How to Prioritize

You’re Not Perfect, So Stop Trying to Be

Your rigid perfectionism may actually be a symptom of your ADHD. Here’s how to stop it from holding you back.

A panel of judges hold up perfect 10 scorecards, a reminder for adults with ADHD to stop negative thoughts and focus on positives
A panel of judges hold up perfect 10 scorecards, a reminder for adults with ADHD to stop negative thoughts and focus on positives

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is good advice for people with ADHD, many of whom try to be perfectionists. People are always telling us what we did wrong and what we missed β€” “You need to pay more attention in class” or “What the heck is wrong with you? I just told you what to do” β€” so we strive to do things perfectly, hoping to be praised or patted on the back.

Trying your best is always a good idea, but when you spend too much time trying to achieve perfection on things that don’t require it β€” because we yearn for that pat on the back β€” it backfires. We miss a deadline and are criticized, or we don’t have time to do things we said we would do.

Perfection Has Its Place

A good first step in dealing with perfectionism is to recognize when we set our standards so high that we can’t meet them. The result is disappointment, anxiety, stress, a negative attitude, and loss of motivation. If you have trouble meeting your own standards, and feel frustrated and angry, it’s time to set more reasonable ones and be selective when you want to be perfect. If you are applying for your dream job, you want to “perfect” your cover letter and resume. If you are sending out a memo to remind people to clean up after themselves in the break room, a misplaced comma isn’t a deal breaker.

I sometimes get bogged down in the details of a task and worry about doing a good enough job, when the most important thing is getting it done. When I catch myself obsessing over unimportant details, I stop and ask myself the following questions: “Does it really matter?” “What is the worst that could happen?” “If the worst does happen, will I still be OK?” “Will this matter next week or next year?” This calms me down, and I am able to work without my inner critic shouting in my ear. My clients have found other ways of dealing with perfectionism.

Marjorie was stressed and disappointed at work nearly every day. She complained about getting started or finishing projects that she should have been excited about doing. She was particularly stressed about a performance review that was coming up, and feared that she would be put on a performance improvement plan (PIP). When I asked her how the review went, she said there were a lot of things she could have done better. She said she wasn’t put on a PIP yet, but she was sure she would be because of her poor performance.

To make sure she focused on the parts of her job that needed improvement, I had her bring in a copy of the review. In many areas, she scored 5 out of 5. Her lowest score was 3, and there were only a few of those. It was clear that being average was not good enough for Marjorie, and that she needed a perfect score to be pleased with herself.

[Click to Read: β€œPerfect Is a Myth” β€” and Other Self-Esteem Boosters]

I asked her if she thought her standards were too high, getting in the way of enjoying what she is good at. I suggested that she was expecting too much from herself. She agreed that her anxiety made her work less enjoyable and put a damper on her motivation. I explained that perfectionism causes us to distrust others, because we think they can’t do as good a job as we can do, and prevents us from trying something new (because we are afraid of making mistakes).

To train her to be less perfectionistic, Marjorie and I wrote the following statements on an index card, and she read them several times a day:

  • “Mistakes are bound to happen.”
  • “Remember, nobody is perfect, not even my boss.”
  • “Making a mistake does not make me less than, it only makes me human.”
  • “It’s OK to have a bad day.”
  • “Given my busy schedule, I do pretty darn well.”

Marjorie felt strange repeating these statements to herself at first, but the more she read the card, the more realistic her perspective became. She felt more satisfied about the job she was doing, and she no longer dreaded starting a new assignment.

[Read: Here’s How to Stop Punishing Yourself]

Unlike Marjorie, Carl knew about his perfectionistic behaviors and couldn’t stop himself from indulging them. Even though he had an excellent paralegal to review and edit his work, he continued to re-write each sentence, fearing that he would send his paralegal work that had an embarrassing mistake in it, or that she would not do as good a job at editing as he would. He wasted a lot of time choosing the right font for a memo and obsessed over minor details of a PowerPoint presentation. As a result, Carl repeatedly fell behind in his work.

When I suggested that he practice being imperfect, to get used to his own discomfort with imperfection, he looked puzzled. I explained that there were ways he could do this.

  • Wear mismatched socks to work.
  • Put a mustard stain on an old tie and wear it to the office.

We came up with other ways to get comfortable with imperfection. It wasn’t long before Carl felt relaxed with himself and grew less judgmental of others. He came in to my office one day laughing about having gotten his sock drawer all messed up with mismatched socks, and lightheartedly blamed it on me. It was a turning point.

“It feels good to laugh about it,” he said. I knew then that Carl had won the battle against perfectionism.

[Your Free Guide to All the Best Parts of ADHD]

Perfect Pursuits

Most things in life don’t have to be done perfectly, but here are five things worth doing your best on:

  1. Being honest
  2. Being kind and loving
  3. Being open-minded
  4. Being of service to others
  5. Having the willingness to keep going, despite ADHD challenges

Say No Evil, Think No Evil

Here are some signs that you are letting perfectionism affect your life:

Should, Must, Never, and Always Statements

  • “I should never look like I don’t know what’s going on.”
  • “I must never forget to _.”
  • “I should volunteer.”
  • “If I want it done right, I always have to do it myself.”

All-or-Nothing Thinking

  • “Less than perfect is not good enough.”
  • “If it’s important, I must give it 110%.”

Catastrophic Thinking

  • “I’ll be humiliated.”
  • “My boss will be upset with me.”
  • “She will think I’m a slob.”
  • “He will think I am lazy.”