perfectionism and carelessness – what details don’t matter, and what details do matter. How bad can your spoken or written grammar be before you simply turn off the listener/reader because someone so sloppy or illiterate probably has nothing significant to communicate (not to be mistaken for a panicked cry for help from a hysterical person!). I am beginning to think that some businesses today try to reach an economically maximized balance between the poorest service they can get away with and an excess loss of customers! If we stick to the subject of complete paralysis from perfectionism, I’d agree that this could be a serious matter for the relatively few persons I’ve met with the problem. But I expect professionalism from professionals, and that includes the ability to decide what’s important, what’s desirable, and what’s excessive.

  24. Kim
    Kim says:

    I’ve read the comments, and while I agree with everyone who is saying that there are definite times when anything less than perfect is not acceptable, I’m reminded of the Gateway Arch, in St. Louis, MO. When the Arch was nearing completion, and it was time to insert the keystone into the arch, the 2 legs of the arch didn’t meet up perfectly, so they had to be pulled together with hydraulic jacks. My husband (and engineer) loves that the Gateway Arch isn’t “square,” and has a photo of it in his office to remind him that not everything has to be perfect.

    My daughter is a perfectionist, the type that Penelope described who procrastinates due to the fear that the project will not be perfect. She’s a high school student who would much rather not turn in a paper, than turn one in that’s not perfect. She will turn things in late, because they are not perfect. As a result, her grades are far from perfect. I’ve seen in my own daughter’s life how striving for perfection can be extremely detrimental to a person’s self esteen and well being. Penelope, I’m forwarding this article to her, and hope she reads it! Thank you so much!

  25. Dean L Heaton
    Dean L Heaton says:

    Hey Penelope, I expect perfection of myself at work even if my clients don’t, we’re only human after all they would say. It’s a different story at home.It’s acceptable to have higher standard for things that are important and for those who can’t read between the lines of what Penelope was trying to get across, then your perfecting nature should have you re-reading and re-reading until you get the point.

  26. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    OMG, you described one of my most aggravating coworkers! Constantly misses deadlines because she has such grandiose notions of what’s possible and is filled with rage with anyone less perfectionist minded than she is. It’s this weird mania, a terrible energy.

    You forgot a few elements of perfectionism. They are incapable of collaborating, because true collaboration requires give and take. And for all the reasons listed here and more, they are a nightmare to work with. Or work for. Or try to manage. Or engage with in any kind of meaningful way.

  27. Ruby
    Ruby says:

    When will the world ever learn. My dear Penelope, “hate” is such a strong word and it leads to negativity and crimes against humanity. Weren’t you taught to hate the perfection and not the perfectionists? Hate leads to wars and I don’t think a war between the good enoughs and perfectionists would be a very close one. While the Just OKs were busy arming and defending themselves in the manner that suits them, the perfectionists would be focused on getting the job of eliminating them done with neat precision. Wouldn’t be enough of your kind left to hate anybody once the smoke cleared.

  28. Fran
    Fran says:

    I agree with you. Being a perfectionist surely invovles a lot of time. Big mistakes cause us to do it all over again to make it right. How much more will a perfectionist waste time in minute details?

  29. Helen
    Helen says:

    It would be even hard if you were married to a perfectionist. I’ve seen some movies depicting the life of a perfectionist and I just can’t imagine living with that kind of person.

  30. donny
    donny says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I love this article.
    I can see why people who are in favor of perfectionism are actually perfectionists. Those who are arguing if a surgeon do a 70% quality job or a geographic mapper putting off 1 mm on a scaled map are missing the main purpose of the article. While it is not reasonable to trade off quality over quantity, it does not do to be meticulous and fail to deliver results and jeopardizing a project as a whole. Perfectionism is the attempt of trying (and desperately in need) to be perfect, while being a “professional” are people who are trained to make certain decisions under certain circumstances. What if this “professional” is also a “perfectionist”? Decisions would not be made and projects would fail to meet deadlines. If a surgeon looks through every single detail to the point where his stitches have to be perfectly aligned, each stitch has to be 1/2 mm, not too close, not too far,…. etc. How much time would be wasted while he could’ve treated other patients.
    Being perfect at what you do does not mean you are a perfectionist. Trying to be perfect does not necessarily make you perfect at what you do either. There has to be a line drawn between quantity and quality.
    I never had a true education in the US, therefor, my writing skills are far from perfect.

  31. emc2logpi
    emc2logpi says:

    I like most of this article except for this part: “Perfectionists are phony, because no one’s perfect and they can’t handle showing that in themselves.”.

    I know of very few perfectionists who think they are perfect. In fact, most perfectionist I know (including myself) are continuously beating themselves up for not finishing projects, spending too much time on parts of the project while the important part never gets done, and generally feeling out of control when they are unable to get started due to fear of doing it wrong.

    Yes, there are a few folks who think they are perfect and snootily proclaim that others are lesser, but the great majority of perfectionists that I know feel frustrated.


  32. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think this post is as good as any for this tidbit I got this morning from Dr. Dean Edell. He was discussing tattoos and the research that generated statistics comparing a person’s personality type to the amount of tattoos on their body. He brought up a good point on where you may want to be a perfectionist – the text on your tattoo. I can handle typos on a manuscript or a blog but I’m not sure I want to carry a typo around with me. :)

  33. Irina I
    Irina I says:

    A good friend of mine from college did pretty much nothing his freshman year and then slowly ramped up to get a job at a top bank in New York out of college. Granted, he was really smart but he also did “just the minimum to get by.” For him, that minimum increased year after year in college, but he still did just enough to get by. He’s doing pretty well so far.

  34. Alan
    Alan says:

    It’s way too much work to constantly have to gauge how lousy a job I’d want to pass off with my name on it. Much easier just to do as best as I can. Besides, as best as I can is barely good enough anyway.

    If the price of success is that I have to be incompetent, I guess I’m not willing to pay that price.

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