career advice Sep 04, 2018

A note from Annie: This is part one of a two-part series on perfectionism. This post goes into what perfectionism often looks like while next week’s post will delve into how we can set aside perfectionism and adopt an excellence mindset.

Ahhh perfectionism. Can I be honest with you? While I now consider myself a recovering perfectionist, this is still something I have to diligently be aware of. Perfectionism often manifests itself in sneaky ways, especially for us assistants. We pride ourselves on the fact that we are meticulous and detail-oriented. Unfortunately, if we are not conscious of it, we can cross the line into perfectionism easily and without even realizing it. Ever find that you’ve spent a half-hour wordsmithing an email that should have only taken you two minutes to write? How about spending an hour looking for the “perfect” lunch meeting location? Do you find you avoid certain tasks because you don’t feel you can perform them perfectly? Perfectionism can be damaging to your career, especially as an assistant, and can hold you back from being the amazing, high producing, kick-ass assistant that you are.

How to Recognize the Trap of Perfectionism

My personal brand of perfectionism revolves around the fear of disappointing others and, in the workplace, an irrational fear of losing my job.  For a long time, it manifested with constant anxiety and self-flagellation when I made a mistake. I talked to myself in ways I can’t imagine talking to another human! The larger the mistake, the longer the recovery period and the higher the anxiety level. Since I’ve started to face these fears and embrace grace and self-love I’ve found I beat myself up less. Am I still disappointed? Yes. Do I wish I hadn’t made that silly mistake? Absolutely. But my recovery period has lessened. When I do it effectively, I’ve found extending grace to myself allows for more solution-oriented thinking.

The pitfalls of perfectionism

Perfection is a moving target. Who is the judge of what is ultimately perfect? You? Your boss? Even if you finally decide on what perfect looks like, our work is never performed in a vacuum. Who's to say that your boss or colleagues won’t have a differing opinion?

Perfectionism is damaging because it causes us to lose sight of the big picture and to operate from a place of anxiety and fear. I found this to be particularly true of my own perfectionism. My fixation on never making a mistake was totally driven by fear of disappointing others and losing my job. Who wants to be motivated by fear? Wouldn’t we all rather be driven by the value we provide and the problems we are capable of solving? 

Here’s the thing though, I told myself I just wanted to do a good job. After all, doing a good job is something to aspire to right? These kinds of justifications are what make perfectionism so sneaky! While wanting to do a good job in and of itself is a good thing, perfectionism can actually hinder your productivity. An obsession with perfection can cause us to take too much time to do trivial, unimportant things that don’t actually add value. Have you ever looked back at your day and realized that you didn’t really accomplish anything? I know I have! Could it be that our perfectionist tendencies were rearing their ugly heads?

A fixation on obtaining the perfect end result robs us of growth opportunities along the way. When we approach projects or tasks from a place of perfectionism we fail to see the crumbs throughout the journey that have the potential to lead us to true growth. I’ve found for myself that anytime I’m motivated by perfectionism (or fear) I’m less open to change, collaboration and growth. Achieving perfection takes up so much headspace that it becomes all we can see. Loosening the grip of our expectation to achieve perfection lets other thoughts and ideas in which have the potential to lead to dynamic growth.

Perfectionism can present in multiple ways, some of which I’ve already alluded to or pointed out. These include poor time management, anxiety and being overly harsh on ourselves or others.

Confusion, Avoidance & Procrastination

In my opinion confusion, avoidance and procrastination are the most detrimental manifestations of perfectionism for us assistants. A long time ago I had a colleague who was really good at doing everything except the tasks that were assigned to her. She helped the facilities department set up chairs and tables for events when she was supposed to be at the front office greeting and speaking with guests. She volunteered to make shopping runs when she was supposed to be working on projects that would add value to her department. Basically she was avoiding her own work under the guise of being a team player. We could all tell she loved working for our organization, and she clearly had the skill set and passion for performing her job well, but something was preventing her from doing so.  It was frustrating for her colleagues because, while she kept busy, only occasionally did anything of real value ever seem to get done.

Looking back I suspect my colleague was suffering from a case of perfectionism that utilized a cocktail of confusion, avoidance, and procrastination. Her fixation on performing her job perfectly prevented her from starting any task at all. Instead, she performed tasks for which she was ultimately not responsible. We often know the first step in completing any task, but instead of taking that step and figuring out the next one, we tell ourselves that we are confused. This “false” confusion leads to procrastination or all-out avoidance.

In order to be effective assistants, we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves about perfectionism and reflect on ways that perfectionism affects us. Living in denial will only exacerbate the issue. The freedom I have felt since I became honest with myself about my fears has truly been amazing!!!

As I mentioned at the top of this post, next week we will be discussing the difference between perfectionism and excellence, and why excellence is a fantastic alternative. I will walk you through how to choose an excellence mindset over perfectionism.

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