Optimal vs Maximal…what kind of perfectionist are you?

Optimal vs Maximal

What kind of perfectionist are you?

I often work with self-confessed perfectionists, and irrespective of whether they meet any clinical definition, what I often see as the start point is their belief that their perfectionism is both a ‘good thing’ and also something that causes them difficulties when delaying completion for example in search of the last elements of perfection.

Before looking for solutions, it’s important to look for the drivers of their behaviour as this leads to 2 discreet groups – people working from either low or high self-esteem. Those with low self-esteem keep going because they feel that nothing they do is quite good enough, so they strive to meet a standard that they believe ‘other people’ can and do deliver. That’s quite different from the high self-esteem group who hold themselves to high standards and work to meet those.

So we can in some cases look to help develop self-esteem, but in many cases this will still mean there are perfectionist tendencies to also address.

What is often overlooked by perfectionists is that sometimes, good enough is good enough. In short, everything must be done to a high standard whether it needs to be or not.  Often, an understanding of the differences between optimal and maximal can be sufficient to enable choices to be made that can leave the perfectionist tendencies intact, but deliver them where they are most needed.

Should I ever require heart surgery, I will be perfectly happy for my surgeon to be a perfectionist; but I won’t be happy if my operation is delayed by them untying and re-tying their shoelaces repeatedly until they are perfect. There is an optimal level for shoelaces that will suffice. I’d like my sutures however to be at the maximal level of perfection.

The likelihood is that there are many aspects of your work that are being done to too high a standard for no additional gain – that is, where optimal will suffice. Identifying these tasks and deliberately lowering your personal standard for delivery will undoubtedly save time – time that can be better spent on the tasks where maximal is valued, needed and critical.