Meggin McIntosh is a former professor of education at the University of Nevada at Reno who left academe eight years ago to help professionals deal better with their work life. She has been called the "PhD of Productivity," but a better title might be "PhD of Perfectionism," since often that is what she is treating.
About 80 to 90 per cent of her clients are struggling with a life that is out of control because of their perfectionist tendencies. "They are working themselves to the bone, 10, 12 and 14 hours a day, because they take too many things to that perfect level and are striving for the impossible. They have perfectionism running through their DNA," she says in an interview.
They are high achievers, who have attained a great deal of success in their field, be it business, teaching, or university research. But now their life is out of balance, they know something is wrong, and they can't regain an even keel.
"They have been rewarded for their almost crazed level of striving to be perfect and it's now hard to break. You can't just decide you won't be a perfectionist any more. It isn't that easy," she says.
She understands, because she is a perfectionist too. And although she repeatedly says it's in the DNA, she knows that's technically incorrect. It feels as if it's in their DNA, part of them. But perfectionism is a learned behaviour, probably picked up in childhood, as parents, teachers and others indicated that top performance was routinely expected. "No parent is trying to harm the child," she stresses. "My parents weren't trying to cause the stress that trying to be a perfectionist would create for me." Parents and teachers can give the same encouragement and offer the same rewards to two children with one not picking up perfectionist tendencies while the other is compelled to be perfect.
Perfectionism doesn't just occur at work. It can happen at home, if the family room isn't perfectly clean or an ingredient needed for a recipe is missing and the last-minute substitute seems inadequate. She contends it's irrational to believe that everything we do will be perfect. Marriages aren't perfect. Business deals aren't perfect. Life is a series of compromises, of falling short of perfection.
Usually, it's only in some areas people seek perfection – wanting to look terrific, perhaps, without a hair out of place, or to present a report that will blow away colleagues. Striving for high standards, of course, can be beneficial. But at some point it becomes debilitating and self-defeating. Seeking perfection has brought distress to her clients, they acknowledge in surveys. "It practically makes me weep it has caused them so much pain," she says.
On the Clear Concept blog, she recently outlined steps to deal with your perfectionism, which include:
Know the definition of perfectionism.
She suggests this one: Perfectionism is a belief that work (of any type) that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable.
Know the cost of perfectionism to you in terms of health, relationships, and peace of mind.
"Pain is a great motivator," she says in the interview, so it might help you stop. At the same time, she adds that it is also important to consider the benefits you receive for being a perfectionist, since that's what is sucking you in. One benefit is what she calls "a bizarre sense of control." Graduate students will often fail to finish their dissertation since they lose control by handing it in.
Change your behaviour
Pick one area of your life – professional or personal – where the cost is too great and you would like to alter your behaviour.
Take note next time you are tempted to act perfectly in that aspect of your life.
Do the task, but stop short of perfection.
You can stop well short of perfection or just shy of perfection, but make sure you don't hit the ultimate. Or mess up one aspect of what you're doing. If that memo looks perfect, put in a comma that is out of place. If you look wonderful today, add some clothing item or accessory that doesn't match.
Pay close attention to the results of your failure to be perfect.
"Did your reputation suffer irreparable damage? Did your primary relationship end? Did you lose your job? Did anyone die? Did anyone – except you – notice that whatever you did was less than perfect?" she writes. The world probably didn't come to an end.
Decide whether you can live more frequently with the consequences of falling short of perfection.
Consider whether any benefits flowed from not being perfect, and whether you want to seek those more regularly. Create a list cataloguing the places each day that perfectionism is interfering with your life. Then seek counselling.
She notes in the interview she read somewhere that it takes twice as long to do something perfect rather than at 90 per cent effectiveness. "Some things need to be perfect – a budget for a multi-million dollar grant. But a memo to four colleagues can perhaps be at 90 per cent. So compare what you might do with the time freed up if you only go to 90 per cent. Maybe you can go home at a more reasonable hour and spend more time with the kids," she says.
Want more balance? If you're a perfectionist, it starts with changing that tendency.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter