If you’re ready to cure your ADHD perfectionism so you can be productive and do what’s essential to you, here is the strategy you need to use to do that.
- Perfectionism is a habit.
- Striving for perfection contributes to your overwhelm and gets in the way of reaching your goals.
- Using the strategies I share in this podcast can help you get rid of this roadblock.
- When Planning Is Overrated for Adults with ADHD
- ADHD & 5 Ways You Can Use Self-Talk to Stop Procrastinating
- 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Managing Your ADHD
It’s impossible to reach perfection. So why do you, an ADHD adult, even try, especially when it gets in the way of reaching your goals. And, moreover, how can you stop being a perfectionist? Ready to see how?
You’ve tuned into Scattered, Focused Done – Reimagining Productivity with ADHD, a podcast for ADHD adults like you who want to learn how to adopt the best strategies, tools, and skills, to be able to get your essential work done in a way that works with the way your brain is wired. I’m Marla Cummins, and I’m glad you decided to join me today on this journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD. So you can get what is important to you done without having to do it like everyone else.
What is perfection? How do you know if you’re a perfectionist? What does it look like when you’re trying for perfectionism? If I’m going to dive into this topic, it makes sense to get the definitions out there, right?
So of course, I went to the dictionary. And, according to Merriam Webster, perfection is freedom from fault or defect, an exemplification of supreme excellence, an unsurpassable degree of accuracy or excellence. And a perfectionist is someone who strives to achieve this state. I don’t know about you, but that didn’t really help me. I say tomato, you say tomahto. Sure, if it’s something concrete, something you can see like a painted wall, you might be able to not equivocate. Either it’s perfectly painted or it’s not. But I bet, when you’re striving for perfectionism, it’s often not about something like a painted wall, right? It’s writing the perfect email, facilitating the perfect meeting, presenting the perfect lecture. That’s where it can get really confusing. So, let’s go back to the definition of perfection. It’s freedom from fault or defect. Huh. Supreme excellence, an unsurpassable degree of accuracy or excellence.
The first question that comes to mind for me is who’s the arbiter of this. Somebody can always find fault in something you do, no matter how hard you try, right? And it’s not because you didn’t do really well, but rather because it’s subjective rather than objective, like a painted wall. Remember, we can all see a perfectly painted wall, but we won’t all agree on whether an email is perfectly written.
So, if perfection is unattainable because it’s an illusion, what is the point in striving toward it, right? And, if you can’t reach perfection, what do you want to work toward? If you want to strive for excellence, how do you do that? Alternatively, if you want to work towards doing, well, just good enough, how do you do that? Before trying to answer these questions, let’s take a deeper dive into looking at what drives a perfectionist.
First, you know a perfectionist is someone who is unyielding in their pursuit of unrealistically high standards. While you kno, you can’t be perfect, it may be hard to give up this habit, in part, because, just as it’s hard to know what perfect looks like objectively, you may really have a hard time knowing whether your standards are unrealistically high. Let’s look at two examples to see how you might be able to figure this out.
Let’s take the example of an entrepreneur. If he successfully built multiple businesses, setting a goal of building a six-figure business in one year may actually be pretty reasonable. But, if you’ve never had your own business, never built your own business, trying to get a six-figure business up and running in one year may, well, be an unrealistic really high standard. Let’s take another example. For someone who runs regularly preparing for a 5K in a month, may be, well, realistic, doable.
But, if you’re still laying on your couch and you don’t run at all, getting ready to run a 5K in a month may be, yes, an unrealistically high standard. So, whether a standard is unrealistically high or not depends both on your personal capacity and the context. If you’re a perfectionist, of course, there could be a whole host of reasons you hold you hold yourself to such unrealistically high standards. For one, it might just be that you really don’t know or haven’t decided that your standards are unrealistically high. Maybe you just think that, well, that’s what you need to do to be successful.
It might be that you realize you’re pushing yourself hard, but you’re really responding to your actual or perceived failures over your lifetime, some of which may have been byproducts of your ADHD challenges. So now you just really want to get it right – you want to prove yourself.
