The Ugly Truth About Perfectionism
Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:
- What is perfectionism? Definitive traits of perfectionists
- The vicious cycle of Unhealthy Perfectionism
- How To Replace Unhealthy Ego-Driven Perfectionism With Faith-Driven Ihsan
- How to Achieve Any Goal with Ihsan Using a Simple 4-Part Framework from the Sunnah
- Infographic: Toxic Perfectionism Vs. Beautiful Ihsan
WHAT IS PERFECTIONISM?
To have any chance of beating perfectionism, let’s first answer: what is perfectionism?
Below are a few definitive traits of Perfectionists. See if you have 1 or more of these qualities:
DEFINITIVE TRAITS OF UNHEALTHY PERFECTIONISTS:
- The constant desire to be the best in what you do
- Setting incredibly high, unrealistic standards for self
- Associating your self-worth/ self-esteem to your achievements & level of productivity
According to my research, I’ve come to understand that there are two ways in which perfectionism can affect your performance:
A: Perfectionism can keep you from starting something.
TYPE A: PERFECTIONISTS WHO NEVER START:
The Perfectionist A who never starts would say: “I’d rather do something perfect right off the bat or not at all. I don’t want to do something in a mediocre way, I want to be the best.”
Because of setting a really high bar for themselves, more often than not they will choose the option of never getting started on their dream goals. That’s because before they even started it, they placed a HUGE roadblock between them and their goal – the burden of doing it perfectly. And understandably so, the Nafs says, being ‘out-of-this-world-amazing’ at this thing will take a lot of hard work… you know what? I’ll start it when I have the time or energy.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Although saying no to some things and pushing them for later is effective when setting priorities according to time-constraints, there’s a very fine line between procrastinating on purpose by correctly choosing your priorities and procrastinating from the burden of perfectionism.
MINDSET SHIFT # 1:
You can’t start a new thing expecting you’ll be perfect right off the bat. True excellence takes time. There are no shortcuts to excellence. So if you want to do something excellently, start early and learn fast.
MINDSET SHIFT # 2:
To start something daunting, you can’t rely on confidence. If you lead with courage, confidence will follow.
Now let’s talk about the second way in which perfectionism can affect your performance.
Even if you manage to start the work, it can keep you from finishing the work on time because of unrealistically high self-standards.
B: Perfectionism can keep you from finishing on time.
TYPE B: PERFECTIONISTS WHO TAKE TOO LONG TO FINISH WHAT THEY START
Perfectionist B would say something like: “I’m never sure if what I do is good enough. I keep thinking I need to work harder to make it better. I spend so much time trying to make things perfect.”
Ultimately, the need to finish the work perfectly can backfire: You end up procrastinating and obsessing over the details so much so that you never get the thing done and leave it midway to come to ‘later’ when you could have easily finished the task on time if you had aimed for completion rather than perfection.
Notice how this especially applies to goals that are creative in nature.
MINDSET SHIFT # 3:
Done is better than perfect.
Ultimately, the consequences of perfectionism can be quite concerning.
Unhealthy Perfectionism results in anxiety, low performance, low self-esteem, and discontentment:
- You are getting less work done and wasting more time by procrastinating, or spending way too much time than needed on a certain task.
- The time wasted in the effort of doing things perfectly makes you feel stressed, anxious, and unproductive.
- If you never started the work, started it and left it midway, or finished it but didn’t finish it on time… in any case, you feel low about yourself and are left in stress over missing deadlines.
- If you manage to finish it on-time by compromising on the quality of the work in the effort of prioritizing ‘completion over perfection’, your perfectionist mindset doesn’t let you rest in peace – you are not happy with the results. In your mind, the work could have been much better if only you had more time! This “if only” approach sets in a vicious cycle of obsession and fretting that drives perfectionists to spend hours thinking and planning about their tasks, but never leaving them completely satisfied with the end-results.
- And then from the self-imposed guilt, you go on to set really high, (still) unrealistic standards for yourself next time, maybe thinking “I’ll achieve my goals this time!”
- It’s an unpleasant vicious cycle of procrastination, stress, hard work, and constant dissatisfaction with yourself.
