Leaving work at work and putting life first

For June, my challenge has been to focus on non-work related activities- hobbies, passions, trips, fun, and relaxation as well as spending time with my partner, family, and friends.

My goal is not simply make time for these things, but to truly put them first. To prioritize them, not just squeeze them in at the end of a long day when I have no energy left. I want to really put work out of my mind when I am focusing on a project or hanging out with friends and family, which I will be doing for the first time since COVID next week!

A short rant about work-life balance

Personally, I don’t want “work-life” balance. For this month, and ideally all the time, I want life to come before work. It should be way more important, not equally balanced with work. It is LIFE after all!

Why do we put the word “work” before “life” anyways? Why not life-work balance? Okay rant over…

Strategies

Here are some strategies that I have found online and am working on putting into place this month:

  1. Keep early mornings to yourself: I really like this one and have already started doing it in my new job. In fact, I am writing this post before work! I used to start work at 6:30am because that is when I am up and most productive…but why should I give my best hours to work? I plan to explore different ways to spend my mornings this month and see what works for me.
  2. Create a long commute: Having a transition time after work can help to mentally transition away from it. Since I am working from home, I don’t have a commute. But I can create one by going for a long walk after work or sticking to some type of transition routine.
  3. Mindfulness: When talking about living in the moment and not thinking about work, how can I leave out mindfulness? This may need a whole month of it’s own, but I definitely will work to incorporate it throughout the month. I am working through a series on Insight Timer called “Mindfulness Daily At Work.” It helps me decompress in the middle of the day and manage my anxiety. I also want to pick up a habit of meditating at the end of the day to transition away from work.

Hobbies and personal finance

Since I’ll be spending this month focusing on my hobbies and time spent outside of work, I want to address some financial considerations that come along with this. Often when talking about hobbies, I think there tends to be an assumption that you need to spend money on them.

I had that inclination as well. I thought about getting back into an expensive sport I used to do in high school. I also thought it would be fun to try dance lessons. But it’s really not about just finding these exotic, expensive hobbies. There is so much that can be done for free (or very frugally)!

Once I started thinking about the things I am already doing, I realized that was more than enough to fill my time. I have been diving into these things.

It’s not about seeking out fancy new things to try but more about the mindset around how I spend and prioritize my time, putting activities and time spent with loved ones ahead of work.

What kind of hobbies do you have and how do you make time for them? I would love to hear any tips for leaving work at work and enjoying time off!

-M

Unlearning “nice”

Happy June! I cannot believe how fast this year is going by. I have now completed five months of my project to unlearn ambition and challenge productivity culture. For May, I focused on addressing my people pleasing—both at work and in my personal life.

The link between people pleasing and achievement

Over the past few months, I have come to realize that my issues around achievement and productivity in many ways stem from a desire to please and impress others.

People pleasers are often also overachievers, have a strong need for control, and suffer from perfectionism.

Because of my people pleasing tendencies, I find it incredibly difficult to say no to projects and become anxious that I may be “disappointing” people. I care so much what my coworkers think about me. I want them to think I am smart, productive, helpful, nice, competent…the list goes on. In social settings, I take responsibility for the entire situation. I do everything I can to make sure that things go smoothly and remain conflict-free.

