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The Mental Load: Are You Plagued by Perfectionism?

Perfectionism seems to be the target of numerous attacks lately. Psychology-slanted articles describe it as an affliction that is “a very bad thing” – causing crippling fear of failure, procrastination, unrealistic standards, and low self-esteem. Business coaches preach the gospel of “launch before perfection”, and a recent article in Entrepreneur magazine (incidentally, authored by a former law firm associate), goes so far as to postulate that “Perfectionism is THE [emphasis added] biggest obstacle to productivity” and “If you won't send something until it is perfect, you’re not pulling the trigger quickly enough.”

Call me sick if you want, but I believe perfectionism still has its place – and a valuable place – in today’s workplace. To start with, certain professions demand perfection. Perfection may not be as critical for lawyers as it is, say, for aircraft mechanics or brain surgeons. But you’d still better believe that your brief can and will be rejected if even one little element fails to conform to your jurisdiction’s filing requirements. And I’m certain that legal writing authority Bryan Garner would say it’s worth doing an extra proofread (or two) of any legal document to check for outcome-altering drafting imprecisions.

So I believe we should not eschew a standard of perfectionism, but rather learn to recognize when this trait is helpful vs. harmful. Here are three questions to ask yourself about any given endeavor to determine whether your perfectionist approach is going to skyrocket you to success or impede your progress:

1. Is perfectionism preventing you from getting things done?

I know this one well. You get a new project, brainstorm your approach with enthusiasm, then come crashing down when it actually comes time to take pen to paper. Setting extremely high standards can cause self-doubt (“Can I really do this better than my opposition?”) and overwhelm (“This is going to be a colossal undertaking since it needs to be the best legal argument ever made on this topic.”), which leads to procrastination and self-sabotage - which, ironically, culminates in a less-than-perfect, time-crunched end product.

In this situation, I recommend beginning (but not ending) with the common advice of “Done is better than perfect”. Set aside your ambitious standards in order to get through that lengthy contract review for at least a first pass, or bang out an outline or rough draft of your written work product. Once you’ve got the ball rolling, your perfectionist tendencies aren’t going to go away, and you can edit and tweak to your heart’s desire – without being up against a looming deadline or experiencing the roller coaster of emotions that accompany the procrastination cycle. Even if you just dedicate one hour to getting through the tough initial stages of an important project, you’ll likely find yourself over the hump caused by the crippling perfectionism plague.

2. Are you aiming for perfect on tasks where an objective cost/benefit analysis gives a definitive answer that “good is good enough”?

Nobody can be perfect at everything. If you’ve prepared your stellar oral argument for a day in court, but you’re also inexplicably reorganizing your files and editing and reprinting your notes repeatedly until they look perfect (despite the fact that nobody but you is going to see them) and polishing your briefcase until it’s flawlessly and uniformly shiny, take a step back and put your perfectionism to rest. Your real work is complete, and as long as your notes and appearance are “get the job done”-ready, that’s all that matters.

3. Is perfectionism negatively affecting your self-esteem?

The pride that perfectionists derive from doing every little thing to the nth degree can snowball into low self-esteem or even depression if you perceive yourself as a failure for not meeting what is often an impossible standard. Whatever you’re undertaking, appreciate the process – which is a huge part of, well, LIFE. So don’t beat yourself up over small mistakes, but rather laugh and learn. (And even big mistakes can be valuable learning opportunities if you respond the right way.) Mistakes help you grow and make you human.

Notice here that I’m not advocating for a completely careless approach to the “less critical” facets of your job (or life). This is where I think the current trend preaching anti-perfectionism may have deleterious effects. For example, the popular 80/20 Rule, as it is often applied in the career context, is a perfectionist’s worst nightmare. If you’re not familiar with the concept, its workplace iteration is often an instruction to focus on the 20% of your work which will yield you the greatest return (i.e., will produce 80% of your tangible outcomes), and (in my admittedly biased words), halfass the rest.

I have no doubt that by following the 80/20 Rule in this manner, you might succeed in a legal career. You might manage to work fewer hours or finish more assignments than your perfectionism-plagued colleagues. You might consistently succeed at identifying and giving full attention to the fraction of your work where errors would lead to malpractice claims or disastrous results for your clients. And you might hone in on the 20% of your work that contributes to 80% of your firm’s compensation formula.

But although I see the value in using the 80/20 rule as a loose guide to paring down the time and effort spent on peripheral tasks, I refuse to jump on the bandwagon wholeheartedly. And it’s not just because that would be too much at odds with my perfectionist tendencies. It’s because I believe that caring and attention to detail – in a holistic manner - separate the merely good from the truly great.

True, if you’re a law firm associate who does stellar work, you’re probably not going to get fired because your time entries are riddled with typos. But you’d better believe that each error the partner overseeing your work needs to correct at invoicing time constitutes a ding against her perception of your overall performance. And cumulatively, those types of careless moves can stack the odds against you when it comes to selection for coveted assignments and promotions. 

When you “let go” of your attention to the non-critical 80% of your work, you’re also releasing your dedication to that chunk of your work. And by dedication, I mean both attention to detail and emotional investment. You no longer really care about the parts of your work and the interactions with others that aren’t going to contribute significantly to your bottom line. The ripple effect is real, and refusing to “go the extra mile” on things like training more junior lawyers can land you at the bottom of the list for promotion or earn you the label of “not a team player”.

I once had a boss who urged me to “send out Chevrolets, not Cadillacs” on flat-fee work. He had a point that Chevys run just fine and many people love them. But it just isn’t in me to do this. If you can churn out Chevys, more power to you, but for me personally, I simply aim to produce Cadillacs as efficiently as possible and have adapted my practice so that I primarily take on the “Cadillac matters”. I know that’s where my value lies. So my advice to those who, like me, have what amounts to a moral conflict when it comes to stifling perfectionist tendencies, is to embrace your true self. Figure out your niche, and filter out advice that is at odds with your defining characteristics.

I still like to keep the three questions above and the 80/20 Rule in the background of my career strategy toolkit as a reminder not to get bogged down with low-return tasks and to make sure my perfectionism is being channeled in a healthy and productive manner. If you invest too much energy into matters that are of little consequence to your bottom line, you’re not working efficiently. But when it comes to most aspects of lawyering – and I mean a legal career, not just work product – I believe that devoting appropriate efforts to all facets of the job is what leads to the highest return in the long view. 

So look for efficiencies and “good but not perfect” opportunities and know that perfectionism must be coupled with perspective. But if you’re worrying that your perfectionism is a negative trait, try ignoring the voice in your own head telling you that you’re failing at following advice that is incongruent with how you function. Instead of stifling your inclination to aim high regardless of the task at hand, let go of the pressure to conform to the trend shunning perfectionism.

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