And so you continue to be a perfectionist in part because you think others will value you if you’re perfect. And, likewise, maybe you only value yourself if you think you’re perfect. You might even rationalize this behavior by telling yourself it encourages you to set high standards. You don’t want to set the bar too low, right? Now, there’s nothing wrong with setting the bar high and attempting to excel as long as you also have the flexibility to alter your plans and goals along the way if they seem unrealistic. But perfectionism doesn’t allow you to be flexible. In this black and white way of thinking either you reach the high standard you set with the exact plan you created or you’re a failure. The perfectionist mindset doesn’t allow you the cognitive flexibility you need to reevaluate and change course, as needed.
In fact, perfectionism is one of the chief roadblocks to being productive, doing what’s essential to you. Because it will always be this unyielding taskmaster that prevents you from really being creative in how you make decisions about how you want to live your life in the various contexts you find yourself. Because you’re just spending way too much time trying to meet, yes, these unrealistically high standards. You don’t like when others force you to do something a certain way. So why do you force yourself, right? It doesn’t make sense. Okay, I think I’ve made my point that perfectionism is an illusion, doesn’t exist and it doesn’t work and will get in your way.
Are you with me on these points so far? Then let’s get on with seeing how you can change this mindset and the accompanying behavior. One of the reasons to stop being a perfectionist is that it will really allow you to participate in activities and reach your goals, the goals that you currently might not even attempt because you can’t do them perfectly.
And, like most people, you probably find you’re a perfectionist in some contexts and not in others. But, when you are willing and able to reset your standards, you might be able to take pleasure in an activity like:
- playing in an adult soccer league even if you no longer play like you did in high school.
- work toward a goal like creating a six-figure business in a realistic timeframe, given your previous business experience.
- make mistakes along the way and chalk it up to, “That’s the way I’ll learn and I’ll eventually do better when I know better.”
- enjoy an endeavor that you might not really excel at, such as running a 5K.
- and you’ll be able to approach all of these activities with a mindset of I’m just experimenting without a lot of attachment to having a certain outcome.
So, let me ask you this. Where’s your perfectionism preventing you from engaging in activities you might enjoy and also preventing you from pursuing goals that you’ve dreamed of. As you start this journey, it’s important to remember, as with all habits that you’d like to get rid of because you know they just don’t serve you anymore, it’s probably going to be hard to unlearn your perfectionist habits. So, please, don’t be surprised when you experienced some friction, maybe even a lot of friction along the way. Yes, I know you want to stop being a perfectionist.
But, whether you’re aware of it or not, on some level, you’re likely carrying around certain beliefs that there are benefits to this way of thinking and being. And to counter this resistance to changing your perfectionist tendencies, you’ll really need to bring these beliefs to light so that you can look at them and see how they’re getting in your way.
One way to do this is to weigh the consequences, costs and benefits of perfectionist by asking yourself four questions. The first question is: What are the negative consequences of my perfectionism? Maybe you decide that you just can’t relax or maybe you give up too easily. So you want to look at what these negative consequences are for you. The second question you want to ask yourself is: What are the positive consequences of my perfectionism? Maybe you think that it really drives you to work hard.
The third question to explore is: What benefits do you expect to receive if you’re willing to loosen your standards, give up your perfectionism. Maybe you think you’ll get more balance in your life or more time with family and friends. I don’t know. The fourth question that’s worth exploring is: What do you expect the cost might be if you loosen your standards. Maybe you’re worried that you won’t achieve your goals if you don’t hold such high standards.
As you think about how you answered these questions, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your readiness to move away from perfectionism now? If you’re ready to temper your perfectionism, the best way to do this is, well, by practicing adjusting your standards in whatever context you find would be most useful to you right now. I’ll show you the example of Bob who really wanted to adjust his perfectionism, his high standards at work. The first step he needed to was to choose an area. Bob chose work. But then the second step was he needed to identify a specific behavior around perfectionism that he wanted to change. Bob chose emails, because it was taking up an incredible amount of his time and energy. In fact, he spent 20 to 30 minutes crafting several emails each day.