Small wins

  • Boundaries, baby! In January, I wrote about setting boundaries at work and how I would often feel guilty for not being constantly available. By focusing on my people pleasing this month, I have started to overcome this even more. It also is a little different at my new job where there is a much better culture around work-life balance (another win for my unlearning ambition journey)! I am starting to really internalize that I don’t need to be constantly available. All I need to do is work my 40 hours, put in the effort that I see as needed, and enjoy the rest of my time off. I don’t need to go above and beyond to impress anyone.
  • Chores. In my personal life, I took a major step to address people pleasing in my relationship. Over the past few years, and definitely accelerated by COVID (being home all the time) we have somehow settled into a pattern of my taking on all household tasks, even though both my partner and I both work full time. In the past, it would take all I had to ask for help with something, and then I would feel so guilty. (This may have its routes in a previous unhealthy relationship…but that’s another story for my therapist). I came up with a lot of excuses for why this was happening… well, it’s my fault he doesn’t clean because my standards are too high for cleaning. He won’t put the dishes away in time and the kitchen will get dirty. I’m a better cook. I’m a better planner…and it’s my fault because I have control issues… and on. This month, I stopped making excuses, sat down, and typed out a list of all the household tasks. I categorized and color-coded them, and we discussed, reassigning tasks so that things could be more equal. It has been tough to refrain from doing more work, but I have been getting better every week. I keep telling myself that I don’t need to feel guilty for asking someone to do simple tasks that are part of being an adult.  The dishes still sit clean in the dishwasher longer than I would like, but l feel so much better knowing that we have a more equal partnership.
  • More small experiments. A few other small wins have resulted from some small experiments, something I wrote about in March when I was working on my perfectionism. Essentially, these are low-stakes experiments to combat the behavior or anxiety you have. I had a great opportunity to practice not being a people pleaser when we were out for a meal and the food came with the wrong side. I don’t know what came over me but I just blurted out, “oh actually we ordered tater tots.” It was no big deal at all, the waiter quickly apologized and brought out the tots (and we got to keep the mistakenly sent sweet potato fries, win!). It seems so small but this was so out of character for me, especially to not hem and haw and overthink exactly how to say it without insulting them. My partner was shocked, he said he really couldn’t believe I did that, it was so uncharacteristic. I really hope to keep it up and transfer it to more high stakes situations in the future.

I would be curious to hear from others who suffer from people pleasing. How does it show up in your life?

– M

When your goal is to have no goals

Hello… I am back! I had taken a bit of a break from the blog, which was actually part of my experiment for April. I essentially needed to take a break from having any goals.

This blog started as a way to document my efforts to “unlearn ambition” and challenge productivity culture. Essentially, I am trying to be less of a workaholic, achievement-oriented person. Each month, I focus on a certain area of my life and write about my experiments, including the challenges I face and what works best for me. In January, worked on setting boundaries, in February I attacked my perfectionism, and in March I focused on building a community of support. 

A funny thing about being a perfectionist/workaholic type is that you can sometimes take your own self-improvement too far. It can become homework, something you obsess over, and can even burn out from. Such as… oh I don’t know…starting an entire blog project around it. I stand by the project, because it is the only way I know how to tackle something. Plus, it keeps me accountable and allows me to share my story. Still, this tendency is something that I need to keep in mind. And for April, I decided to make my goal…not having any goals. No plan, no objectives, no list of things to accomplish each week. 

Instead, I followed my intuition on what I needed from day to day. Because I was feeling a bit burnt out, this meant I did a lot of self-care. However, instead of doing what I thought I should do, I always tried to step back and figure out what would make me feel good. This meant skipping some social Zoom calls (the ones I had tried so hard to attend in March and were super fun, but totally zapped my energy). One week, I realized I really did want to have a Zoom call, but with my best friends from high school who I feel comfortable with and hadn’t talked to in months. Other days it meant watching a few hours of Netflix without guilt, taking a nap in the middle of the day, baths…all the baths, taking a break from blogging, binging true crime podcasts…it all depended on how I was feeling. 

This probably doesn’t sound very radical, but for me, it kind of was. I am the kind of person who typically organizes my life down to the hour, even outside of my work-life. I schedule in walks and meditation. I schedule a certain amount of screen time per day. I make detailed meal plans and rarely eat out. All these things are good I think, and they have helped me be a responsible, healthy person. However, at some point, having your life too organized can become a problem. Only able to think in terms of what you should want or should do, you can lose sight of what you really want. 

It was less of a choice and more what I needed this month. I felt super exhausted from March. I spent that month applying for a new job (which I got and started this month- YAY!) and attending Zooms calls and putting myself out there as my experiment in building more community. I had a lot of fun meeting new people, but it left me very tired and I wanted to make sure I rested a lot before I started my new job. 

My experiment last month was just what I needed, and I would recommend it to anyone who feels in a funk about their routine, or just feels burnt out by themselves. I am back to the blog for May though, and my focus this month is to address my people-pleasing. This has come up both in my work and personal life, and I think it is a large barrier to having a healthier relationship with work and other people. 

I’ll post an update on how it is going soon. If you have any resources or experiences to share, I would love to hear from you! 

-M

Book Review: The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

This month I have been working on building up my community—getting over my social anxiety and connecting with likeminded people. A book that I have been wanting to read seemed like the perfect book for inspiration with this endeavor: Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person. Shonda Rhimes, the writer and producer behind a number of huge TV shows (Greys Anatomy, Scandal) writes about her year of saying yes to everything that scares her.

