Overcoming perfectionism

In the last blog post we defined perfectionism as the tendency to adopt unrealistic or unnecessarily high expectations about one’s standard of work, and discussed how to identify it as a problem for students.  In today’s post we’ll consider a few strategies for overcoming perfectionism.

Like anything that requires changing some deep-seated habits, there is no quick fix to perfectionism.  However, there are changes students can make to push through their perfectionist tendencies and slowly relinquish those unhelpful expectations about their work.

Mindset Organising Students Overcoming Perfectionism - graphic that say perfectionism sets unrealistic expecations!

The student we heard from in the previous blog post who described her perfectionism as “superstitious” understood that her concern to get her homework just right was somewhat irrational—and that it was obstructing her from spending her time on other important things.

Recognising the mental source of perfectionism is an important first step.  Students need to be able to detach their personal value from the value of the work they produce in order to develop a healthy relationship to it. Reminders that “I am more than what I do,” as well as having the opportunity to voice their fears about the consequences of failing (and realise that the consequences are not that bad), can help them adopt a healthier perspective on themselves and on their work.

Practical strategies

As important as mindset is, many students will find that just “thinking the right thoughts” is not quite enough to overcome their perfectionism.  The thoughts need to be reinforced through some practical changes to their habits.

The aim here is not to start producing a lower standard of work, but to change the way that they approach their work so that it will have the same high quality but be completed more efficiently.

Strategy #1: Use existing strengths

A useful exercise to get started is for the student to think through circumstances in which they don’t suffer from perfectionism, and identify differences between those circumstances and circumstances in which they do.

Often students will cite exams as a time when they don’t behave like perfectionists—when you’ve only got an hour to write the essay, all the attention goes to getting it done and there is no opportunity to spend time worrying about getting it perfect. Or students who can be perfectionists regarding their handwritten work may find that they aren’t perfectionists about work they type.

Reflections like these can reveal the student’s best environment for working effectively and suggest ways to adapt their working style to reproduce those conditions.

Strategy #2: Artificial time constraints Organising Students Overcoming Perfectionism - Image that says Don't let great get in the way of good

Time pressure shifts a student’s focus from doing something perfectly to getting it done in time. Consequently, time pressure is actually one of the best things for perfectionists—even if they’ll likely say they hate it!

There often isn’t true time pressure at home in the same way there is during exams, so the student will need to apply artificial constraints to their own time.  By estimating the time a task will take and then sticking to that time, the student will be achieving two things: (1) Learning to make decisions about which tasks are worth more of their time and which are of lesser importance, and (2) Training their attention on getting their work done rather than worrying about the outcome.

It takes practice to adapt to writing under time pressure and it can be very challenging for the perfectionist student at first. But with guidance, encouragement, and a bit of perseverance, the long term result will be a far more efficient and sustainable work process.

Strategy #3: Learn to draft

The process of drafting and editing does not come naturally to students with perfectionist tendencies.  They will often fall into the trap of focusing so much time and anxiety on the very first version they write that they feel like they don’t need to edit it, or that they’ve run out of time to do it.

Learning to draft enables the student to make a start on their work with the freedom of knowing that whatever they are doing now is not the final product they will be handing in.  They therefore don’t have to worry about how good it is! It shifts the focus from the final product to the process—to whatever small achievable step they are completing at that time.

Students can explore different ways of treating their first go at a new piece of work as a rough draft.  They might want to begin with a fun brainstorming activity which gets ideas flowing but doesn’t feel like “serious” work they’ll be submitting.  Or to start writing, they can begin with wherever their ideas take them, rather than working methodically from beginning to end.

Perfectionism comes in a variety of forms and overcoming it will involve an extended process of trial and error in which the student experiments with a number of strategies.  Progress can be slow, but always remember—focus on small achievements along the way, not the end result!

If your child needs support overcoming their perfectionism, we would love to help—please get in touch.