One thing is settled — the advice ‘just get it over with and focus on finishing the work’ doesn’t settle so well with perfectionists who take pride in doing things exceptionally well.
What could be an alternative solution that would win over perfectionists… a solution that’s not so bland as ‘just get it over with’ and employs the perfectionist fibers in their body? Enter – IHSAN.
How To Replace Unhealthy Ego-Driven Perfectionism With Faith-Driven Ihsan
Let’s say Mr. Planner, Mr. Doer, and Mr. Ihsan (how cool are these names?) are each given a task: designing a marketing flyer to promote enrollment in a program. The job has to be completed within 3 days.
Now suppose Mr. Planner is a perfectionist who is too ambitious to settle for anything less than perfection. He expects only the very best from himself and believes that he must do whatever it takes to do this work exceptionally well to stand out from his competition.
He spends hours planning and doing his research because he wants to make sure that he leaves no stone unturned and no margin for error.
He takes out his little leather-bound planner and turns those oh-so-crispy pages ever so carefully so as to not disturb the concoction of divine work that he believes is going to descend upon him if he could just come up with the perfect plan.
For him – it’s all about charting that perfect plan and infusing the perfect details that will help him do an excellent job. So he takes his time lost in the planning part of the process.
He looks up at the time and my-oh-my, he spent a whole day planning?! But he convinces himself that it’s alright… He’s still got two more days. He knows if he plans well, half the game is already over so he’s not at all concerned (even if a nagging thought is eating him away inside – “the other two competitors might have designed a draft already!”). Their work can’t even come close to what he’s planned to create.
He decides that tomorrow he will design the first draft of the flyer.
The next day, he sits and manages to get started on the actual work, but it’s taking longer than he expected!
The second day ends and he’s barely finished his draft. He’s pleased with the work he’s done so far but the reality is starting to dawn upon him – he will not be able to finish this project on time. *oh.dear.God*
He knows his OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Planning Disorder :D) got the better of him.
Maybe he can ask for an extension? If only he had one more day. There’s still so much work left. He is officially freaking.out.now.
There’s this tiny voice in his head that’s saying – if only you had started creating the first draft on day 1 and not wasted a whole day on planning, you could have easily finished this task. No, no. He convinces himself that the deadline was unrealistic and he could have never finished this task perfectly in 3 days.
RESULTS: By day 3, he sits slumped in front of his laptop, in a last-ditch effort to somehow finish at least 70% of the project. He submits a half-completed flyer. The details in the work are spectacular. The work is pretty amazing but it isn’t delivered within the deadline.
Now let’s see how Mr. Doer is doing. He’s all about the action. He isn’t a believer in the whole institute of ‘planning’ and believes that all the time should be spent on the action ground to drive results.
He has no strategy, no game. He plans on figuring things out as the days roll by and will just do whatever comes to mind in the moment.
His way of doing things is somewhat unreliable. Sometimes, he’s able to finish his work on time but whenever something unpredictable happens or the situation changes, he’s not able to adapt fast and has trouble changing his strategy to complete the work on time without compromising the quality — because he has no strategy.
RESULTS: On day 3, he submits the finished work but the quality of design is somewhat mediocre, lots of the details from the contents of the flyer are missing, and the ideas aren’t properly conceptualized.
Now let’s shadow the process of Mr. Ihsan. He has high ambitions for this project. He knows he doesn’t have the exceptional skills required to do an outstanding job on this project but he knows he has potential and if he is strategic, he may just surprise himself.
He also knows from experience that he has to strategically plan the project and figure out the areas of focus that demand his prime attention in the best order of priority.
Then calculate how much time each part of the process will take and divide his time between all the tasks accordingly.
Then double down on the plan and fully focus on giving his best to each focus area.
He decides to divide his energy between planning the process, then executing it correctly, and then spending the remaining energy on perfecting the details.
RESULTS: He not only delivers his project on time, his marketing flyer is exemplary in every way. No major flaws are discovered, the details are astounding and all in all – the job is done in a remarkable way. His work is a direct extension of his character and it easily stands out.
Tell me – how many Mr. Ihsans have you come across? Not many I bet. Muslims who embody Ihsan are like rare gems who set the trend, light up their surroundings, and inspire others to do things differently.