Rhimes had gotten to a place where she worked constantly and had no time or energy left for anything else in her life. She identifies as an introvert and was more comfortable at home than out socializing with friends or attending fancy award dinners. However, she realized that something needed to change when her sister pointed out that she never said yes to anything.

So, she decided that she would say yes to everything—speeches, dinners, and galas as well as spending time with friends and family and, most importantly, playing with her kids.

I loved this book. Even though it is a memoir, a personal story not meant to be a how-to guide, there is so much to learn from her experience. If you want a snapshot of the book, I also recommend checking out her TED talk. You can tell just by her stage presence how far she has come.

I relate to Rhimes in a lot of ways. I am definitely an introvert and a homebody. Before this year, I was on the path to being in the dark place that she found herself—lonely, working too much, and missing the joy in life. I am so glad that I read this. It is giving me the inspiration to keep putting myself out there. Here are three lessons I took

Give yourself the time to do what brings you joy

Saying yes allowed Rhimes to rediscover what made her happy. For Rhimes, it was playing with her kids. It is different for everyone. It could be being with your partner or your dog. Or being creative, going hiking, doing your favorite hobby. As Rhimes says, it is “the place where life feels more good than not good” (123).

Letting yourself have time for these things is a bigger challenge, but we all deserve to give ourselves our full attention.

“Work doesn’t work without play”

-Shonda Rhimes

I found it helpful when she discussed the mindset shift of moving your priority from what is good for you to what makes you feel good. As a perfectionist, I really needed to hear this. There are so many times, even outside of work, when I do what I think I should do as opposed to what I really want to do.

This doesn’t mean shirking all responsibility—missing meetings, failing to do your taxes, or eating crap and not exercising. Rather, it’s about shifting your priorities and letting yourself have even a small amount of time to be in your happy place. For Rhimes, work is still a huge part of her life, but now, her kids are the most important.

Conserve your energy for things outside work

As I wrote about earlier this month, I am struggling to put myself out there and make new friends because my energy is completely zapped at the end of the day.

There was a Meetup that I really wanted to attend at 7pm last Wednesday. But at about 6:45, I found myself sprawled on the couch barely able to keep my eyes open. I could not fathom the idea of pulling myself up, looking presentable, and speaking to a bunch of new people coherently. I skipped it.

Rhimes writes that she had fallen into the habit of working as hard as she could all of time. This meant that outside of work, she took the path of least resistance because she had no energy left. She kept turning down invitations to socialize outside of work, so people stopped asking her to do things. Her friend group shrunk and shrunk.  This is what I am scared of happening to me. I know I need to do something to change.

Again, it takes a mindset shift. I am still getting there, and it is something I am also talking to my therapist about. How do I not give everything to work? How do I make a shift so I can save some energy for the other things in my life?

If you were reading my blog back in January, then you know I spent that month setting better boundaries around my time at work. This was a HUGE step for me. As often as I can, I am done with work after 8 hours.

It is still not enough though. I need to take it a step further and set boundaries relating to my energy—I need to look more at the types of things I am doing and cut down on the ones that drain me. And just, frankly…work less hard? I am not sure how to do this, but it seems like something that needs to happen.

Get out of your shell

As Rhimes writes, “It’s time to stop standing at the edges of the room. Hugging the walls. Living in my head. Wishing I had something to say.” (167). If you don’t come out of your shell, she goes on, people will start to think that you are your shell.

The only way that Rhimes was able to cure her fear, to overcome her social anxiety, was to do the things that scared her. It’s a harsh reality, but it is true. I have felt the consequences of not doing it over the past year.

Being in a new city, not clicking with my coworkers, having a hard time making new friends, and then of course, the whole pandemic thing… this all caused my social anxiety to spike. Instead of facing my fears, I retreated farther and farther into my shell. And it did not help at all. Instead, social interactions have become more difficult.

Instead, I need to embrace the “badassery” that helped Rhimes gain confidence. As the book goes on, she writes about all the changes that she experienced. People told her that her energy, the way she fills up a room, completely changed.

Mentally, she says, it is about trying to take up as much space as you need to. In therapy, we talk about how I physically and mentally shrink when I become anxious. I withdraw, I hide.

