Focus on progress, not perfection

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Heather, is a manager at a publishing company, prides herself on her extremely high standards, even jokingly referring to herself as a “perfectionist,” but she has difficulty meeting deadlines. During brainstorming sessions with her staff, Heather yearns to unearth new discoveries and innovations, but dreads making even the smallest mistakes, putting a damper on creativity. She tends to take on only familiar challenges in order to guarantee that she will excel. Recently Heather noticed she has difficulty relating to and encouraging her subordinates. She longs to be able to inspire them, but finds she can see only flaws in their work.  Since Heather is also self-critical, she is tense and rigid when embarking on new projects, putting a clamp on productivity.

Tyler’s office is down the hall from Heather’s, and she’s noticed how he and his staff consistently come up with innovative new concepts and complete projects before the deadline. Whenever a groundbreaking new endeavor is discussed, Tyler volunteers to take it on. His confidence is truly remarkable. In meetings, Tyler’s subordinates demonstrate self-assurance and an easy rapport with him. When Tyler’s staff turn in reports, the mood is upbeat, almost celebratory, even when they are only halfway to their project’s completion. Heather sees people leave Tyler’s office looking focused, empowered, and energized. She wonders how Tyler can appear to be so relaxed and happy and still be so productive.

Tyler’s advantage is that he focuses on progress, not perfection. Striving for perfection and rejecting anything less can become an obstacle to innovation, creativity, and satisfaction in the accomplishment of everyday tasks and goals.  Focusing on progress will highlight the fact that everyday tasks and goals are actually baby steps on the way to achievement of the highest standards and accomplishments. While focusing on progress we learn to enjoy the journey as well as the destination.  French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said, “Perfection is attained by slow degrees, it requires the hand of time.”

Here are six progress-oriented strategies you can use which will free you from excessive self-criticism and increase your creativity, satisfaction, and confidence.

There is really no such thing as perfection in life. Know that perfection is not an oasis -- it’s a mirage! You’ll never arrive, because it simply isn’t there. Once you realize that everything in this universe is flawed, you can relax and focus on improvement, or progress. You will find that as your confidence builds,  your freedom of thought increases.  You now have lots of “elbow room” to take on new and exciting challenges.

Practice intelligent goal-setting. Determine your ultimate goal. Then set do-able, measurable goals, at definite intervals on the journey, that you know you can reach.  At each of these intervals you can measure progress, adjust your sights, and make changes if necessary. It’s easy to slip into a self-defeating pattern by setting inappropriate goals and standards. If you tell yourself you can only accept the utmost perfection in everything you do, you rob yourself of the joy that comes from celebrating each and every small accomplishment regardless of the result.

At the end of each day, take an inventory of anything and everything you have accomplished, and celebrate it. Progress is not exclusively linear. Be sure to include upbeat attitude, positive thought process, kind words, and generous actions on your list. You most likely have gained character strengths, leadership skills, personal insights, and communication skills during any given day, week, or month at work. It’s a good idea to begin recognizing all of your accomplishments and gaining greater resolve from them.

There is real reward in enjoying the journey and accepting your work without judging it. Perfectionism often creates a cycle of procrastination – the standard is set so high that you find yourself overwhelmed and paralyzed at the outset.  Exercise your non-judgmental attitude toward others as well, regarding everything around you as a work in progress.

Give yourself permission to grow, and to embrace missteps. Some of the greatest discoveries were a result of blunders, or were learned by trial and error. If you stop making mistakes, you stop progressing and learning. Loosen up -- value the process. You’ll find your creativity, productivity, and happiness will increase exponentially.

Never underplay your accomplishments. Banish self-talk such as, “Well, it was okay, but anybody could’ve done that.” That sort of thinking, discounting the positive, can lead to anhedonia, the technical term for diminished ability to find joy and satisfaction in life. Instead, encourage yourself and others around you by recognizing the significance of smaller tasks as part of the ultimate goal. Muster your enthusiasm by visualizing the final result.

Try consistently putting these strategies into play, and you will be surprised as you exceed your own expectations. Constantly focus on progress and learn to have fun along the way. Celebrate each baby step. Pat yourself on the back: turn on the self-approval faucet and let the feeling of accomplishment wash over you. This isn’t complacency, this is stamina building. Success in any endeavor takes time — it’s like a long distance run. If you want to zoom across the finish line at the end of the course, then say goodbye to perfectionism’s unreachable expectations, fear of mistakes, and excessive criticism. Say hello to progress and begin embracing and celebrating it daily. Perfectionism is a deal breaker. Progress is a star maker.

Marti MacGibbon, CADC II, ACRPS, is a certified mental health professional, inspirational motivational speaker, veteran standup comic, author and member of the National Speakers Association. Her memoir, “Never Give in to Fear,” is available on and through her Web site, To find out more, visit her site or call 310 210 4674.


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