Being a perfectionist isn’t inherently bad.
Throughout my life, my type-A personality has driven me to accomplish big goals like quitting my corporate job to become a full-time blogger or even more ambitious – compiling the most impressive playlist of unknown love songs the world has ever seen.
But that type-A personality has a dark side, too.
This is what usually happens when you let your drive for perfection reign supreme:
- You procrastinate – and typically on the most important tasks that line up with your biggest life goals.
- You’re rarely satisfied with what you accomplish, making it difficult to truly be happy.
- You need to be in control because you’re the only one who can do things the “right” way. This means you end up with too much to do, leaving you stressed and overwhelmed.
That was me.
No, correction: That is me.
I’m fighting a lifelong battle with myself to keep my high expectations in check so I can enjoy a happy life that’s “good enough.”
The Worst Part
Do you want to know what makes my cheeks burn with shame?
My perfectionist tendencies have spread to my eldest daughter. After watching how I react to my own mistakes, she’s learned to be pretty dang hard on herself for making mistakes, too.
When she started kindergarten, I realized it was time to turn this perfectionism battle into an all-out war.
I got serious about putting a muzzle on that part of my head that berates anything less than perfect. I read books and articles. Watched videos.
In short, I applied my obsessive perfectionism to the goal of overcoming perfectionism.
6 Must-Haves for Every Perfectionist With a Type-A Personality
Over the past couple years, I’ve put together a toolbox of must-haves for keeping my perfectionism at bay. These 6 tools help me on a daily basis.
If you also struggle with perfectionism, procrastination, feeling overwhelmed, or all of the above – consider adding these life-savers to your own toolbox.
(p.s. This list most definitely includes some inexpensive but awesome new office supplies, just for you. And what type-A perfectionist doesn’t LOVE new office supplies?)
1. A Dumping Ground
Part of our problem as perfectionists is that we have a ton of things we want to get done. Like, A TON.
We jot these things down on spare scraps of paper, in the notes app on our phone, on our family calendar, in our trusty planner – not to mention everything else that’s swirling in our heads that hasn’t even made it to paper yet.
This disjointed to-do list is actually a major source of stress for our type-A personality. From the book Getting Things Done:
“The short-term memory part of your mind – the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized “stuff” – functions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term-memory space. And as with RAM, there’s limited capacity; there’s only so much “stuff” you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload…
This produces an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pinpointed.”
The solution is easy: Write everything you want to do in one place.
You can use a journal, as long as it opens flat so you can get all the nitty gritty details out of your head without the book flipping shut on you. I love these deconstructed journals (especially this one) because they open flat and already have a weathered look to them, so I don’t feel bad throwing it in my purse or the diaper bag.
But my personal preference is to use Evernote as my official dumping ground. Evernote is an app where you keep one master list you can access on your phone or computer, or both. I always have my phone with me, so I always have my master list with me, too.
2. A To-Do List That Might Drive You Crazy
Let’s say you finally got all the stuff you want to get done written down in one place.
But oh goodness, is it overwhelming!
We perfectionists have the highest of expectations, and it’s just not possible to get everything done. Kids get sick and need you by their side. An urgent project comes up at work, usurping your plans for the day. You get caught up binge-watching New Girl on the night you’re supposed to be finishing your taxes. (Oops.)
The solution? MITs. Otherwise known as Most Important Tasks.
Every morning – or the night before – look at your master list, and pick three tasks that are most important to get done that day, and jot them down. Just three.
Pick the three things that MUST happen today. And if you finish your MITs for the day, you can officially consider yourself a rockstar.
I can hear you right now. “But…just three? Just THREE?!?”
Remember: You can always do more than your MITs, but do those first. Before you check Facebook or schedule that overdue dentist appointment – do your MITs.
I promise you’ll feel SO much better about how much you’re getting done!
For this trick, don’t use your master list, or it will stress you out. Jot down your MITs on something like this to-do list notepad or these disgustingly cute sticky notes. What makes the notepad perfect is that instead of one sheet per day, you get one per WEEK. This forces you to keep your list short for each day.
Now, you’ll notice each day has seven boxes. Don’t be an overachiever and fill out all seven boxes!
Just three. If you finish those three MITs, you can feel free to add another item or two to the bottom. But only after you finish those three.
One of the reasons I love this notepad so much is that it also takes care of the next must-have for perfectionists…
3. A Done List
Have you ever finished something that wasn’t originally on your to-do list, but you wrote it down just so you could immediately cross it off?