Instead, Rhimes taught herself to shamelessly be the loudest voice in the room– “to not make myself smaller in order to make someone else feel better” (200). She also talks about the time when she first asserted herself at work, saying no to a casting decision that everyone else was in favor of. She was scared of having an opinion different than everyone else. Finally, she burst, and said no. She had never asserted herself like that, bluntly saying how she felt. Once she was able to do it, it became easier in all areas of her life.

I would highly recommend this book if you are having any issues speaking up, making friends, letting go of expectations around work, or are looking at your priorities in life. Even though Rhimes is such a huge name, her struggles and the way she writes are incredible relatable. It may be just what you need to motivate you to make a change.

Let me know if you have any good book recommendations!

-M

Reflecting on loneliness one year into the pandemic

As the somber one-year anniversary of lockdowns related to COVID-19 rolled around this week, I couldn’t help but reflect on this crazy year…and I started to feel down on myself. Really, I should just be grateful to have survived the year. But of course, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that I didn’t handle the pandemic as well as I felt I should have.

Despite all the advice that has been shared about how important it is to connect with friends and family virtually during times of social distancing, I let my social anxiety get the best of me. I rarely turned down an invitation to attend a Zoom happy hour or to chat with a family member, but I rarely initiated them.

I had started a new job shortly before the pandemic and had already been struggling to connect with my coworkers. When the pandemic hit, I retreated farther into my shell at work and didn’t make much of an effort to get to know anyone.

I attended a few virtual meet-ups here and there, but I often made the excuse that I was too Zoom-fatigued or too anxious to attend. When I did go to one and it was super awkward, I would avoid them for weeks after. I also don’t have social media (and didn’t have a blog until this year), so connecting with people online is a pretty foreign concept to me…

It doesn’t help to dwell on the past. Instead, I am trying to see it as a learning experience. I need to accept that we were all going through a massive trauma this past year, and my reaction to that was to retreat into my own head. It took a year, but I am finally popping out.

I can do something different going forward. I still live far away from home in a new city with no friends. Even though I still face anxiety at the thought of reaching out to old friends and about making new friends, I am determined to take baby steps. These feelings have been brewing lately and are why I chose March as my month to focus on building up more of a community. It is scary, but I know it is something I need to do.

So far, my month of building community has been slow going. Unfortunately, I have had a bit of an exhausting month at work. I am also interviewing for a new job, which includes hours of prepping and being “on” for video interviews.  This hasn’t left me much energy to get out there and socialize.

So far, I have started by following other people’s blogs and commenting on them. It has been really cool to find likeminded people writing about similar topics. I also reactivated my Facebook, removed my last name, and joined a few private groups. For years, I have been loyally following a few podcasts, and they always talk about how they have great communities in private groups on Facebook, where people give each other advice. I finally decided I need to bite the bullet and reactivate my account.

In terms of the community I am looking for, I want to meet more people who are living unconventionally, who don’t just want to climb the corporate ladder. I have found a lot of this in the intentional living and frugality spaces. The “slow FI” community also appeals to me. Additionally, anyone who is vulnerable and writes about mental health is very inspirational to me.

I have no idea if any of these online efforts will yield real connection for me… honestly, I am a bit skeptical. But this year is an experiment after all, and I won’t know until I try!

Source: https://themighty.com/2017/10/memes-social-anxiety/

I have continued to attend a book club meet-up, and am looking for more meet-ups with like-minded people. During the beginning of the pandemic, I thought I would just wait until it was over to try to make friends in my new city. But as it has gone on and on and my loneliness has grown, I realized I can’t keep putting it off.

Lastly, I want to make more of an effort to reach out to old friends to initiate video or phone calls. I don’t know why I have anxiety around this. These are people I feel so comfortable seeing in person. I haven’t set any up yet, but I started today with a baby step of sending a group text to some old high school friends letting them know I miss them and hope they are doing well.

Taking these small steps has been good for me. I am excited to see what will come of my efforts to connect with new people online, to meet new friends in my area, and to reconnect with old friends.

Have you struggled with loneliness or social anxiety during the pandemic? How are you feeling about the one-year anniversary of social distancing? I hope everyone is doing well out there!

-M

A perfectly imperfect month

I spent this month reading and thinking about perfectionism. I have made some major insights into where it shows up in my life and have learned some strategies and new ways of thinking to help let go of my perfectionist tendencies.

Overall, perfectionism plays a pretty big role in my life. However, it doesn’t impact me in all of the ways I thought.

