ARTICLE: “Oh, Your Picky-Picky Standards” by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

Think about this—do your high standards in housework ever keep your family members from helping you, or make you unsatisfied even when they do? Has your young son or daughter ever offered to set the table, and instead of being easygoing and flexible in your standards, you berate him or her for doing it the wrong way? Have you ever used delegation to prune down your level of responsibility at work, then taken the task back because the individual didn’t do it the way you did? Have you ever managed to claim a small victory by getting your significant other to pay the bills or perform a small chore, then complain that he or she did it incorrectly? Many times we stop enlisting others’ help altogether because we are afraid they won’t do it the right way—our way. Well, congratulations—your standards just cost you some free time. You’re welcome to do all the work yourself, and others will be perfectly happy to let you do it “your way.” 

Do you suffer from this disease of perfectionism? Do these phrases sound familiar: “If I let someone else do this, it won’t be done correctly!” “If you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself.” “If you can’t do something right, it’s not worth doing at all.” If you hear yourself saying these things, watch it! Do you truly believe your way is the only way? Do you demand so much from yourself that you place unrealistically high expectations on others? Do people have to perform just so, according to your perfect standards? 

Now let me qualify these rather strong statements. I’m not saying to loosen your standards on everything. When the situation requires high standards, keep your expectations high. For example, if I overhead a pilot saying, “Well, I landed all my planes last week except one,” I’d worry slightly if that person was at the controls of my plane. Or, if I was having brain surgery, I hope the surgeon wouldn’t ask the technician, “Is this the right place to cut?” As professionals, we must demand the best in some situations if it’s required. But in other situations, when it really doesn’t matter, be flexible and let small mistakes go. Ask yourself, “Is this acceptable?” Perhaps a team member performed a task differently than you might have, but it may be perfectly satisfactory given the circumstances.

Why is eliminating perfectionism so important? Given today’s workplace reality of longer hours and more work, you’re going to make yourself nuts by trying to be perfect and probably others around you as well. My belief is that if you are the only one who can fix it, handle it, or do it—you deserve it. With all the restructuring of organizations today, everyone has more responsibilities than ever before. You’re going to have to learn to trust others and let them handle their work in the way they see fit.

For example, I had a boss who prided himself on his writing ability and insisted on reviewing and bleeding upon every document going out of the department. Was it really necessary for him to change my writing style, sentence structure, and word choice to reflect his preferences? I believe my writing is quite sufficient. He should have instead asked himself, “Is this document technically correct? Is it understandable?” If it is acceptable, who cares how it’s worded! Save yourself and others some time and frustration. Now, again, use caution. If you’re reviewing a multi-million dollar contract for your largest client, please cross every “T,” dot every “I,” and stick by your high standards. 

The key is to strive towards performance criterion that are adaptive, realistic, and attainable. When good enough will do, let it be. I have a friend who once complained to me that her spouse went to the grocery store for her (which was normally her chore) and bought the wrong kind of peanut butter. My jaw dropped, and I told her, “You have to be kidding!” At some level, isn’t peanut butter, peanut butter? He’ll never do that chore willingly again, and she sacrificed her free time because of her picky standards. 

When you relax your perfectionism, your co-workers, subordinates, and family members will appreciate not having to conform to your way of doing things. There’s another bonus in it for you as well. By letting go of unnecessarily high standards, you eventually won’t be bothered by small stuff, and there won’t be as many situations that provoke you. When you let go of your picky-picky standards, you won’t get hot and bothered over an occasional blooper by a staff member. You’ll feel no need to even mention it—you just let it pass. You will lower your stress levels and appear more flexible when you ease up on others.

Besides letting up on others, we must let up on the demands we place on ourselves. Perfectionism is an epidemic in America. It is not a positive character trait, to be worn like a medal. If you call yourself a perfectionist, you have a particularly unrealistic standard of evaluation for your behavior, since, by definition, perfection is unattainable. You will never achieve the levels you demand of yourself. Because of this, perfectionism affects your feelings about yourself in negative, undesirable ways. You inflate the importance of mistakes, critical feedback, and minor flaws and distort their significance. You rarely experience satisfaction in your performance because it’s never good enough. In your mind, you could have always done better. So, you become hesitant to try new things because you don’t want to fail. Relax. You’re bound to make mistakes. Learn from them, then let them go. 

And remember, you don’t appreciate being told to change or that you’re not good enough—so don’t do it to others.

© 2001 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at