Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Perfectionism v. Happiness

My beloved former boss always used to scold us as we burnished the last little bits of our projects until the material wore thin: "Perfection is the enemy of done, and right now done is more important." And I would shudder a little bit, avert my eyes, and launch the code. And most often, nothing truly horrible happened, and the problems we did have were easily fixed. Of course, in software projects that last little bit of testing and bug fixing is really the least of the project and most of the critical work was done way earlier during analysis and design. And naturally, I would obsess over analysis and design prompting the inevitable Analysis Paralysis meeting with the big guy.

What you may detect here is that I am a bit of a perfectionist. My older child will tell you that I look over a math test and ask her why she got two problems wrong (not in an unreasonable way -- I just ask her to check her work and figure out where she went wrong, I'm not an ogre). I suppose I should focus on the twenty problems she got right, but that's hard for me.

It turns out that perfectionists can be more unhappy than slackers -- even seriously so with suicidal ideations, anorexia, and other self-harming behaviors undertaken in pursuit of artificial ideals. This Times article about the perfectionism got me thinking about the productivity blogosphere's mania for getting stuff done. While I'm sure that many of the people who are making lists at the altar of Dave Allen are out of control and need help, I suspect that many of the most enthusiastic practitioners are people who were already pretty together.

Perfectionism often makes you see a big problem that requires a big solution (43 folders, plus index cards, special pens, a Moleskine, and a relentless search for the perfect online task manager! Go!) when you really have just a small ripple in your generally well-organized world. Research has shown that the truly awful may not even realize that they are stinking at something like getting things done, and the people who think they are the worst at something may, in fact, be pretty competent. So the more you seek to improve how you apply structure to getting things done, the more unlikely it is that you actually need to improve dramatically.

And yet you feel like you must. Because you are a perfectionist. So you read another "squeeze every moment out of your day" blog entry. You feel guilty when you leave an email in your in-box for three days. You stay at the gym twice as long to make up for the day you missed.

Part of me thinks that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I always say that mental illness is only a problem if it gets in the way of living life, and if tweaking your productivity systems makes your brain happy, then go for it. But if you find yourself paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake or experiencing some small lapse in efficiency, then maybe it's time to pop a 'luude and force yourself to relax.

Now I've got to go sort towels so my linen closet is neat and tidy.

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