While February was my month to focus on perfectionism, I realized that one month was only enough time to scratch the surface of it. Still, I picked up three important lessons.

Lesson #1: Go to therapy

This is pretty obvious, but if you find yourself engaging in perfectionist thinking (and you are able), I highly recommend working with a mental health professional. I had been on a waiting list to see a therapist and was able to schedule my first appointment in early February.

With her help, I have started to understand the roots of my perfectionism and how it manifests in my life. I am recognizing that the coping mechanisms I picked up in childhood and adolescence are not working for me anymore and am working to develop a healthier relationship with myself and with achievement.

Lesson #2: Conduct small experiments to gradually tackle your perfectionism

At the start of the month, I tried to think of ways that I could challenge my perfectionism. Since I thought mainly of my perfectionism as something that shows up at work, I tried to think of ways I could practice being less of a perfectionist at work… send off an email without reading it several times or going into a meeting unprepared…? The smaller ones might work, but it still seemed like too big a jump.

Then I read about trying small stakes experiments. For example, I challenged my perfectionism as it manifests as social anxiety (read lesson #3 for more on this). My therapist suggested experimenting at the grocery store or a café. When I was out at lunch, I changed a few details in my order even after I perceived that the waitress was a little impatient. It was stressful at first, but of course it turned out to be no big deal and helped me realize I can handle a slightly awkward social exchange.

I also plan to try some anti-perfectionism experiments unrelated to social situations. One suggested area is trying out a new creative hobby, such as painting. Since it is only for fun, you know that the goal is not to be “perfect” and you can practice being non-judgmental towards yourself. Other ideas that I like are to try improv or a sport that you have never done. In fact, maybe the farther the activity is from what you think you are good at, the better! The idea is to give yourself permission to be imperfect—as you build up this feeling, you can transfer it into other areas of your life.

Lesson #3: Perfectionism fuels social anxiety and vice versa

As I wrote about in my last post, one of the big ways that perfectionism shows up in my life is through social anxiety. I obsess over every detail of every social interaction, blaming myself for being awkward or not confident enough or rambling. Since I have been having a hard hitting it off with my coworkers, I blamed myself for not being more interesting and fitting in better. I am trying to accept that it is okay to not get along with everyone. And it is completely unrealistic to expect every Zoom meeting to go flawlessly when they are almost guaranteed by design to be awkward.

On the other hand, I have also been thinking about how my social anxiety fuels perfectionism. In high school and college, I was so anxious that there was no way I could speak up in class. Still, I needed to get an A. My perfectionism kicked in, and I obsessed over every written assignment and studied like crazy for tests to make up for my poor participation. I still feel like this sometimes, like I have to make up for not being the most outgoing one on the team by doing better work.

And now for March…

This month was challenging, but really rewarding. Letting go of perfectionism will be a life-long endeavor. But for now, it is time to move on to a new area.

I decided to go a little lighter for March and focus on building community. Most of my friends, family, and coworkers are very career focused. I don’t have many people to talk to about my desire to work less and to generally be less ambitious. Since we are in the middle of a pandemic, this may be a bit of a struggle, but I feel it is what I need right now. So, I am going to step out of my comfort zone and try to make connections online (and maybe in person if it is safe). Wish me luck!

-M

Book Review: How to be an Imperfectionist

As I searched for books on overcoming perfectionism, I found that there were a surprisingly small number. I read some reviews, and selected How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism by Stephen Guise.

I can sometimes be a bit resistant to traditional “self-help” books. This book is definitely in that category, however, if you can look past the at-times cringy writing, you can find a lot of great nuggets of advice and strategies.

I loved how the book drew on academic research, but only included a brief review of studies, and pulled out the most relevant information. After reviewing the psychology behind perfectionism, why it is bad, and his framework of “imperfectionism,” he spends the majority of the book on solutions for the five key subsets of perfectionism:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Rumination
  • Need for approval
  • Concern over mistakes
  • Doubts about action

Here were three of my favorite solutions from the book:

