The Problems of Perfectionism

I shall try and keep this on the professional side, as it can easily stray into areas of pure psychology which are not quite as relevant to the business of photography. I’m going to talk about the notion of perfectionism, and more specifically, how damaging it can be to self-employed, creative types like myself, and a few solutions to it.

(WARNING – confessional post inbound – come back next week if you want something more practical and tangible!)

I’ve always known I was a perfectionist, and usually people would label me as such, half as a compliment, and half as a gentle dig. For a very long time I simply thought that being a perfectionist meant that I was hard working and obsessed with detail. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I discovered what a wide ranging issue it is, and how many areas of my work (and the rest of my life) it was affecting, usually in a negative way.

Despite the notion of photographers being creative free spirits, perfectionism is actually quite widespread amongst us. It’s also very common amongst the self-employed and freelance community, as there’s a strong tendency towards wanting more control over your life, which stems from perfectionism and sometimes borders on control freakery.

The good things about being a perfectionist:

  • Very strong work ethic
  • Very thorough, good at detail and preparation
  • Very strong on integrity.
RAID Drives
Perfectionism can make you very thorough about things like backing up.  On balance, I’d say this is a GOOD thing!

And the bad:

  • Rubbish at seeing bigger picture
  • Very easy to procrastinate, and get caught up in detail
  • Tendency to play safe, as perfectionists are generally quite risk averse.
  • Generally don’t take criticism well – work needs to be “Perfect”
  • Very slow to produce work, tend to labour over minutiae.
  • Not great at delegating – basically a control freak
  • At extreme levels can drift into OCD territory. And now I must go and wash my hands.

My own problems:

I get caught up in detail and technique far too much.

I find it easy to do jobs that make small incremental changes, and feel like work, but when viewed with perspective don’t really amount to much in the way of progress.

I fear making a start on things, in case they’re not perfect.

I can have dozens of projects on the go at once, but complete very few, as once they’re out in the world they’re subject to criticism.

I obsess over everything, and try and think ahead to any possible criticism anyone might make of my work.

I’m bloody awful at delegating, I like to run every single part of my business from the accounts to the camera exposure.

I can procrastinate for England on matters where I don’t have complete control, or there are large areas where I lack knowledge or which are out of my hands.

Perfectionism in Camera Kit
No, I NEVER insist that all my equipment is laid out in a specific way…..

How I’ve dealt with it:

First off, by being aware when I’m doing it. As with any psychological phenomenon, awareness is the first step.

I create simple frameworks, and set small goals. As a good example – nowadays I don’t try and write blog posts in one go. I have a big file that just lists topic headings, then once a week or so I sit down for an hour, and do three 20 minute bursts on 3 posts. All I aim to do in each of these 20 minutes sessions is “brain dump”, not create a finished, polished piece. I generally find that when I come back to these pieces to edit them for publication, that the vast bulk of the writing is done, and whilst it may take a while to create the right pictures, or do some other admin task, the main creative work is sorted. It’s been a huge boost to productivity.

I’ve learnt to accept that very few people actually give that much of a toss. Obviously, my clients expect me to do a good professional job, but when it comes to personal work, blogging, or what I push out on social media channels, no-one’s paying as much attention as I think they are.

I’ve learnt some basic CBT techniques to question my reasoning on certain things. CBT is very effective at countering distorted thinking, and I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks they might be in a similar situation. At the very least, filling in a CBT thought form will almost always make you realise that your current attitude towards something boils down to a misconception.

Now, I’ve by no means mastered this, and I definitely have good days and bad, but I’m SO much further on than I was a few years ago. Even the simple knowledge of what the problem is and how it affects me is crucial, as without that I could carry on indefinitely, blissfully unaware of how I was limiting myself. If any of what I’m saying is ringing bells with you, I’d highly recommend checking out some CBT stuff, and maybe even booking a session with someone. You may be surprised how much change you can make in a very short time.

I’ve heard this quote in several forms, and a quick internet search attributes it to several people, not least Confucius and Voltaire, but whichever way you choose to quote it:



“Perfect is the enemy of done”

Which sums things up nicely. Silence that little voice in your head that throws questions up every few seconds, and that tries to qualify every single action, and just get on with it.

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