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More PsychNotes: Performance, Success and Goal Attainment

Efficiency: Determining the Difference Between Perfectionism and Striving for Excellence
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

The primary problem with perfectionism is that it reduces efficiency. This leads to the conclusion that if you are trying to be perfect in a way that makes you more efficient, then you probably aren't being perfectionistic. In other words, it isn't the striving to be perfect that is the problem, it is whether it interferes with your life. Such interference can occur in several ways:

1) Takes longer to complete tasks. When a person is worried about making mistakes they tend to be slower in completing tasks because they may be excessively precise or need to check their work repeatedly. By doing so, they become less efficient in their work.

2) Causes unnecessary work. When engaged in a task, a person who is perfectionistic may not be satisfied with “good enough” but will find the work ever-expanding. For instance, intending to simply straighten a room might lead to dusting, vacuuming, and washing the windows.

3) Procrastination. When a person isn't satisfied with “good enough” even simple tasks can become aversive because everything leads to excessive work. Thus, a person might put off tasks due to the unpleasantness of needing to be perfect.

4) Avoidance of activities. In addition, the fear of being imperfect may prevent pursuing tasks that could lead to failure or imperfection. Avoidance leads to decreased efficiency because projects and tasks aren't completed at all.

5) Impacts relationships. Better relationships create better efficiency. When I worked in a hospital, taking time to nurture relationships with the support staff improved the likelihood they would help me more quickly when I needed assistance which meant taking the time to casually chat increased my efficiency. Perfectionism would likely cause the opposite. The attitude “I don't have time to chat about their weekend—I need to get my work done” may cause poorer work relationships.

6) Causes poor self-concept. If you demand perfect from yourself to the degree that you feel bad about yourself when you make mistakes your efficiency is likely to be affected. The reason for this is that it requires a split focus to be critical of yourself which means that all your effort isn't directed toward the task at hand.

So, if you try to be perfect but are able to achieve what you want efficiently, you are not perfectionistic. Instead, you are striving for excellence.

What can you do if perfectionism is interfering with your efficiency? I find that just asking the question "Is this efficient?" can lead to greater awareness of when the behavior is perfectionistic. If the answer is "no", then determine how it interferes with your efficiency and develop a plan to address it.

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