Turns out you were onto something. Keeping a running list of what you’ve gotten done will reduce your stress levels:
“As the Wall Street Journal reports, the researchers tracked a group of workers for 15 days, tracking their blood pressure and stress symptoms, such as fatigue and headaches. What led to lesser stress levels? Workers writing down accomplishments from the day, like nailing a presentation or scoring on a sales call.”
The reason this works so well is that getting a bunch of small wins on a regular basis makes you happier than occasionally finishing a huge project.
Go ahead and use that adorable to-do notepad to jot down whatever you accomplish during the day – and yes, loading the dishwasher totally counts. As the week goes by, that running list of accomplishments will lift you up so you’ll actually be able to accomplish MORE.
You can also keep your “done” list on a white board or chalkboard or in an app like Evernote. But I find it works best when it’s a tangible list I can carry around with me.
4. An Old-School Device
You picked your MITs for the day. Which is AWESOME.
Maybe you just found out a meeting was cancelled so you have 30 minutes free that you weren’t expecting. Or maybe the house just got really quiet because the kids happen to be playing independently with no fighting.
Now is your chance.
Pick one of your MITs, set a timer for 25 minutes, and GO.
Don’t check email. Don’t grab a coffee. And most importantly, don’t bounce between your MITs.
Why? Multitasking makes it harder for you to concentrate, and it adds to your stress. Not to mention that multitasking increases the amount of time it takes to finish your main task by an average of 25%.
Pick just one task, and you’ll get it done faster and be able to move onto another one.
But here’s the real must-have for this trick: An old-school kitchen timer. Now, you can use the timer on your phone or a timer app on your computer, but there’s just something magical about the mechanical click of setting a kitchen timer. That physical presence tick-tick-ticking down is a reminder to you to FOCUS on the task at hand.
I’m personally smitten with piggies, so this is my favorite kitchen timer:
Find a timer you like, and use it whenever you have a few minutes free.
5. A Reminder
Now that I’ve given you all the tools to stop feeling overwhelmed and get more done, we need to have a serious chat.
Because things will come up. You’ll sit down to focus on your one MIT, and the dog will barf all over your living room rug. Or you’ll be in a groove about to knock something off your list before your next meeting in 10 minutes, and a co-worker will come and sit down in your office for a leisurely chat.
It is during these times that I tend to lose my cool. The audacity of life to interrupt me when I’m working on my list!
I like to keep something near my main workstation to remind me that life is more than just a to-do list.
Here are my three favorite prints on Etsy that will do just that. One:
Hang these where you like to get stuff done – whether that’s in an actual office or near the kitchen table where you pay bills and make appointments. Two:
And when life comes up, glance at your reminder. Take a deep breath, and hit the mental pause button on your list. It will be there when you get back, I promise. Three:
6. A Toy
As an overachieving perfectionist type, you are driven to accomplish, accomplish, accomplish. And accomplish some more.
But here’s the thing: You are not a computer. You are not designed to run at high speeds being super productive for long stretches of time.
“You have to back off and be quiet. Retreat from the task at hand, so that you can gain a new perspective on what you’re doing. If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. If your inbox and your outbox are completely full, or if people are screaming at you, then it’s difficult to back off and think about things at a different level.”
All the tasks and decisions you make throughout the day wear on your brain. You need to give your brain a chance to recuperate so you don’t get burned out or turn into the Incredible Hulk with your spouse and kids.
How? Take at least one deliberate break every day. If you can afford to take more, all the better.
Some people like to exercise, which is great.
But lately, I’ve found a new favorite break-time activity: Coloring.
Pair one of those with some pretty gel pens, coloring brush pens, or a set of fancy colored pencils, and your brain will be in heaven. (Too feminine for your taste? You can’t go wrong with Unicorns Are Jerks and the biggest box of old-school crayons on the market.)
The action of coloring calls on both logic (staying in the lines) and creativity (picking colors and color schemes), and that combo package is exactly what your type-A brain needs to chill out.
Plus, for a perfectionist, coloring carries an added benefit. You will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Don’t stop and start something new – force yourself to finish. Find beauty in the imperfection of your own creative work.
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How do you keep your type-A personality in check? Share your tip in a comment below!
I’m a mom of four, a recovering perfectionist, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. Parenting is hard enough without all the guilt we heap on top of ourselves. So let’s stop trying to be perfect parents and just be real ones. Sound good? Join my mailing list and as a bonus, you’ll get 25+ incredibly helpful cheat sheets that will ease your parenting struggles.