I think all solopreneurs struggle with perfectionism in some area of their business. This might be choosing the right words for a blog post or obsessing over the perfect font for a website. Most of these issues are not critical for success and suck up a lot of time. Do you really think that that your expertise will be in question because you used the word “grapple” instead of “wrestle” in your blog post? Or that someone will not work with you because your website font is Libra Sans instead of Alleron Regular? Or It seems ridiculous but many of us get stuck in these non-crucial decisions.
What is perfectionism?
According to Psychology Today, “perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. When healthy, it can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success. When unhealthy, it can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness.” (Source)
Recently I had an opportunity to confront my perfectionism as I watched my daughter make crate mattresses for her two dogs. She purchased a mattress topper, cut out the appropriate sized doggie mattresses, and spent an entire day sewing beautiful, zippered covers that were a work of art. Of course I wanted my dog to have an equally lovely mattress cover, but I knew that it wasn’t a good use of my time — plus I hadn’t sewed anything with a zipper since the 1980s! Instead I found an unused pillow sham in the linen closet that fit her crate perfectly. I had an almost-as-lovely cover – for zero effort. Thankfully my pup doesn’t have an Instagram account and nobody will know the difference!
Perfectionism is not bad when it is used at the appropriate time. I would hope that my plumber, tax accountant or knee surgeon would strive for excellence in their work. Problems arise when we apply the same standards to less crucial tasks such as vacuuming my floors or taking out the trash.
Levels of Perfectionism
Martha Beck — a sociologist, world-renowned coach and New York Times bestselling author — is credited with coining the quote, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” This philosophy is widely accepted in the self-development community. As I understand it, this philosophy means that a writer should put the same effort into making his bed as he does in writing a book. Or a chef should put the same effort into making her toddler cereal as she does for catering dinner at the White House. We are living in extremely stressful times and I feel like this belief adds additional stress for absolutely no reason.
Instead I recommend following Lisa Van Gemert’s Level of Perfectionism strategy. Lisa Van Gemert is an American educationalist and author of books about gifted education. She breaks down tasks from Level 1 (something that can be done imperfectly such as making the bed or taking out the trash) to Level 5 (something that is critically important such as taking your SATs or properly preparing for surgery). The idea is that you should choose where to apply your perfectionism and not become obsessed with inconsequential lower level tasks. (You can learn more about this strategy in her book, Perfectionism: A Practical Guide to Managing Never Good Enough (page 64 & 65).
Here’s how to apply the Levels of Perfectionism in your business.
Level 1. These are tasks that must be done, but not necessarily done well. This might include tidying your office, deleting SPAM emails, or rinsing out your coffee cup.
Level 2. These tasks require additional criteria to meet acceptable work. It should be done to a certain standard, but there’s more than one way to do it correctly. This might include creating social media posts, resizing images, or responding to email.
Level 3. These tasks require a higher level of effort. They demand concentration and/or practice to get it right. This might include creating webinars on Zoom, editing your podcast, or writing your newsletter.
Level 4. These tasks require more time, effort or skills to complete and failure can have serious consequences. This might include billing clients, making sure that your website is secure, or making travel arrangements.
Level 5. This is a task or activity where something critically important is at stake. This might include filing your income taxes, applying for a grant, or making a big presentation.
The next time you’re obsessing about a task, ask yourself which level of perfectionism is required. If it’s a lower level task, such as taking out the trash, give yourself permission to do it quickly and imperfectly. Save your perfectionism — and your energy — for higher level tasks where excellence is important.