  1. To combat unrealistic expectations, adjust them. It’s as simple as it sounds. While it’s good to be optimistic about life in general, Guise recommends lowering your expectations for specific situations. He gives the example of someone who has high expectations for social interactions. They expect everything to go smoothly. So when they have any kind of slip up—saying the wrong thing, sweating, awkward silence—their expectations are shattered. Instead, keep your general expectations high, expect to have a pretty good time. But lower your specific expectation that each interaction will go perfectly.
  2. To stop ruminating, change your self-talk. If you are someone who constantly is thinking “I should have said that differently” or “I should have done that better,” a really simple fix to stop the rumination cycle is to say, I could have said or done something differently. Instead of shaming yourself for your “mistake,” it changes to a simple recognition that you could have done things differently. It is more open-ended and less judgmental.
  3. Lastly, a great strategy to counter excessive concern over making mistakes is what Guise calls the binary mindset. We think of most performance based tasks as analog, or having a spectrum of infinite possibilities. For example, if you have to give a speech, you typically think of it as going from absolutely awful to, well “perfect,” with no stutters, and getting a laugh for every joke. This creates an impossible standard for perfectionists, and you would be crushed no matter how well the speech goes. Instead, Guise suggests transitioning to a binary mindset. For this example, it means seeing the speech as a success if you get up on stage and talk. That’s it. As a perfectionist, I can see this being a really helpful tool to stop overanalyzing every little detail of a task.

One major realization I had as I read this book is how much perfectionism fuels social anxiety. I started the month focusing on perfectionism mainly as it manifests in my work. I was mainly thinking about writing assignments and sending emails. While I knew that perfectionism fueled my anxiety to perform in meetings, I had no idea how much perfectionism was creating anxiety for me almost all social situations (both at work and outside of work).

As Guise explains, people who have social anxiety care deeply about social situations going smoothly. They often “can’t act naturally because they’re so concerned about how they’re coming across, how smoothly and pleasantly the exchange is going, and how something might go wrong.” This hit home for me. I dread any kind of awkwardness in conversations, but it is such an unrealistic standard, especially now that we are working and socializing mainly on virtual meetings!

My one critique of this book is related to my last post, Why “perfectionism kills productivity” is a toxic mindset. Essentially, this blog is all about challenging achievement and productivity culture. This book, along with most other self-help or perfectionist advice, uses the framework that perfectionism gets in the way of being productive. I believe, however, that perfectionism fuels an unhealthy obsession with productivity. Especially for perfectionists, we should focus on different outcomes—meaning, happiness, or less anxiety and stress! Not being more productive… but I will get off my soap box.

I think this is a really helpful book. Despite being in the self-help section, I was pleasantly surprised that it did not fall into the trap of motivational talk. It had a ton of helpful tips and strategies. No matter what subset of perfectionism you suffer from, I am sure that you will find something to take away from this book.

I have spent the month of February learning and challenging my perfectionism. It has been quite eye-opening and more difficult than I expected. Really, I am only scratching the surface of this topic and it will be a lifelong project to be an “imperfectionist”. Keep an eye our for my next article, which will sum up my experience this month.

-M

Why “perfectionism kills productivity” is a toxic mindset

This month, I am working on identifying and letting go of my perfectionist thinking.

As I have been reading about this topic, something I keep running into is a common perspective that views perfectionism as an obstacle to productivity and achievement.

This makes sense—perfectionism is often linked with procrastination. Because perfectionists are so worried about creating a “perfect” product, they put off getting started. They hate rough drafts because they can’t stand seeing an unfinished, imperfect version of their work.

For me, perfectionism can have almost an opposite effect. My perfectionism can lead me to work one something way earlier than needed, because I know I will spend more time overthinking and revising my work.

This gave me an idea. We can think of perfectionism as materializing in two ways—one that drives us to be productive and one that tends to block it. Both are bad. Both are driven by a mindset that we need to be perfect. Both are based on completely unrealistic standards of productivity and achievement.

Either way that you experience it, the mindset that “perfectionism kills productivity” is problematic. In many cases, perfectionism creates unrealistic standards for productivity in the first place.

Here are two articles that come up when I searched for how to let go of perfectionism:

  • Ways to Let Go of Perfectionism and Still Excel at Anything (Huffpost)
  • How to Be Your Most Productive Self: Let Go of Being Perfect (Trello)

In my opinion, these titles are contradictory. Perfectionism is what makes me feel like I need to excel at everything—it is what drives me to be my most productive self!

Here are some articles that I want to see instead:

  • Ways to Let Go of Perfectionism and Your Need to Excel at Everything
  • How to be Your Happiest Self: Let go of Your Perfectionist, Unrealistic Productivity Standards

As a society, we hold up productivity and achievement above all else. We see perfectionism as good if it helps people achieve or produce more. We only see it as bad when it becomes a “block” to productivity.

