As assistants, managing details to ensure things run smoothly is a big part of what we do. We take pride in our detail-oriented nature as it relates to all that we produce, from professional email correspondence to travel arrangements to company-wide projects and initiatives. We are the doers and the boots-on-the-ground, working “in the weeds” while simultaneously holding a 10,000-foot view.

BUT, what happens when our detail-oriented nature crosses the line into perfectionism?

Have you ever spent 45 minutes wordsmithing an email? How about 2 hours researching the “perfect” restaurant for a critical lunch meeting? I know I’ve been guilty on both accounts. 

There are so many pitfalls that accompany perfectionism:

  1. Loss of the big picture. When we are fixated on producing a “perfect” result all the time, we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture.
  2. “Perfect” is a moving target. What is perfect for you may not be perfect for your executive or colleagues.
  3. We are more likely to operate out of a place of fear and anxiety. We tend to fixate on not making mistakes or disappointing others, never taking risks that could move us forward in our careers and provide us with greater work satisfaction.
  4. Perfectionism robs us of so much, not the least of which is productivity.

It is this last point which I’d like to drive home. Think of all we could have accomplished in the 45 minutes it took us to craft that “perfect” email. 

Meticulous & Detail Oriented or Obsessed Perfectionist?

I have had to work very hard at defining for myself the line between being meticulous or detail-oriented and an obsessed perfectionist. With my website and blog, WholeAssistant.com, I’ve had to let go of typos and imperfect grammar to allow myself to be a more effective blogger. My day job (also my passion) as a full-time assistant coupled with my commitment to having a happy and strong family life leaves a limited number of hours per week to spend on Whole Assistant. If I were to get too obsessed with everything being “perfect”, I would never write or produce anything. Ever. 

Unfortunately, this has resulted in occasional typos which well-meaning friends and colleagues will bring to my attention. I kindly thank them for their feedback, but I’ll let you in on a little secret… I. Don’t. Care. I’ve had to let my perfectionist tendencies fall by the wayside to get ideas and strategies out in the world that will actually, I hope, help my fellow assistants live happier more fulfilled lives. 

I didn’t make this decision flippantly. I know some people will only listen to what I have to say if it’s packaged correctly. At some point, I had to realise these people are probably not meant to be a part of my audience or tribe, and that’s okay! I’m much more interested in catering to assistants who aren’t afraid to put themselves out there, even if that means making occasional errors. I also hope that Whole Assistant will inspire other assistants to step up and share their ideas and strategies as well; without fear of having to say everything perfectly. 

Of course, this looks a little different in my work as an assistant. Catching typos and errors is a part of the job. This brings me to the first significant mindset shift I would like us all to consider.

It’s Okay to Adjust Our Level of Detail to the Circumstance

No, really, it is okay! Not every task requires or calls for the same level of weight or detail. We need to ask ourselves, “Given the big picture, does this matter?” Sometimes the answer is absolutely yes. Examples of such situations include making any reservation, data entry, or anything dealing with money. 

Frequently the answer to the question above is probably not. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve found myself or my fellow administrative professionals sweat the small stuff. Nobody’s going to remember the china I picked out for that event or whether I choose white or eggshell napkins. Think about what they will remember and invest your time and energy in those things.

If you are anything like me (a recovering perfectionist) you are probably thinking, “Okay Annie, but I care about the china and the napkins.” To this, I say, good! It’s good to care about these things, just not to the point of perfectionism. It will be hard for us to operate at optimal productivity if everything must be perfect all of the time.

Trade a Perfectionist Mindset for an Excellence Mindset

I love Webster’s definition of excellence: the quality of being very good of its kind: eminently good.

Which differs significantly from Webster’s definition of perfection: freedom from fault or defect.

I find it fascinating how the words used in the definition of perfection are in and of themselves negative — freedom from fault and defect. I don’t know about you, but the use of the words fault & defect invoke a tinge of anxiety in me just reading them! We could spend an excessive amount of time seeking freedom from fault or defect (perfection) only to fall short because perfection is quite often a moving target.

On the other hand, excellence (the quality of being very good of its kind: eminently good) has no negative connotation or association. By definition, excellence is very good! To do your work with excellence means to create a fabulous result without the pressure of creating something perfect.

I know for myself that loosening the grip on “perfect” has freed me up to be more productive and accomplish more in my days. I find I go through my days calmer and more self-assured because things no longer have to be perfect all the time. Operating from the mindset of excellence (B+ to A- work in my mind) has led to more trust from my executive and increased levels of responsibility. I suspect this is because, whether he’s aware of it or not, the energy I give off is increasingly calmer and more self-assured.

Letting Go of Fear of Failure

Fear of failure perpetuates perfectionism, which results in a myriad of negative things, including decreased productivity. We’ve been conditioned to believe a mistake is the worst thing that can happen because our mistakes will lead to others’ disappointment in us. What if instead of fearing our mistakes, we shifted our mindset to embrace them as opportunities for growth? With every mistake, we get an idea of what didn’t work. This information is invaluable! 

Take Thomas Edison, for example. When asked about all the failures he had with his lightbulb, he said, “I have not failed, I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Can you imagine if Edison had been a perfectionist and afraid of failure? Who knows how long it would have been before the lightbulb was created. Instead of avoiding mistakes at all costs, let’s get curious about our mistakes and what we can improve for next time.

When we release the fear of missing the mark, we are allowed to go through our days focused on more positive and productive thoughts, including what we can contribute, along with new and innovative ways of approaching our work and life as a whole.

Moving past a perfectionist mindset to achieve increased productivity

This post is written by Annie Cromer, Founder of Whole Assistant. Annie will be speaking at the Virtual Summit in September 2019

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