A Pretty-Good Mathematical Model of Perfectionism

I struggle with perfectionism. Well, not so much “struggle with” — I’m f*cking great at it. It comes naturally.

There are some upsides, but perfectionism is also associated with anxiety, depression, procrastination, and damaged relationships. Perhaps you, like I, have spent far too much time and emotional energy making sure that an email had the right word choice, had no typos, didn’t reuse a phrase in successive sentences/paragraphs, and closed with the ‘correct’ sign-off. (‘Best,’ is almost always optimal, by the way).

“If I couldn’t do something that rated 10 out of 10 — or at least close to that — I didn’t want to do it at all. Being a perfectionist was an ongoing source of suffering and unhappiness for me … Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to hold ourselves to impossible standards. This is a stressful mind state to live in, that’s for sure.” ~ Tony Bernard J.D.

The topic of perfectionism confused me for years. Of course you want things to be perfect; why would you ever actively want something to be worse? However, there’s way more to it than that: It’s a complex interplay between effort, time, motivation, and expectations.

Far too many self-help recommendations essentially said “Be ok with mediocrity!” which… did not speak to me, to say the least.

To better understand the concept, I went through a number of books and papers before building a quasi-mathematical model. You know, like ya’do.

I’ve come to see perfectionism as a mindset with a particular calibration between the quality of your work and your emotional reaction — with decreased sensitivity to marginal differences in lower-quality work and increasing sensitivity as the quality goes up.

graphs

  • In a “Balanced” mindset, you become happier in linear proportion to how much better your work is going. (y = x)
  • In a “Satisficing” mindset — taking a pass/fail test, for example — you care about whether something is “good enough”. Most of your emotional variance comes as you approach and meet that threshold.  ( e^x / (1+e^x) )
  • In a Perfectionist mindset, the relationship between quality and emotion is polynomial. You feel almost equally bad about scoring a 40% on a test vs. a 65%, but the difference between a 90% and 93% looms large. (y = x^7)

Looking at the model, I realized it could explain a number of experiences I’d had.


Why even small tasks seem daunting to a perfectionist

A common experience with a perfectionist mindset is having trouble ‘letting go’ of a project — we want to keep tinkering with it, improving it, and never feel quite comfortable moving on.  (I don’t want to say how long this draft sat around.)

This make sense given the model:

HappyEnough

When I think about clicking ‘send’ or ‘post’ before I’ve checked for typos, before I’ve reread everything, before considering where it might be wrong or unclear… it just feels, well, WRONG. I’m not yet happy with it and have trouble declaring it done.

Apart from requiring more time and effort, this can make even seemingly trivial tasks feel daunting. Internally, if you know that a short email will take an hour and a half it’s going to loom large even if you have trouble explaining quite why such a small thing is making you feel overwhelmed.


What’s helped me: A likely culprit is overestimating the consequences of mistakes. One solution is to be concrete and write down what you expect to happen if it turns out you have a typo, miss a shot, or bomb a test. Sometimes all it takes to readjust is examining those expectations consciously. Other times you’ll need to experience the ‘failure’, at which point you can compare it to your stated expectations.


Why perfectionists give up on hobbies and tasks easily

Another way to look at this is: if you don’t expect to reach high standards, a project just doesn’t seem worth doing.

AdequateResults

The result is a kind of min-max of approach to life: If you can’t excel, don’t bother spending time on it.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing!

However, we don’t always have control. In my nonprofit communications career, I sometimes got assigned to write press releases on topics that *might* get attention, but which seemed not newsworthy to me. It may have still been worth the few hours of my time in case it grabbed a reporter’s eye. It was important to keep my job. But I had so. much. trouble. getting myself to do the work.

Even in the personal realm, picking up a new hobby is made difficult. If it doesn’t seem like you’re going to be amazing at it, the hobby as a whole loses its luster.


What’s helped me: A big problem for me has been overlooking the benefits gained from so-called “failure”. Once I start to factor in e.g. how much I expect to learn (so that I can do better in the future) I end up feeling much better about giving things a shot.


