The Perfectionist’s Handbook

"Having a sense of healthy perfectionism requires balance."

- The Perfectionist’s Handbook, page 60

Are you a perfectionist? If so, how do you feel when somebody calls you one? Some might take it as praise for setting high standards whereas others might view it as a slight for being too detail-oriented.

Jeff Szymanski is the Executive Director of the International OCD Foundation. His book, The Perfectionist’s Handbook is a welcome read for any perfectionist looking to find a healthy balance in their lives. The interactive handbook takes the reader through a journey of understanding the types of perfectionisms and exercises to develop healthy habits.

I consider myself a perfectionist and I’m proud of saying it! That said I have to say that there are times where my perfectionism has held me back. I found the handbook really helpful in finding new ways to view perfectionism and discovering my strengths and weaknesses. For example, I noticed through reading the book that I’m a pretty healthy perfectionist when it comes to order and organization (not too much but not too little) but often I struggle with over-researching and indecision.

So if you’re a perfectionist or if you work or live with a perfectionist, pick up this book and see which parts of it apply to you. You might be surprised at how complex your perfectionism actually is.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Understand your healthy and unhealthy perfectionisms

"Ask yourself how your perfectionism affects your behaviour, feelings, thoughts, and relationships with others – and try to determine where you fall on the healthy and unhealthy continuum for each."
- The Perfectionist’s Handbook, page 15

Understanding how your perfectionism is benefiting or hindering you is an important place to start. For many perfectionists, the reason why they’ve achieved success in life is precisely because of their focus on delivering high-quality work and meticulous attention to detail. There are many healthy aspects of perfectionism that may be overlooked. But what is the cost of being so focused on perfection? Is there a point that the benefits outweigh the costs?

There is a difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. According to Szymanski, healthy perfectionism “encourages you to achieve high but reasonable standards that lead to feelings of satisfaction and self esteem”. Whereas unhealthy perfectionism is often related to the fear of failure, disappointing others, loss of control, etc.

Let’s look at some ways where you can make some tangible progress in achieving a healthy balance.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

A courageous life involves sacrifice

"Courageous and effective choices almost always involve sacrifice of important goals and possible accomplishments."
- The Perfectionist’s Handbook, page 110

One of the most difficult realizations that perfectionists face is that they can’t be great at everything. The high standards they set in all aspects of their lives make it difficult for perfectionists to “just be average”. After all, doesn’t it feel awesome when you’re actually good at something? This is just human nature and perfectionists crave it possibly more than others. But the harsh truth is that you can’t be good at everything. And accepting that being average in one area and focusing your energy on being great at something you truly love can be motivating! Here are a few ways to get you started in making the sacrifice and focus on what matters to you.

  1. Rate yourself in these areas: Family Relationships; Intimate Relationships; Social Relationships; Physical Health; School/Education; Career/Job; Leasure/Hobbies; Community Service; Spirituality.

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate yourself in these areas currently? On that same scale, rate where you would like to be. Identify areas of imbalances in the ratings and focus on spending more time in prioritizing your important areas.

  1. What are your ABCFs? What are your three A-Tasks (100% attention) that you want to excel at? What are your three B-Tasks (80% attention)? What are your three C-tasks (you can get by with minimal attention)? What are your F-tasks (the ones to let go)?

Take a look at these tasks and look at your A and B tasks. Make an effort over the next month to really focus on them. Live a life of courage by sacrificing the less important for the most important. It’s not easy but it’s a good place to start!

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Learn to Analyze Your Effort

"Attempting to do everything well – and with the same level of detail, effort, and energy – renders you exhausted all of the time."
- The Perfectionist’s Handbook, page 175

Healthy perfectionism requires balance. Szymanski describes it as having the desire to excel and be ambitious but also “matching your intention with a strategy that works and produces the results you want.” Your strategy needs to help you get to your desired outcome efficiently. Think about aspects of your life where something that is given a low level of priority (watching YouTube videos or organizing the house) is given the same amount of time as high-level priorities (spending time with your family, getting fresh air/exercise, or eating healthy). We’ve heard the importance of prioritizing before but for perfectionists it’s important to distinguish between the trivial and meaningful.

Szymanksi uses the terms “Persistence vs. Perseveration” to distinguish between the effort one puts toward completing tasks. Persistence is when you try something and when you realize that it’s not working, you try to find another way to complete the task. While perseveration is insisting on completing each step perfectly and trying to make it work. Perfectionists that get caught in perseveration can often get paralyzed from taking action because they can’t get it right the first time around. Before you get started on a task, ask yourself “what are the most important outcomes I would like as a result of completing this project?” Think about whether the cost of the strategy you’re using exceeds the benefit of the completing the task. If the cost is higher, perhaps you need to modify your strategy.

Another way to analyze your effort and use the most effective strategy is to use the Pareto Principle. This is the 80/20 Rule that you may have heard of. This is about focusing on 20% of the most important tasks that is associated with 80% of your results. Think about where you get the biggest bang for your buck. Perhaps it means that in a presentation, you focus 80% of your energy on the section that your bosses are looking very closely at.

In summary, focus on strategies that have a higher benefit than cost, be flexible enough to avoid perseveration, and use the Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule) to focus on the areas where you’ll make the greatest impact.

For all the perfectionists out there – I hope this helps you in your journey to find your balance in perfectionistic tendencies. After reading this book, I now understand that being called a perfectionist is actually a compliment because I know I’m striving for a healthy and balanced perfectionistic style.

How do you find your healthy balance with perfectionism?

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Peter Nakamura

ABOUT Peter Nakamura

Peter was born and raised in Kobe, Japan. He moved to Ontario, Canada and completed a Commerce degree at Queen's University. Upon graduating, Peter spent a year in Mozambique working at a microfinance bank to improve access to loans for local entrepreneurs...
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