Organizing Pitfalls #14: Perfectionism – “If it won’t look like Martha Stewart in the end, then why start?”

Sometimes people are surprised when I say that one of the top causes of clutter is perfectionism. After all, when you’re looking at a huge volume of belongings in a decidedly-cluttered home it’s hard to see what “perfect” has to do with anything. However, I’ve heard it time and again from clients over the years, and I recently discussed it at length with one of our clients. 

When perfectionism becomes a problem, what it creates is hopelessness. “If I can’t make it look perfect, then why bother even trying.” The hopelessness spins out of control, and aligns itself with procrastination, misery, shame, and regret. What is left in their wake is chaos and stagnation. However, at the center is the core challenge: a lack of belief in oneself.

Hopelessness = Helplessness 

By measuring success against the bar of perfection we have created a cycle of learned helplessness. Have you ever heard the story of how they train elephants for domestication? From the day the elephant is born, it is tied with a thick rope to a stake planted deep in the ground. The baby elephant struggles and fights against the rope and cannot free itself. Finally, it gives up and stops trying. As time passes, the thick cord is replaced with lighter and lighter ropes until even a small string tied to a flimsy tree will hold it in place. Or, as in the picture above some chains simply laid across its neck and tied to nothing keep it “in control.” 

Perfectionism creates this same learned helplessness. “If I always see the flaws and nothing ever feels perfect, then why bother continuing to try, to work, to put in the effort.” 

So, what is the solution? 

As Tony Robbins said to my dear friend Niurka, accept that “Perfection is the absolute lowest standard you could ever have for yourself because it is impossible to attain.” Or as I prefer to say it, “Progress, not perfection, is key.” What matters is that we continually focus on making progress on what matters to us… one day, one moment at a time. 

Reclaim your ability to choose, your autonomy, your determination. We must put ourselves back “at cause” in our lives and let go of the helplessness. Fundamentally, this is a mindset problem that starts with owning your own power to choose and to create the reality you want, while simultaneously letting go of the expectation of perfection. No one’s life is perfect… even Martha Stewart had to spend time in the less-than-luxurious pokey. That doesn’t mean she isn’t successful, accomplished, and an amazing business woman. 

We all have the ability to choose our path, and if you don’t like where you are, then start getting curious and learn to ask better questions. What would I create instead? How could I make this a little better? And, as my techie-geek husband often reminds me, focus on the minimum viable product. What is the shortest critical path to completion? Because Done, is MUCH better than perfect. Get something done, then you can decide if it’s worth investing time to iterate and improve it. 

Next Steps  

Let go of “perfection” and embrace “progress toward excellence.” If there’s something in your home or life that’s not how you want it to be, then what is one thing that you could do today or this week to make progress or make it better? Choose one problem that you’ve been procrastinating addressing due to that old enemy “perfection,” and take action. First you crawl, then you stand, then you run. Just get moving.


Image: Flickr/tamsintog 


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