Why procrastination (and anxiety) are common

At a granular scale, the problem becomes worse. Rather than “How good do I expect to feel at the end of this?” our emotional reaction is probably trained by the in-the-moment “How much happier do I expect to feel as a result of one more bit of work?”

In other words, we can view the derivative/slope of these graphs as motivation:

MotivationCurves

With a perfectionist mindset, the bigger and further away a goal is, the more difficult it will be to feel motivated in the moment.  For much of the time, we’re trying to push ourselves to work without getting any internal positive reinforcement.

This is a particular issue in the Effective Altruism movement where the goal is to *checks notes* Save the World. Also, to (“Figure out how to do the most good, and then do it.”)

It’s true that as a perfectionist nears their goal, they’re extremely motivated! But that also means that the stakes are very high for every decision and every action.  …Which is a recipe for anxiety. Terrific.


What’s helped me: To the extent that I can, I find that breaking tasks into pieces helps. If I think of my goal as “Save the World”, another day of work won’t feel very important. But a goal of “Finish reading another research paper” is something I can make real progress on in a day!


All models are wrong, but some are useful

This framework isn’t perfect. Neither is this writeup. (I’m hyper-aware.) But this idea has been in my head, in my drafts folder, and unfinished for months. Rather than give in to the sense that I “should” keep working on it, I’m going to try following my own advice. I’m remembering that:

  • I’ve clarified my thinking a ton by writing everything down.
  • The consequences of a sloppy post in are minimal in the big scheme of things.
  • This isn’t supposed to be my final conclusion – it’s one step on the path

Even if it’s not perfect, perhaps the current iteration of this framework can help you understand me, yourself, or perfectionists in your life.

I used to have this “DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT” poster draped over a chair in my office. I never got around to hanging it up, but honestly? It seems better that way.

Poster

Articles/books I found helpful:

The-Perfectionist-Script-for-self-defeat by David Burns (pdf)

When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough by Martin M. Antony & Richard P. Swinson

Mastering the Art of Quitting by Peg Streep & Alan Bernstein

Better By Mistake by Alina Tugend

The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

5 Responses to A Pretty-Good Mathematical Model of Perfectionism

  1. Barry Galef says:

    Good thinking! I had a rather different approach from aiming at perfection: I worked frantically hard to avoid any possibility of abject, disastrous failure. As a result, most of the things I did ended up much better than ‘satisfactory.’ Not sure how I would sketch that out…

  2. Nosson Perlman says:

    Wonderful!
    Thank you!!
    ‫בתאריך יום ב׳, 10 באוג׳ 2020 ב-0:24 מאת ‪Measure of Doubt‬‏ :‬
    > Jesse Galef posted: “I struggle with perfectionism. Well, not so much > “struggle with” — I’m f*cking great at it. It comes naturally. There are > some upsides, but perfectionism is also associated with anxiety, > depression, procrastination, and damaged relationships. Perhaps yo” >

  3. arjkay says:

    Happy you pulled these thoughts together and made them public. I’m intrigued by your models too. Would love to learn about your research, was there a method to all of this madness? A plan? An objective . Oddly your perfection descriptions talk to features not thesis. Can there be a perfect exploration? I think not. The more you know about something we all choose our focal points. If your objective was rationalization then you have covered a lot of ground! Blog posts allow you to open for dialogue with others. This post does it! Getting your thoughts out of your head is one way to progress them, evolve them. Other readers or listeners who dialogue with you is even better. Perfect objects like a diamond can still be recut. Ideas evolve, adapt transform. Sorry my own unwritten unpublished thoughts are bleeding into this response. Keep going!!!

  4. flynnroad says:

    I am glad you finally got around to publishing this because I loved it so much! It really resonated with me.

  5. C. says:

    Thank you for sharing your models. As a lifelong perfectionist, I can see some of my own experiences reflected in these models too. It’s also a useful way of visualizing and explaining to non-perfectionists why the standard advice to “be okay with less than perfect” doesn’t resonate.

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