Most of the successful people I know struggle with perfectionism. They are brilliant, they produce great work, but sometimes they fall short of getting their work done at all because they fell into a perfectionist sinkhole.
I’m here to tell you: Perfectionism is a trap!
I understand the urge. I experience it myself. Here’s the voice in my head: I’m going to be the BEST instructor! I’ll give the BEST feedback! I’ll be the MOST inspiring! I’m going to seek out ALL the professional development opportunities and somehow succeed at ALL of them!
I set big goals, I hold myself to high expectations, aaaaand…I often fall short. Sometimes not because of myself. One of my secrets to success is, in fact, to apply for All The Things, like jobs and conference presentation opportunities, for instance, and sometimes I get lucky. Mostly I get tons of rejections. But if I didn’t submit tons of applications, I wouldn’t have gotten anything at all.
But often, I fall short because of myself. At the beginning of last summer, I declared I was going to Write A Book! It’s now December. Have I written a book? Alas, I have not. I got wrapped up in teaching, in work, in whatever the heck I waste my time on (ahem, Twitter), and I did not meet my writing goals or make much progress at all.
I didn’t put the time in (apparently I have lots of time to compulsively check my email, though!). I set my goals too big (really? I was going to write an entire book over summer?). I was disorganized and distracted (so many projects! I’ll take a nap instead).
One of the best and most true pieces of advice I’ve received in my career was to commit to work on any given project for at least 15 minutes a day. This came to me from a campus workshop on Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks (this book is fantastic, by the way!). I was new at a tenure-track job, and I was expected to publish multiple scholarly journal articles to receive tenure. Talk about overwhelming. But 15 minutes a day? I could do that! And I did. I published two journal articles and got a book chapter published, among other writing projects. I’m pretty proud of myself. I also did tons of conference presentations. I way overachieved for a tenure-track job which I quit anyways, right after getting tenure.
Apparently I’m more motivated by job requirements than I can motivate myself personally!
I told myself I’d work everyday on my book – I want to write a practical elearning guide for librarians. I know this topic. I can write on this topic. But my table of contents alone got out of control. I want to include EVERYTHING in this book! I want to publish blog posts on this topic as I work on it. I let this project get too big, and I crapped out on working on it 15 minutes a day. There were too many other projects to work on. And so, I achieved nothing.
Now, I’ve scaled my goal back. I’m working on a practical guide to using H5P, one of my favorite topics. H5P.org itself has lots of guides to creating content, but there is no single, practical handbook on what H5P is and what it can do. H5P is an open source project. Anything written on the topic is going to be a labor of love. And I’ve got love for H5P, in spades!
I also reorganized myself using Trello. I’ve been trying to keep up progress on all of my various work and projects using Wunderlist, and it just kept falling short for me. About once a year I give Trello a shot, and this year was no different. Now I’m about a week into using Trello to manage my life instead of Wunderlist. I have a main Trello board called “Daily Grind” that’s my workplace. I have several other boards devoted to single projects, like a video project I’m working on. I set recurring tasks on my Daily Grind board to remember to work on these various projects, and then I will move tasks onto Daily Grind from other boards as appropriate.
I’ve also implemented a Kanban-style system on the advice of a Tweep. My Daily Grind board features an Options list, a Doing list, and a Done list. The Options list is the holding tank for all the things that I could be working on. I place them into the Doing list one or two at a time, and then, when I finish, they go into Done. I use Trello’s Repeat Power-Up to automatically populate tasks like “work on X project for 15 minutes.” I set these to recur every day M-F (like, check on the online classes I’m teaching), or to recur every other day (like, work on a new blog post), or every week (run a report on applicants to our program).
So far, this is working great. Trello is a huge improvement over Wunderlist on the basis of being able to choose what days that tasks repeat, as Wunderlist is limited to Every Day, which gets annoying. I also like moving my tasks into the Done column so that I get a sense of accomplishment and can see that I actually got a lot done in a day. In Wunderlist, my tasks just disappear, and it’s hard for me to recall what I did all day.
I also no longer use Due Dates like I did with Wunderlist to keep track of daily and weekly tasks. I would inevitably not complete a task that was due, and the due date would turn to red, and I would just feel bad about not doing it, and thus spiral into procrastination, wasting my time on Twitter and compulsively checking email to avoid guilty feelings. Somehow this seems easier than getting to work!
Anyhoo. Perfectionism can lead to overwhelm can lead to procrastination and total lack of productivity. Avoid this trap.
Here are some great places to get more advice on overcoming your own perfectionist tendencies!
The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism by Amanda Ruggieri, BBC
Instructional Design-Specific Advice
How Perfection Ruins Elearning, and What to Do About it by Anna Sabramowicz, creator of Elearning Scenario Design podcast
Available on YouTube (embedded below) or via your favorite podcast app (see Episode 26!)