He agonized over his word choice. He would answer questions that they didn’t even ask and concerns. he thinks that they might have. He kept on asking himself, well, what if, what if, what if. So, really, he included everything, and, as my sophomore English teacher said, the kitchen sink, when it came to his emails. It was just too much. In any case, the third step that Bob took, and that you’ll need to take, is to adjust your standard for the particular task. With regard to Bob’s email, he thought initially that, whether written or verbal, that all of his communication had to be polished and demonstrate he’s an expert in his field. So, he changed that standard.
And he decided that the purpose of the email was to be clear in his communication and share only what is necessary and will add value. And then people can always ask questions, if they want more.
The fourth step is you need to have an execution plan. So how are you going to execute on the adjusted standard? In Bob’s case, he decided to set a timer and spend no more than 10 minutes on most emails. Sure, there were some that he had to spend longer on. But most emails he thought he could do in 10 minutes. He would check it over, make sure it was clear, make sure he answered all the questions. Then he would send it. If they needed more information from them, he would schedule a phone conversation, rather than emailing again. And he decided he would give this experiment a try for two weeks. And then reevaluate and see how it was working out.
I know you already know that this perfectionist habit that you have is going to be hard to shed, for sure. Well, because it’s a habit. But I think the other thing that’s really important to remember is that, as you’re practicing, you’re likely going to hear from your own internal critic, shouting from the highest peak, “This is not good enough!”
While you shouldn’t be surprised by this and I think you’re probably not, you do want to be prepared to send these pesky critics on a nice long trip, maybe to the Bahamas, if you’re going to have any chance of tempering your perfectionism. Sure, you may have people in your life who are critical of you, and you’ll want to learn how to deal with them. But, remember, your worst critic is probably you, yes, you. Here are some messages Bob was sending himself:
- Only lazy people don’t spend time composing their emails.
- Short answers would show I don’t care.
- If I don’t add a lot of detail, they’re going to think I don’t know what I’m talking about.
- And this last one. I can’t take a break until I get all these emails done.
Messages like these contributed to keeping Bob’s perfectionism going.
So, Bob practiced replacing his old messages with new ones, such as:
- A short email response is better than no response at all.
- Second one. They just want an answer and don’t want to wade through a tome to get to the point. If I don’t include something and they have questions, they’ll ask.
- And this last one. If I spend less time on emails, I’ll have more time to work on my important projects and I can get home sooner.
So, what is the negative self-talk you have that’s contributing to your perfectionist habit? How can you change that self-talk so it will support your efforts to set realistic standards in whatever context you’ve chosen to tackle. Okay, if you’ve gotten this far in the podcast, you might be raring to go. But remember trying to make too many changes at once is a sure set-up for failure. So, choose one area where you’d like to work on your perfectionism. Is it at work, a sport, school or something else?
And, please, think of the process as an experiment. Like most experiments you will likely have to return to the lab again and again before you are satisfied with the results. If your perfectionism is too entrenched to try a addressing on your own, you may also want a lab partner to help you out, such as a therapist or a coach. Once you set appropriate goals and standards for yourself, you’ll have an easier time achieving your goals. Really. It’s true. And I bet you’ll also experience more of a sense of fulfillment, rather than feeling frustrated and blaming yourself for not doing things well, perfectly, which is after all impossible. Are you ready to give it a try?
That’s it for now. I’m really glad you joined me and as always stayed until the very end. If you’re interested in learning more about my work with adults with ADHD, please check out my website, marlacummins.com. Of course, if you’ve learned a thing or two from today’s podcast, which I hope you have, please pass along the link to anyone else in your circles, you think might also benefit. And until next time, this has been Scattered, Focused, Done. And I’m Marla Cummins, wishing you all the very best on your journey to Reimagining productivity with ADHD.