Five ways to overcome perfectionism and scale your academic career

By its very nature, academic life demands a high level of rigour, dedication and single-minded focus. But there is a crucial difference between the pursuit of excellence and perfectionism. One leads to the deepening of human knowledge, the other to self-sabotaging, destructive patterns of thinking and behaviour for an individual.

Perfectionists typically set unrealistic expectations and then punish themselves for not achieving them. They may often sacrifice sleep, wellbeing or family/social life to continue improving a piece of work. Some struggle with a cycle of paralysis and procrastination followed by frenzied activity to meet a deadline.

Many perfectionist traits – such as being meticulous or highly motivated – are invaluable in academic life. But when perfectionism is unchecked it can lead to maladaptive practices such as the adoption of a hypercritical, self-limiting mental script or neglect of one’s health.

What’s more, it doesn’t only make life difficult for you and those close to you. It also, ironically, reduces your productivity. A study in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, for example, found self-oriented perfectionism in psychology professors to be ‘negatively related to total number of publications, number of first-authored publications, number of citations, and journal impact rating’.

Sound familiar? You may be a perfectionist if you often:

  • Focus only on the end result
  • Re-run a mistake over and over in your mind
  • Struggle to delegate
  • Care excessively what other people think
  • Obsess over feedback, ignoring the positive and focusing on a single negative point
  • Avoid situations you can’t fully control, such as a Q & A session at a conference
  • Feel you need to make your achievements look effortless, to combat a nagging sense that you don’t belong
  • Find it hard to accept help

Over time, perfectionism can erode your well-being and reduce your resilience and career prospects. So what can you do to tackle it? Here are five suggestions:

1. Question your beliefs

Review your expectations and ask yourself dispassionately if they are realistic. Do the same with your working patterns and consider whether they are helping or hindering your progress. According to the law of diminishing returns, it’s best not to continue past the point at which the benefit gained by your activity is less than the energy you are investing. The behaviour you think will deliver greater impact may well be limiting it. Conversely, recognising and challenging perfectionist beliefs can boost your output, ability to collaborate effectively with others and job satisfaction.

2. Widen your circle

Isolation allows perfectionism to run rife. Address this by asking people you trust for stage-appropriate feedback. Including others – and their encouragement, recommendations and revisions – in the process is far more likely to improve the quality of your work than a ruthlessly narrow focus. It can also reduce fearfulness when you release your work on completion. Joining an accountability group or online community designed to help you write regularly can be invaluable in disrupting the procrastination cycle.

3. Try an experiment

Face your fears and deliberately embrace discomfort. Start small by pressing ‘send’ on an email before you have proofread it five times; then do the same with a more substantial piece of work – and see what happens. This will help release you from compulsive perfectionist habits, and demonstrate the truth of the phrase ‘good enough is good enough’.

4. Cut back

Perfectionists are often tempted to try to be all things to all people. Over-preparing for everyday tasks, and creating unnecessary burdens for yourself can mean the vital work of writing and research suffers. Evaluate your boundaries in areas such as your availability to students. If you need motivation, check out this article which explores why those who frequently agree to take on ‘non-promotable’ tasks experience slower career progression than their peers. 

5. Broaden your perspective

You’re likely to miss out when you are too focused on a narrow range of results. Remember your wider purpose. You are contributing to an international body of scholarship shaped by people willing to test out new ideas and learn from mistakes or false starts. Make sure you notice and celebrate what you and your colleagues have achieved – noting progress made, as well as specific milestones reached.

These suggestions are designed to help you identify and address perfectionist traits which may be holding back your career. However, if you find that perfectionism is causing your mental or physical health to deteriorate, we recommend that you take action now by seeking appropriate professional help.

Further reading

Feel like a fraud? Five ways to beat impostor syndrome

Six academic writing no-nos — and how to avoid them

How to weigh up a relocation decision

Six bad reading habits that could be holding you back

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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