Rather, we need to see that perfectionism and unrealistic productivity standards are interconnected. Both are damaging and will not lead to a happy, healthy relationship with work.   

The combination of perfectionist and productivity-obsession can affect both individuals and teams. Both perfectionism and productivity are valued by our culture, and can show up in many workplaces.

This month, I have been keeping close track of any time that I find myself engaging in perfectionist thinking. Within only a few days, I had a major realization about perfectionism at work. Not only am I not the only one who suffers from perfectionism, I am not even the worst on my team.

Even when I tried to combat my own tendencies, someone else’s perfectionism would pop up and push me back towards my own.

I already knew that my workplace is obsessed with productivity. Now I realize that it, and probably a lot of other workplaces, has a perfectionist culture. We are expected to get a ton done and do it extremely well. This threw a bit of wrench in my plan for the month. Not only do I have to work on my own issues, but I have to do it in a culture that actively pushes me back towards my own negative patterns.

I will be continuing my experiment in challenging my own (and others) perfectionism through the rest of the month. I’ll check in with more insights and strategies.

Do you suffer from perfectionism or work on a perfectionist team? I would love to hear any tips you have for coping with it!

-M

February—Identifying and letting go of perfectionism

The month of February will be all about perfectionism. Understanding what it is, identifying it, and learning how to let go.

Perfectionism is still sometimes characterized as a good thing. It can be that go-to humble brag answer when asked “what are your weaknesses?”. As more and more people are becoming aware of mental health issues, however, it does seem that perfectionism is finally being recognized as an unhealthy and damaging mindset.

In a lot of the self-improvement space, you will hear people refer to themselves as “recovering perfectionists.” Though I tend to identify with these people, I don’t think I have ever really dug into it more than to recognize that my standards are too high and to joke with other type A folks about it. I keep on setting those high standards, and beating myself up when I fall short.

So, what is the true definition of perfectionism and why is it so unhealthy? What can we do to identify it in our lives and let go of it?

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is commonly defined as the need to be or appear to be perfect. Essentially, it means holding unattainable standards for yourself.

If you are a perfectionist, even when you do something well, you still feel like you could have done better. You beat yourself up for little mistakes. You excessively knit pick your own work, your appearance, everything about yourself.

Brené Brown is the author/researcher who comes up most frequently around this topic and her book Gifts of Imperfection is an easy read that is jam packed with helpful information.

She defines perfectionism as “a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”

To paraphrase the rest of her definition, perfectionism is self-destructive because it is unattainable. At the end of the day, it is about how others perceive us—and we have no way to control how other people perceive us. It is addictive because when we inevitably experience shameful feelings, we believe it is because we were not perfect enough. In reality, these shameful feelings are part of being human. Perfectionism has the opposite effect. It makes this worse—it often leads to self blame. (p. 57).

She differentiates perfectionism from healthy striving and self-improvement. When we strive for perfectionism, we are focusing on what other people will think about us. Healthy striving is when we want to do something for ourselves.

Brené also digs into the roots of perfectionism, which she says often comes from, “being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somehow along the way we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it” (p. 56).

Based on her research, perfectionism exists along a continuum, with some people only experiencing it when they are feeling vulnerable and others having a compulsion for it. Other sources say that perfectionism can come up for some people only in certain parts of their lives, such as at work, around body image, or even in their social lives. Personally, I feel that my perfectionists tendencies are definitely the strongest around my work, however, they can creep into other areas of my life as well.

The challenge:

For the month of February, I will keep track in a journal all the times that I find myself engaging in perfectionist thinking. Through journaling and the blog, I will aim to figure out the line between what is “good enough” and the unattainable perfect standard that I am striving for. Through the month, I will work to reduce these behaviors.

I will report back at the end of the month to let you know how the challenge goes. I would love to hear from anyone who feels they are a perfectionist, or has any tips for letting go of unrealistic standards.

January wrap-up: The life-changing magic of setting boundaries

The first month of 2021 is a wrap! While it has felt a bit like a continuation of 2020, I still tried my best to not fall back into old habits and keep the motivation of a fresh start going.

If you are new, this blog is to document my year-long experiment of unlearning ambition and challenging my obsession with productivity. Each month, I focus on a different strategy or area of my life. For the month of January, I worked on setting better boundaries around my time, specifically at work.

