Overcoming Academic Perfectionism

Breaking the Cycle

To keep perfectionism in check, you need to understand your habits and attitudes, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

November 14, 2012

Last week, I launched this series on academic perfectionism based on a few core assumptions: 1) perfectionism is a pervasive problem for academic writers, 2) the culture of the academy exacerbates existing perfectionist tendencies, and 3) overcoming perfectionism is not only possible, but leads to great productivity and job satisfaction.

While many people conflate perfectionism with positive attributes such as striving, ambition, and high standards, I suggested that recent research demonstrates that perfectionism can actually have a negative impact on professors’ productivity and leaves many people in a perpetual state of frustration, disappointment and self-inflicted misery.

So if you’re a self-described perfectionist and you’re happy and productive that way, great! I certainly have no desire to change what’s working for you. But for those of you who know that perfectionism is keeping you from living up to your full
potential, hindering your writing productivity, and creating frustration for you on a daily basis (because things in your department are far from perfect), I invite you to focus this week on how to break the cycle of perfectionism.

The cycle of perfectionism is predictably simple:

1. You set goals that are impossible to reach.
2. The unreachable goal creates paralysis.
3. Avoidance, procrastination, and self-sabotaging behavior ensue.
4. If there’s an actual deadline, you engage in a frenzy of activity at the last minute, which ironically guarantees that the outcome will be far from perfect.
5. A less-than-stellar performance triggers self-flagellation in the form of internal criticism, blame, and judgment.
6. In order to move forward, you set yet another unreachable goal with the promise that this time you will just work harder.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re a perfectly normal perfectionist. Please know that this description is simply an observation of a common pattern (not a judgment). I’ve experienced it myself, observed it repeatedly in many academics I mentor, and know that this cycle (no matter how many times you’ve been through it) can be disrupted in the short term and eliminated in the long term.

Breaking the Cycle

While perfectionism has deep roots, there is one sure-fire way to break the cycle: get out of your head and bring other people into the loop. That’s right, I’m not going to suggest that you do a lot of inner work, self-reflection, or delving into your childhood to find out when you got the message that your worth is determined by your achievements. And that’s because I believe there’s a speedier path to disrupting the cycle of perfectionism that is rooted in the most fundamental fact:
Perfectionism festers in isolation.

In other words, academic perfectionists tend to have a distorted perspective on normative expectations, the amount of time that tasks take, and/or the their own processes of getting things done. So the quickest and most effective way to break the cycle is to build feedback loops into every step of the cycle where you habitually experience cognitive distortions. I want to suggest that there are three specific points of intervention in the perfectionist cycle that are ripe for disruption: 1) goal-setting, 2) doing the work, and 3) interpreting your performance.

Set Goals

At the beginning of each semester I lead an open course on how to create a semester plan. The perfectionists in the group perpetually set unrealistic goals (this summer someone told me he was not only going to finish one, but two book manuscripts!). So instead of setting goals in isolation, you can disrupt the perfectionist cycle by sharing your plan with departmental mentors. Time and time again, when perfectionists articulate their unrealistic goals to more experienced colleagues, their mentors let them know they have planned more work than time allows. It often leads to a powerful clarifying conversation about the actual goals and expectations of their department, and an adjustment of expectations. Making goals explicit and sharing them is a quick and effective way to help you set realistic expectations that are aligned with how you will be evaluated.

Do The Work

Procrastination and perfectionism go hand-in-hand. If you are a perfectionist, you have such high expectations of your performance that it can be difficult to actually get started on the very thing you have set out to achieve. So you avoid writing and procrastinate doing the work necessary to perform at the highest level until you can no longer avoid it. To disrupt your procrastination, use the same formula: get out of your head and bring other people into the loop. There are many ways to create community, support and accountability for doing the work: get a buddy or accountability partner, create an accountability group, join an online community, start a write-on-site or teaching support group, and/or form an N-Committee. Each one does the same thing: 1) it gets you out of your head (with all the rationalizations that live there), 2) it forces you to produce consistently and 3) it will help you to break the last-minute, binge-and-bust cycle of setting yourself up to fail.

Get Support to Interpret Your Performance

The final point of intervention in the cycle of perfectionism is how to interpret your performance on various activities and tasks. Here again, bringing other people into the loop helps to disrupt the cognitive distortions common among perfectionists.

For example, I often work with faculty who think that they have failed in the classroom. I know better than to believe them without evidence, so I always ask to see their most recent teaching evaluations. Most of the time, there are a very small number of disgruntled students while the vast majority of students have give the course the highest possible rating in terms of content and instruction. The distortion at work is over-generalizing a handful of negative data points to the exclusion of the overwhelmingly positive pattern and drawing the erroneous conclusion "I’m a failure as a teacher."

When I ask these same faculty members what the department, college or university averages are for comparison, they have no idea. And the reason they have never thought to use data to situate their performance is because their expectation (and their comparison point) is perfection. Whether in teaching, service, or writing, getting regular feedback on your performance and having others help you interpret that feedback is a powerful way to reduce the kinds of distortions inherent in perfectionism.

Weekly Challenge

This week I challenge you to:

1. Ask yourself if the cycle of academic perfectionism looks or feels familiar to you and if so, ask yourself if you’re ready for change.

2. Imagine what it would look like for you to create points of connection to disrupt the cycle of perfection.

3. Pick ONE point of intervention you feel comfortable starting with and ask someone for support today.

Breaking the cycle of perfectionism requires identifying your cognitive distortions and changing your behavior accordingly. The most effective way to do this is to initiate conversation with others, open yourself to feedback, and create connections in the moments where you loose perspective. You’ll quickly adjust from perfectionism to healthy striving, and best of all, you’ll become a better teacher, more productive scholar, and more satisfied professor in the process.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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