## 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.

• 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:

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.

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:

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.

## Articles/books I found helpful:

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

When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough by

Mastering the Art of Quitting by Peg Streep & Alan Bernstein

Better By Mistake by Alina Tugend

The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

## Be a Communications Consequentialist

You just hit post.  You put a lot of thought into your message, you laid it out carefully, and look forward to people’s reactions.  You start getting emails telling you that people have commented, so you excitedly check them to find… that somehow they completely and utterly misunderstood you.  It happens.

One of the worst examples I’ve seen is when American Atheists put up a tongue-in-cheek billboard quoting a Bible verse that endorsed slavery, they were misunderstood as promoting slavery themselves.  Oops.

It’s tempting to blame the audience at times like this, isn’t it?

“How did he miss where I covered that?  There’s a whole paragraph refuting that!”
“She couldn’t possibly have read all the way to the bottom of the post before commenting.”
“Did he think for half a second before opening his mouth? See the quote!”

It’s especially tempting to react that way with misunderstood sarcasm.  I nabbed a screenshot of this image getting praise which says, “Intelligent people understand sarcasm does not equal anger.  Sarcasm is cleverly disguised humor.  It’s not my fault if you ‘don’t get it’.”  That’s the tack a lot of people took after the American Atheists’ billboard – blame the offended people for being stupid.  But does it make sense to blame them?

There’s a vague sense in society that writers and readers each have certain responsibilities. Writers need to use proper spelling and grammar, state their view, and provide supporting reasons. Readers need to read the whole thing carefully and charitably. If someone doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, any misunderstanding is their fault.

And it IS frustrating when people aren’t reading closely enough, or don’t respect your argument enough to spend the time reading it fully.

But we only have control over what we do, and there are things we can do to entice them. We need to be communications consequentialists – The question we should be asking is: am I doing what I can to maximize the chances of getting my point across?

It’s not enough to do our part and hope readers do theirs.  With a few possible exceptions (graduate-level coursework, Immanuel Kant) readers will stop reading something that’s dense and tough.  Or even worse, they’ll walk away with the wrong message.

If we’re trying to maximize our success, we need to go further and help make it easier for readers to understand us.

### Ways to help readers:

Here are some steps I’ve come up with to make it easier for readers to come away understanding.  Since my talents lie in writing over artistic design work, I’ve focused on that:

• Shorten posts. Presenting readers with an epic saga and expecting them to read it all carefully is asking a lot. Ben Radford has an interesting post bemoaning that people don’t read. It’s 1,380 words – appropriate for some audiences, not for others. If my posts get over 1,000 words, I look for ways to trim them or break them into separate posts.

• Write for human brains – Your readers are human. So write in a way that humans find engaging. The Heath brothers have a good framework with the SUCCES principles: ideas are easier to grasp and remember if they’re Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Story-driven. Engaged readers will be more likely to read everything, and read it attentively.

• Break up large blocks of text – I still remember reading Les Miserables in class and facing a three-page-long paragraph. It’s daunting! Without paragraph indentations or images breaking up the text, I know my eyes are prone to sliding. On that note…

• Place key sections where people will see them – People don’t read, they usually skim. Eye-scan studies found that people are most likely to read a horizontal stripe near the top of the page, a second stripe slightly further down, and then down along the left side – in a vague “F” pattern. Make sure that you’re using that prime real estate for engaging hooks and key points. Bulleted lists, bolded words, and subheadings also get attention.

• Use subheadings if necessary – As people’s eyes skim and scan the page, descriptive subheadings can help frame the information and help readers keep the flow.

• Eschew Avoid Obscure Words – See what I did there? Seriously though, while readers *can* look up new words in a dictionary, there’s a good chance they won’t. Besides, studies have found that using big words needlessly doesn’t impress people – you’ll seem more intelligent if you express yourself simply.

• Doublecheck words with ambiguous meanings – You can cause a lot of trouble when you use the word ‘religion’ to mean the culture and institution, but people think you mean “the set of beliefs“.  A lot of words, even in context, can be taken multiple ways by a reader who doesn’t already know what you’re thinking. If possible, see if you can replace ambiguous words with their intended substance.

• Be careful with sarcasm – I guarantee that some people will miss it.  Think about whether the joke is worth those misunderstandings (and sometimes it is.)

If we write long posts with unbroken blocks of dry text, ignoring everything we know about our human audience, we can predict failure. Even with these tips, success isn’t guaranteed.  But we have reason to think that things like this make readers more likely to walk away understanding us.

And that’s our goal – being understood, not finding someone to blame.