For years I thought I was a procrastinator. No matter how early I started, I always ended up scrambling at the last minute to finish a paper, complete a project or answer a question.
I assumed I had some mysterious laziness problem. I called this problem “mysterious” because I found myself doing and achieving all sorts of things in other areas. I worked out consistently, took art classes, responded to email, went to work on a daily basis and produced motions, papers, documents, and guides.
However, when it came to the things that mattered, like learning a new skill or finishing my website when I started my practice, I couldn’t seem to get “my act together.” I would sit down to work on these life-changing projects and immediately get sucked into distraction. Instead of completing those projects, they were pushed to the side to make way for more urgent matters. It was extremely frustrating.
Recently, I was talking with a friend and discovered that I’m not a procrastinator at all, quite the opposite. I’m a chronic overachiever or more accurately an overachieving perfectionist, and if you are an ambitious modern woman, you probably are too.
So what is an overachieving perfectionist? There has been a lot of information put out about perfectionism over the years so most people understand it. Perfectionists regard anything short of perfection as a failure. We tend to set unbelievably unrealistic and demanding goals, and if we fail to achieve them, we question our efficacy and self worth.
Overachieving is slightly different. An overachiever is someone who achieves great things. So often they are admired for their work ethic. However, overachievers accomplish their goals through extreme effort, emphasis on the effort.
I’ve heard overachieving best described this way. Picture a caterpillar inching its way up a tree only to be stopped in its path by a fallen branch. A pessimists caterpillar would say, “see, we were never meant to climb this tree” and turn around. A victim caterpillar would say, “see, this branch is proof that my life sucks. Nothing ever works out for me. Clearly, the world is against me. ” The overachieving caterpillar, on the other hand, would devise a plan to move the branch. It would take several months or years and involve a hunger strike at some point, but the overachiever would make it pass the damn branch.
The problem with the overachieving caterpillar is that she doesn’t realize that there is another, less exhausting and soul crushing way across. The transformational caterpillar would stop right in front of the block path, form a cocoon and then emerge as a butterfly flying right over the branch. It exerts less effort while achieving the same results.
So how does an overachieving perfectionist go about achieving massive, transformational results without the soul crushing effort? As a recovering (but still not reformed) overachiever, here is what I know so far:
- Ask For Help. One of the signs that you are an overachiever is that you never ask for help. In fact, you never think to ask for help. Instead you are always devising herculean plans to accomplish what needs to be done. Example – “If I only sleep for 2 hours, I can drive to D.C. at dawn, pick up the party favors, and have them back here for the party tonight at 9. I know I wanted to <insert any self-care process – nails, hair, facial, etc.> but I can skip that too.” Instead of going it alone, before you do your next task force yourself to ask someone to help you do it or take it over altogether.
- Automate Repetitive Tasks. My friend laughs at me, but I love the idea of outsourcing and automating routine tasks. Things like running to the grocery store, re-stocking paper towels, buying toilet paper, making doctor’s appointments, etc. Because I over schedule, I never seem to get to these “to-do” items before they reach crisis levels. So automation helps me to get these things done effortlessly. Trust me, automating these task will save you hours of stress.
- Take A Nap. This only works if you are an entrepreneur or have a really understanding employer, but naps can change your life. Overachievers have a tendency to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. We know we are exhausted which leads to less productivity and clarity, but we keep going in the name of achievement. It’s time to stop the madness. Taking a nap gives your body and mind a chance to relax and recharge. It can also help to make insurmountable tasks seem reasonable and doable.
- Chop Your To-Do List in Half. Pareto’s principle postulates that 20% of the effort produces 80% of the results. So theoretically, you should be able to chop your to-do list by 80% to get the desired results. For an overachiever like me, the thought of that gives me heart palpitations. So let’s take baby steps here. Write down everything you must do or think that you must do in a column next to your top 5 goals for the year. When you compare the two lists, keep only those to-do items that directly correlate to your goals. If you’re honest, you should be able to eliminate about 50% of your list.
- Stop Working Around the Clock. Can you see a theme here? If you want to get over your overachieving perfectionism, you have to stop doing a lot of things. This includes working 24-7. Even if you are an entrepreneur, your work needs boundaries. You need to shut your day off. By doing so, you force yourself to complete tasks in a shorter time periods thereby reducing your tendency toward perfectionism. You also see the value in build a business over time. Remember when you were in grammar school, you didn’t learn multiplication by doing it 24 hours a day for 2 months straight. You learned each section bit-by-bit, day-by-day. You are in business for the long haul, and so you must learn how to work and not work in equal measure.
- Eliminate Barriers to Your Productivity. Whenever I try to work in my bedroom I notice that I get a lot less work done. Perhaps it’s because I work on my bed facing the television. Clearly this is a barrier to my productivity, but your barriers may be more subtle. Does your significant other always leave you a “honey-do” list because you are working from home? Perhaps he or she does understand that the operative word in work-from-home is “work.” Does your printer run out of ink regularly? Maybe your need to invest in a subscription service. Is your love life in the toilet, and you are constantly lamenting over your loneliness? It’s time to get a love coach or matchmaker. The bottom line here is, you must eliminate all barriers to increase your productivity.
Are you trying to stop your overachieving and/or perfectionist tendencies too? Let me know your top tips for letting go of these habits below.