Perfect is Overrated: Work Better and Keep Your Sanity


Let me state the premise of this piece right up front: Perfectionism is a cancer that can kill  your work and burn you out on your career.

My audience is educators, and I truly feel that we have one of the most important jobs a person can have. We are charged with preparing today’s youth to be thinking and ethical adults in an ever-changing world. We need to be detail-oriented and focused on our work. However, if that focus is placed on overdrive we fall prey to perfectionism and that leads to overwork, stress and eventual burn-out.

Stop trying to be perfect; it isn’t attainable. It’s a myth. In many cases things won’t work out and it will upset you. Sometimes a particular lesson or project just won’t come to the conclusion you wanted. Occasionally your best-laid plans simply will not work.

This isn’t imperfection. It’s called life.

And let’s face it, most of us- teachers, businessman, managers- don’t need to be perfect.

If you spend 10 minutes grading a paper instead of 20, you’ll still be able to help someone improve their writing.

If a given project goes off the rails but your group still has fun and a product comes out of it, a valuable lesson can still be learned.

If you accidentally skip a few sutures during heart surgery…OK, yes, if you’re a surgeon, then perfectionism is OK. Carry on.

So if you feel yourself falling victim to the perfectionist trap what do you do?

The take an inventory. Look over all of the parts of your working life and find out exactly where your perfectionism holds you back. Do you spend an inordinate amount of time in the planning process? Do you takes weeks (months?) getting papers and tests back to students? Do you find yourself teaching the same book or topic for weeks and weeks on end?

All of these are important aspects of your job, but they shouldn’t become an overwhelming focus. Once you know what you have to work on, it’s time to get scientific.

Experiment with limits. If a particular task usually takes you forever because you keep getting lost in the minutia then give yourself an arbitrary time limit and see what happens. Create an A/B experiment and try proving to yourself that you can spend less time and still get positive results.

Let’s say that you have a full set of papers to grade. Split the pile in half. For the first half grade like you normally would. For the second half set a time limit of 5 minutes ( or 4 or 3, whatever you’d like to have as a goal). Decide on 3 things you definitely want the students to improve on and grade for those first. Then move on to other aspects of their writing. When the timer goes off, stop.

See if there is really a significant difference in what the students get from your grading change. In my experience they have a limit as to what they can digest as feedback anyway. A lot of that excess grading never gets through to them. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the job is about them, not us.

Keep the focus on the students. Above all, teaching is relational and that can not be standardized, planned for, or measured. And who are students going to react better towards, a teacher who is stressed out and constantly complaining about overwork, or one who is happy with their job and is generally in a positive mood?

Pay attention to what the students really need from you. No one will really care if your bulletin boards are a mess, or if an elaborate lesson turned into a two-day mini project. They will care if you are irritable and overly demanding because you have placed too much pressure on yourself to be the perfect teacher.

Remember, your students are not perfect and neither are you. You can take small steps as long as you keep moving forward. Keep your sanity and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.