There is a little bit of perfectionist in all of us. It varies per individual, but it’s there to some extent in everyone. That little voice inside telling us to keep working on the details until we get them JUST right. And that little voice is really great for a lot of things. It pushes us to do our best. It reminds us to stay on track. It helps us operate at 110%. And it is, no doubt, a large contributor to good grades in school, excellent presentations at work, and any other good product in our life that requires extreme attention to detail. But sometimes that little voice is a dick.
That little voice can probably be a dick in a lot of ways, but for the sake of this article we’ll just focus on two. It can keep us from starting new things or trying to make small improvements in our lives, and it can also make us stress out about things that are already going great in our lives. These two sort of go hand-in-hand, or rather, first it’s one, then the other. Let me explain.
First let’s talk about not starting new things, and not making small improvements. Here’s how that little voice can be a dick. You decide you want to change some aspect of your life. Let’s say you want to eat better. Well that little voice tells you, “You need to cut out the fats and sugars. No more soda. Stop eating bread. No more processed foods. No ice cream. No beer (gasp!). No butter. No beef. You are now strictly on a diet of fish with fresh fruits and veggies only. Go perfect, or go home.” Sheesh. That little voice needs to get laid. It wants you to be perfect all at once. Making a small change isn’t good enough for the perfectionist in us, but in fact it can make a huge difference in your life. You don’t have to go whole hog all at once. Take it a little at the time. You could try just cutting out soda at first. After you get used to that you can try cutting back in other areas too. The best way to not accomplish anything (other than sitting on your ass) is to try to do too much at once. Focus on just moving in the right direction. Try to cut out sodas, or eat less beef. Or eat fewer refined carbs or less processed food. The takeaway here is that just because you can’t see yourself maintaining a perfect diet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it a little better. Just don’t go too fast, and when you inevitably slip up, don’t beat yourself up too much.
Now let’s talk about stressing out about things that are already going well. To do this I want to introduce a topic from economics called the law of diminishing returns. In a nutshell, this economic cornerstone says that up to a certain point it is totally worth it to spend time and effort trying to optimize something. But after that point, the amount of work and effort it takes to improve your outcome isn’t worth the extra benefit, and can sometimes hurt your bottom line. From The American Heritage Dictionary:
Law of Diminishing Returns: The tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved.
For example, if you don’t exercise at all, you can get a LOT of health benefits, specifically heart-health benefits, by adding 20 minutes of cardio exercise three times a week. So for 60 minutes a week, you get a lot of benefit. On the other hand, if you are a marathon runner and you run at least an hour day five days a week, you won’t be getting much benefit from adding in those extra 60 minutes a week. In fact, there is some scientific evidence out there that suggests long distance running may be bad for your heart. So you may, in fact, be hurting your heart by adding those 60 extra minutes. At some point, adding an extra 60 minutes of cardio a week stops giving you a lot of benefit. This is the law of diminishing returns at work.
But the perfectionist in us doesn’t study economics. It also isn’t very sane. Let’s go back to our diet example. Let’s say that you have successfully cut out a lot of refined foods, including soda, white flour, and sugar. By almost anyone’s standards that is really awesome! You should be feeling good about how healthy you are, and how you changed your life for the better. But then that little voice rears its head to say, “Well, you never cut out the beer. You still eat beef. You need more fruits and veggies. You aren’t really trying to be healthy, you’re just half-assing it.” Now, that little voice is right that doing those things would make you even MORE healthy. But maybe it’s just not worth the extra effort for the amount of benefit for you personally. I know people who love sweets way to much to cut them out and be happy about it. Or, for me, I am not going to cut the beer out of my diet. Only you get to decide what is “healthy enough” for you. Despite what the little voice tells you, sometimes it’s just not worth it.
Just keep moving in the right direction and eventually you’ll get to where you want to be. As in the food example, if you eat healthier and healthier, sure there are more benefits, but it also takes more dedication. You don’t have to be perfect to improve your life. Just start with something small. You can always take it to the next level later, after you’ve adjusted. This applies to any goal, not just eating better. Even though the little voice has the best intentions, sometimes it’s too uptight. Don’t let it push you into something you’re not ready for, and don’t let it tell you that small goals aren’t worthwhile. Take baby steps, and know that there will be bumps in the road. That’s OK. We were expecting it to be a challenge. Just keep in mind that in every aspect of our lives we should only be looking for progress, not demanding perfection. If you can remember this, your happiness levels will thank you for it.