My first two goals were:

  • No working in the evenings or on the weekends.
  • No checking email while not working.

I did both! These were easy wins since I’ve been pretty good at keeping these boundaries in the past… mainly because I’m so exhausted at the end of the day and week, there is no point in working more. Plus, I have read so many studies about how checking email outside of work is awful for you, so I am pretty much off that habit. This month was a good test to confirm that I can successfully avoid these habits!

As I wrote about in more detail at the beginning of the month, I started a new practice of marking my calendar to show that I am off work during my lunch break and after my day ends. With everyone working from home, it has become a lot harder for people to set these kinds of boundaries. I used to walk out of the office, so my coworkers knew that I was done for the day. So on the first day of the month, I marked my calendar and set these goals:

  • Completely logging off (not checking Teams or email) during lunch and after 3:30 p.m.
  • Not responding to texts outside of those hours.
  • Declining meetings that fall outside those hours.

This part was not as clear of a “win”, but it sparked some helpful conversations and I ended up meeting these goals more often than I would have in the past. I also made a lot of progress through the month in feeling less guilty for not being a constantly available millennial.

I did realize that it is important to not be too rigid in setting these types of boundaries. A better approach (and what I did in practice) is to try to stick to them as much as possible. If I couldn’t, then I would find a way to adjust my schedule while still keeping my hours down. For example, If I ended up having to take a meeting late one day, then I would start later the next day to compensate. I needed to be a little flexible with these goals, simply due to the nature of work. However, they were good benchmarks and I would recommend this exercise for anyone who wants to work less.

The first week of January I felt like I had “failed” completely. On the very first day of the month back at work a meeting popped up at 4:30 and I realized it was important to attend, so I did. I was also organizing two major events that week and I ended up working past my stop time every day except Friday. I think I worked about 50 hours. While I felt like a failure at first, I acknowledged that this week was the exception not the rule. For the rest of the month, I logged off on time pretty much every day!

Another major win was delegating a series of meetings that fall in the late afternoon to another colleague. I felt a sting of missing out on these meetings, since they are something I genuinely enjoy. But I had to come to terms with the fact that the timing just does not work for my natural rhythms… while I feel like Wonder Woman first thing in the morning, I am pretty much as productive and coherent as a drunk five-year-old any time past 4 in the afternoon.

How did my coworkers react?

One of the biggest hurdles in setting boundaries at work is dealing with the expectations of coworkers and the general culture of your workplace. I was most nervous about this aspect, but actually found this it was not as big a deal as I made it in my head… I know, shocker.  

Early in the month, I told my supervisor that I had adjusted my calendar and wanted to stick my schedule. She thought it was a great idea and said she would do her best to not schedule any meetings with me when I am not working.

I also had a conversation with the person who I work most closely with (and who I had previously had the most boundary issues with) early in the month. They had noticed the change in my calendar and was curious. I explained that since I start work early, I need to end early. They said they didn’t even realize that I started working so early. I could have sworn I talked about this with all of my coworkers, but I realize that people really do live in their own worlds (especially with everyone at home) and aren’t keeping track of your schedule.

Simply setting hours on my calendar sparked the question and cleared up something that has been an issue in the past. If I had just been honest in the past and said, “hey, I actually try to stop working at 3:30 so I’ll need to get back to you in the morning…” sooner, I probably could have solved this problem a long time ago.

Did anyone get upset with me?

I want to be honest here so that other people know what to expect. Yes, there were a few times that people were looking for me after 3:30 or at lunch and I did not respond immediately. While I interpreted some frustration from their emails/chats, when I looked at them more closely, I realized that I was reading too much into it. In one case, a coworker sent an email at 4 asking if I had time for a quick chat. I didn’t respond, but apologized the next day, and offered to talk when they were available. They were not upset at all and the issue they wanted to discuss wasn’t super urgent.

Something that really helped me with these situations was realizing that it is better to apologize a few times for these types of minor inconveniences than to work in a way that would make me an unproductive, bad employee in the long-term. I heard this given as advice on Cal Newport’s podcast Deep Questions. Over time, people will be so impressed by your performance and level of productivity, that they won’t even think about the times you have been unavailable.

Overall, I would say January was a success. It was a small start, but it allowed me to set a baseline that I will continue through the rest of the year. For February, I am going to be focusing on my perfectionism. Look for a post in the next few days for more on that!

-M