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Why perfectionism will kill you.

We've all been there; beavering away at the end of a project to realise that there are only 2 hours left until the deadline. You manage to squeeze everything in and your client is happy.

You've done a good job again but can't help wondering where all the time has gone. You'd worked late nights and over weekends, rescheduled time with friends and family, even scheduled more time on the project than you thought it was going to take.

As you sit there, reflecting, you decide the reason things took longer than expected was that you work too slow.

It'd be quite easy to accept this as the reason the project deadline arrived quicker than expected.

I'm going to tell you differently.

While what I tell you may focus on creative industries, the fundamentals can be applied anywhere.

The Problem

Projects seem to take longer than normal, not because you can't work quick enough, but because you can't box your time.

What's one of the first things you do when taking on a new project? Set deadlines.

You set timeframes for your client because you expect information to be provided to you by a certain date. You set timeframes for yourself so you complete the project on time.

Setting timeframes isn't your problem. Sticking to them is.

The deadline for your first timeframe arrives and you think, 'Oh, I'll just spend another 20 minutes finishing this bit off'. Then at the end of that 20 minutes, you're close to finishing so you spend an extra 10 minutes.

You know how it goes. Before you know it, you've spent a few extra hours working on a task.

Why do you do this?

Ultimately, you're never happy with your work. There's always something you want to improve.

The Reason

As creatives, our jobs are to take something and make something else out of it.

We often take nothing and make something. A blank canvas becomes a piece of artwork.

When we do this, we create an emotional connection with our project.

There's nothing wrong with establishing a connection. If you didn't that's more of a worry. By establishing a connection you want to do your best for the project.

We've all heard the phrase 'practice makes perfect'.

Most people interpret this phrase as 'If I work hard, and practice, I will reach a level where I am happy with my work and there is nothing to improve'.

That's not what it means.

It means, 'If I work hard and practice, I will reach the level I set out to achieve when I started. I will be happy with my work, but there will always be more that I want to improve.'

As we work and progress in our ability, our standards also progress. What we see as 'perfect' progresses. I'm sure if you look back at some of your early work now, then you'll realise that your standards have changed. If you produced work like that now for a client, you wouldn't be happy.

No matter who you are, if you're always trying to push yourself to do better, even when what you're already doing is amazing, then you'll always have a small voice in your head saying 'If only I had a little more time.' 'If only my budget was a little bit more we could have done this differently.'

But that's all part of the journey. You have to realise that the little bit of frustration is worth it to reach the end goal.

That feeling of frustration about not being able to achieve your ideals of perfection is called perfectionism.

If you think that an extra day, or month, or larger budget is going to be the solution to the problem, then you're wrong.

The Solution

The first step is acceptance.

You need to understand there will always be a part of you that is going to feel a little frustrated. Not accepting this fact will lead to burnout.

Accept that as a creative, you can do the best you can within the time and budget that you have. It's not going to be perfect, because your ideals of perfection are always going to be above what you can already achieve. (What you can already achieve is amazing!)

No change in time of budget is going to solve the issue. At least money is never the answer.

Once you've accepted this, it's time to set expectations.

Say, 'I'll do the best I can with what I have', and then move on.

That doesn't mean that you should lower your standards, or set unrealistic expectations.

You're not going to complete your whole design process in 2 hours.

What it does mean is that you should set yourself realistic deadlines and stick to them.

If your client is looking at the wireframes on Tuesday, have them completed on Monday.

By breaking down your project and hitting milestones you achieve 2 things.

Firstly, with every milestone you achieve, you feel a sense of accomplishment for reaching that stage.

Secondly, you're not up every night working or rearranging time with friends.

The Outcome

As with everything design related, consistency is key. Being consistent with your deadlines and sticking to them will go a long way in helping you out.

Over time, you will find that it becomes easier to reach your deadlines and even appreciate your work for how good it is.

Although what you've read is focused on the creative industry, the fundamentals can be used anywhere to deal with perfectionism.

  1. Realise your work will never be 'perfect', after all, what is perfect?