Trying to beat perfectionism? Start where you are.
By Sithara Stohr, MSW
“The only way to get a thing done is to start to do it, then keep on doing it, and finally you’ll finish it.” - Langston Hughes
Start Where You Are
Langston Hughes, American poet and social activist, once stated, “The only way to get a thing done is to start to do it, then keep on doing it, and finally you’ll finish it.” As a therapist, I often share this quote and related skills with my clients. If you are someone who struggles with perfectionism, it can be difficult to start something unless you know it will turn out perfectly. This can make any task feel overwhelming and lead to not wanting to do it at all. Some of us struggle with daily tasks because there is so much to juggle and it is difficult to focus or know what to prioritize. More often than not, we do not do the task because everything has piled up and becomes hard to even look at. Dishes, laundry, work, school, social engagements, the list of obligations goes on and on.
The question becomes–how can we reframe our capacity to engage with these tasks in a meaningful way?
Here are the top two skills we share for moving through life when tasks start to feel overwhelming:
First, let go of the need to complete every task to its fullest. It can feel confusing to look at a task and find ways to complete it that do not feel stereotypically complete. For example, what would it look like to do your laundry without turning all the clothes right side out? The clothes will still get clean. You can turn them right side out when you wear them. Eliminating just one step can make an arduous task feel a little more accessible. Can you clean the chair in the corner of your room with clothes piled up as opposed to cleaning the entire room? Can you have boxes or bins for the various semi-organized piles? If you cannot brush your teeth for two minutes, can you brush them for 45 seconds or rinse with mouthwash? Reframing tasks to reach a variation of your end goal can lead to a more flexible pathway to this goal.
The second skill is to do what you have the energy to do. We often limit engagement in tasks due to feeling low energy or motivation. It is important to note that various tasks inevitably take various amounts of energy, and the amount of energy each task takes varies from person to person. If you give every bit of energy you have to doing the dishes, you may not have energy left over for other tasks.
In the realm of chronic illness, this concept is often referred to as “Spoon Theory”. Allowing yourself to observe and take note of your energy on any given day creates space to prioritize tasks that are manageable and rest that is restoring. If you’re feeling low on energy, can you connect to the importance of rest or set something up in a simple way that your future self will thank you for? Doing something small, like setting your mug out for your morning coffee or picking out clothes for the morning, can leave space for more energy later on. This includes intentional rest. We often restrict our rest in order to complete something and eventually find our way to being unable to do anything. There is a gentle flow and balance we find in giving what we can and replenishing when we need to.
Overall, Mr. Hughes had a great way to summarize this concept, and that is, to start somewhere. Whether it feels complete or incomplete, big or small, perfect or imperfect–the goal is to better understand your capacity and adjust tasks to this. It is rare that anyone has the capacity to do everything, and even more rare that everything is completed to stereotypical perfection. Listening to your body and mind can help you give what you have the space to give. No matter how much you can give, it is filled with the love, care, and intentionality of doing what you can.
Feeling overwhelmed? Stop and reflect.
Here are a few questions to reflect on when you feel overwhelmed by the task in front of you:
Can I eliminate or adjust parts of this task to make it more accessible?
Are there tasks that typically require more energy from me?
How can I best use the energy I have today?
Is it possible to do just a part of this task?
Here are some steps to use this skill in your daily life:
Maintain a routine with some flexibility - Having morning and night routines that are relatively stable can be helpful. Set up your bed in the morning for nighttime, set up your clothes or food for the next day, etc.
Set a timer or follow a timer that is set - For example, can I do a couple dishes while my lunch warms up? Can I set a ten minute timer and pick up clutter?
Create a plan - Make a list. Go through this list and edit, eliminate, or delegate tasks.
Rest intentionally - Create space in your daily life to allow yourself to rest in a way that feels replenishing to you.