Personally, I’m in awe of these Muhsineen. Wouldn’t you want to be more like Mr. Ihsan? I know I would.
How to Achieve Any Goal with Ihsan Using a Simple 4-Part Framework from the Sunnah
Note how the high achievers of the world, whether Muslims or not, are excellent in their work.
Another thing you’ll find common in them is that high achievers spend a big chunk of their time honing skills that will help them excel in the things important to them.
For e.g. if memorizing the Quran is important to you, you’ll have to make time to focus on the skill of reciting the Quran with proper Tajweed.
Take another example – if you want to become a successful businessman, you’ll have to spend time practicing the art of persuasion, leadership, and management, among others.
For perfectionists like you and me, IHSAN is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We must learn to get there, oh we must. It’s simply a treasure too beautiful to miss.
One important thing to understand is that striving to achieve Ihsan in our work is not an additional burden, rather, it is a means to getting work done in an excellent manner, with the same or perhaps even a lesser amount of effort. Sounds like a fluke, I know, but it’s 100% true.
Here’s the logic behind it: To achieve your goals with Ihsan, you don’t have to spend ‘more’ time or energy on your goal. You can even cut the work time of your project short by prioritizing between the different parts of the project using the 4-part framework of Ihsan.
The following 4 components of Ihsan can be equated to their action counterparts as follows:
- Sincerity of intention = Purify your niyah to please Allah
- Doing it the correct way = Follow the guidelines to be accurate in your work. Don’t find shortcuts or miss important steps.
- Completing the task = Give due respect to the deadline. Finish what you start.
- Doing it in a beautiful manner = Try and make your work as beautiful and attractive as you can by doing it in your unique way.
NOTE: If you feel you’re not skilled enough to do an excellent job on parts of your project, delegate that part to an expert or spend time to learn the skills required to do that part well.
Of course, it goes without saying that not every time you take on a goal, you’ll be able to deploy all parts of Ihsan. In such cases, there are the elements of ‘tradeoff’ and ‘barakah’ to consider.
Sometimes you have to make a trade-off between the 4 different parts of Ihsan and you can still achieve the goal with excellence.
And sometimes you may do a task in a mediocre way but with so much sincerity that Allah LOVES it. He adds a tremendous amount of barakah in it and that piece of work is the best thing you’ve ever done, even when it didn’t follow the 4-part framework of Ihsan.
Truth is – Adopting the model of Ihsan is much more doable, less overwhelming, and more rewarding in every way than taking the Perfectionist’s approach.
Here’s the real hook for perfectionists – you are already halfway there to embodying Ihsan.
You already have an edge over others who are not perfectionists – 1) you are already competitors by nature, 2) have an eye for excellence and 3) give your best to whatever you decide to do.
Maybe you’re a part-time perfectionist… you normally focus on getting the job done but your perfectionist side takes over in certain types of tasks and accounts for you wasting a ton of your time. For e.g. cleaning, planning, design/ art, etc.
In any case – for perfectionists to adopt Ihsan, all you need to do is arrange your priorities the right way and keep a strict check on where your time and energy go when you are doing a task that triggers your inner perfectionist.
Is your time and energy being spent excessively on planning? On fretting over unimportant details that will make only a minor difference? On constantly chiding yourself for not doing things right? On not allowing room for human reaction times and errors? On not having faith that the results will be good enough? On not being satisfied with your efforts no matter what?
Once you focus on the 4 key concepts of Ihsan when doing anything important, you will have indeed won the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! And it is your right to relish it! Regardless of the end result.
And here’s the little secret… More often than not, the end result turns out to be beautiful! 🙂
QUICK ACTION STEPS:
- Note the things that bring out your perfectionist side. For e.g. planning, business strategies, design, etc.
- Ask yourself: will it be important in 5 years?
- Note the amount of time you’re spending on all such things that don’t matter in 5 years.
- Reset your priorities: Ask yourself where can you channel this energy and time that you’re wasting obsessing over things that won’t matter in the long run? Which activities deserve more of your time and attention now? Things that will actually matter in 5 years and will have a greater ROI? For e.g. studying Arabic of the Quran, memorizing Quran, investing in the relationships with your parents and spouse, your business, etc.