THE BLOG

Hit a Plateau? Don't Let Perfectionism Prevent You From Bursting Through It

05/08/2013 09:07 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013
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We all hit plateaus from time to time.

Bodybuilders and dieters know this well. They begin a new regimen of weightlifting or starvation. For 10 days or so, the results are fantastic, even inspiring. Down four pounds, or up another 10 on the military press. But somewhere near that two-week mark, they hit a wall. The scale seems frozen in place. The strength gains top out. They have, cruelly, plateaued.

Plateaus rob you of success. They make hard work worthless. They turn beginner's luck into sophomore slumps. They can even make you look lazy, dumb, careless, or unloving. You aren't any of these things. You've just been fighting an invisible enemy.

Today, we wanted to talk about a trait that makes busting through plateaus needlessly difficult: perfectionism.

Do you dwell on small mistakes for hours, days, or even weeks after they occur? Are you crushed when someone points out a small flaw in your work? Have you ever spent four hours fine-tuning a task that could have been completed in 10 minutes?

Are you haunted by uncertainty when you finish a task, so nothing is ever feels finished? Have you ever hidden mistakes to avoid hearing one nagging comment from a friend or coworker? Can one negative comment from your boss or mother-in-law throw you into a tailspin? Do the words "good enough" make you cringe?

If you're still held captive by a fear of failure or trying new things, you've hit perhaps the most toxic plateau cause of all: perfectionism.

The quest for perfection is the enemy of improvement. At its worst, perfection is the ultimate weapon wielded by that great cosmic enemy of plateau-busting -- procrastination.

In practical application, perfectionism often takes this one manifest form: It kills beginnings. Perfectionists are incapable of the kind of gray-area compromise required to takes to get things started or take things to a new level. They isolate themselves from new ideas and criticism, eliminating any chance that something new might arrive -- even a happy accident -- that could offer a breakthrough.

The next time you want to start something new, ignore that impulse. Don't attempt comprehensive planning. Learn just enough to get started, and then get started. Then, learn how to do part two. If you're trying to replace the toilet in your bathroom, don't read up on the 47 ways the project can go wrong (plus, there's really only one -- if the new loo springs a leak). Read up on how to pull out the old one, then bend down and start yanking. After you get the sucker out, go back to Home Depot and ask them how to drop a new loo on a wax ring properly.

Let's present a new concept that will serve as your antidote to the plateau of perfectionism: "satisficing," a combination of the words satisfactory and suffice. With every task you undertake -- raising children, painting a Starbucks window, writing ad copy, making dinner -- your goal should be to do satisfactory work that is satisfying to you and its consumers, but at the same time is just enough to be sufficient. Satisficing takes much more into consideration than results: It weighs equally the pain and the process that are required to achieve a result.

You might want to make the best salsa you've ever eaten, but that would require acquisition of the freshest vegetables. If the farmer's market doesn't open until tomorrow morning, and the guests are coming tonight, then you'll have to do with the more pedestrian tomatoes from the corner grocery store. Modern economists and behaviorists sometimes call this more realistic decision-making process "bounded rationality" -- because a "fully rational" decision-making process that considers all options is impossible in the real world, decision-makers simplify by self-limiting, or creating a boundary around their options.

Perfectionists live lives of sameness, wondering why new things never come. Perfectionism is the enemy of good, and good enough. But in an elemental way, perfectionism is the galactic enemy of action itself.

Getting over it is one of the keys to breaking through your plateaus -- whatever they are.

Bob Sullivan and Herbert Thompson are the authors of The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success. With more than 40 years of experience between them researching, writing, and analyzing systems and human nature, their new book helps you bust through the plateaus in your own life.

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