A tool or two that helped me get passed perfectionism and vision burnout.

By Thomas Cornish

Some are consumed with the vision and the bigger picture; some are hampered by a continual striving for unobtainable perfection. Both strategies often leave their hosts without having achieved what they set out to do.

Predominantly attending toward the vision has its benefits. For instance, it provides us with meaning and a purpose that continually drives us through the discomfort that a task-at-hand may bring. Although it provides this power, a person consumed with just the vision will only be able to work off an abstract idea. There are no tangible goals on the path toward achieving a vision if all that is conjured is the big picture. This leaves some burnt out, as the idea in mind is simply too large and progress toward too slow. This leaves us feeling as though we haven’t achieved anything, even when we are taking large strides to a vision becoming noticeable. Continually vision seeking leaves us overlooking the smaller but prerequisite triumphs that function as fuel along the road.   

Perfectionism is capable of providing us with a high standard of work – ensuring quality in everything we produce. It can, however, often prevent us from beginning the journey to achieving a vision. It is almost the inverse to vision seeking, in that perfectionism often causes us to fear producing a piece of work that isn’t exquisite – inhibiting us from even starting – whereas vision seeking propels us to begin but burns us out after the initial honeymoon period.   

I, personally, am plagued with perfectionism-syndrome. I often notice my narrative talking me out of beginning projects, as I feel the very strive for perfection can be exhausting. I find it hard to settle with subpar now and great after an edit later – simply because I want it perfect from the very first outing; which is, of course, an unrealistic proposal.  The natural question, then, is how do I overcome this to produce anything?

I recently completed my master’s dissertation (still yet to receive marks back), with the majority being completed just a few days from the deadline. Long story short, it would’ve been completed much earlier had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic forting my original study, compelling me to revaluate the whole project. Due to borrowing a dataset from a lab in Australia, with little idea about it’s subtleties, I had to change the project a further two times (I noticed I was analysing the wrong event replated potential – due to a miscommunication).

Before beginning the massive write up, the perfectionism syndrome gave a visit. I began to feel overwhelmed by the very idea of the work not being immediately perfect, it made it difficult to begin. Not only that, I was also plagued with streaks of unhelpful vision seeking. The vision of completing this massive 10,000-word research project just seemed as though it was a distant and unachievable big picture dream. Please don’t misunderstand, the vision of finally finishing made me momentarily satisfied, but it then proceeded to envelope me with dread and a pinch of self-doubt (‘do I have what it takes to produce this 10,000-word vision?’).  

After noticing the most recent catastrophe produced by this project (analysing the wrong segment of EEG data), I was left with just two-weeks to write the 10,000-words (before the change, I had written most of it, so I had to pretty much write ANOTHER 10,000 words – which incurred its own challenges). With just under two-weeks remaining before the deadline, I had to find a couple of tools to allow me to overcome perfectionism and not fall into vision seeking related burnout.

The perfectionism, or the fear of imperfection, was not going to lead to a high standard of completed work. Instead, it would’ve led to paralysis, ‘writer’s block’ and a blank page. The tool I used to overcome this trait of perfectionism was, simply, a dose of mundane courage: courage to actually take action and begin writing, no matter the standard produced. Sarah Tsing Lou, an author of multiple novels, offers similar advice: ‘when you face writer’s block, just lower your standards and keep going’. Rich Roll, a podcaster with a passion for self-improvement, offers analogous advice to someone with the goal of becoming a good runner – ‘begin with a walk’. Here, Rich Roll is tapping into the same sentiment as Lou: lower your standards to the point that it becomes easier to take action toward something you would like to achieve. Often an idea or goal is so precious to us, we want to (rightly) make sure we deliver it to the world in the most perfect of cradles, neglecting the fact that we actually need to deliver it first.

To not get burnt out by the enormous vision at hand, I had to strim it down to achievable components. This allowed me to stop ruminating about the inadequacy of the little I had written in comparison to the completed vision. When I had completed a manageable component of the project, I felt a sense of accomplishment instead of inadequacy. It also dumbed down any sense of hopelessness I had of achieving the finished piece. This strategy induced a positive feedback-loop i.e. 1) complete component, 2) feel good and 3) be inspired to complete the next component. With this simple component checklist-like strategy, I relieved the overburdening sense the vision initially brought on. The feeling of finishing a 10,000-word research project (with all the trimmings) was too abstract and large for it to be a productive goal. Breaking the project into small achievable goals, however, let me progress and gave me a sense of hope as well as productiveness each day.

Another useful piece of advice to remember when taking on a large goal or vision: do not compare your work to that of others! I intentionally veered away from the master’s watts app group so as not to compare what stage of the project I was on to where my peers were. If I were to know that I was at the 50 per cent mark, whereas a friend was nearly at 90, all the good feelings I’d accumulated from improving on my 40 per cent of yesterday would have immediately been replaced with inadequacy. This would have, of course, been an unfair comparison. Me and my peers are all in different situations, so the only fair comparison you have is literally to your work of yesterday. This rule applies to every context that involves you attempting to improve.

In sum, I managed to complete this massive project (with many setbacks) and subside perfectionism as well as vision induced burnout through 1) lowering my standards and just starting the damn thing and 2) breaking it down into very achievable components – which allowed me to feel good about myself each and every day.

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