The Limitations of Perfection

by Katy on May 31, 2009 · 20 comments


I know it’s not popular to admit this, but I want to be perfect. I want a perfect house, perfect kids, a perfect blog and to be the perfect nurse. (I am about as far from these goals as I am to being crowned 2009 Miss Teen USA.)

The harsh reality is that my house is always a bit of a mess, my kids can be Bickersons, my blog is rarely exactly as I want it, and there is no such thing as the perfect nurse.

I have a tendency to procrastinate starting big tasks and goals until I feel I can do them perfectly, which can easily mean never accomplishing anything.

A prime example of this was the garage sale I held this past Saturday. I wanted to wait until I had completely gone through the house, but I realized this goal was lofty to the point of becoming a barrier. So I simply set a date and did my best. I worked both Thursday and Friday, so there wasn’t going to be an micro-organization going on. I pushed the living room furniture against the walls and piled up the garage sale-worthy items.

It wasn’t pretty, and I only culled through about one-third of what I’d hoped to.

I did make signs Thursday evening, and placed craigslist ads on Friday. I unfortunately only priced about half of the items, but I was bushed and couldn’t get through everything. I figured I would price the merchandise after setting everything out. A steady three hour mob of enthusiastic customers interfered with this plan, and I could tell that some people were frustrated by the seemingly random pricing.

But here’s the thing — if I had waited to hold a garage sale until I could do everything perfectly it would never have happened. Just like if I had waited to start this blog until it could be perfectly written the result would be the same. No blog.

But you know what? No one but me knew that I hadn’t tackled the entire closet full of board games, or that I had wanted to set up a specific cashier’s table.

I still made $400, every penny of which is headed into my savings account. I call this a success. (Not to mention my house is happier with the clutter diminishment!)

The barrier of perfection may be obvious to some, but I am only recently coming to terms with it. My tendency is to not entertain unless I can get the get the house into a Martha Stewart worthy state, which essentially means never having anyone over. I consciously fight this instinct in order to enjoy the company of my friends and family.

I wonder if others put off the things they want to do because they’re waiting until it can be done perfectly? Please tell me I’m not the only one!

Do you hold yourself to a level of perfection that stifles your accomplishments? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Marianne June 1, 2009 at 6:28 am

I understand this perfectly (ha ha)! I was just thinking about this exact thing this weekend with my attempts at knitting. I never finish anything because I want it to look perfect. However, I have committed to finishing a sock I have started no matter what the final product looks like. There may or may not even be a second sock (don’t want the added pressure), but by golly I will have at least one complete sock.


Jinger June 1, 2009 at 7:00 am

That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to accept custom orders for my baby quilts…then I think they have to be perfectly made! When I can design my own and sit and sew by hand on my porch and create something out of little pieces of fabric, that may not be perfect, I am much happier.


Kori June 1, 2009 at 7:00 am

Yes! I often find myself paralyzed by perfectionism. If I don’t know for sure I can do it perfectly, I can’t seem to get off my duff and just do it. I’m also a major league procrastinator, for the same reason… fear of imperfection. I can’t even tell you how much extra time, last minute running around, frantic rushing and stress this has caused me. As always, I’m working on it but this has really been a struggle for me to change… which seems really strange, given the oh-so-obvious negatives attached to this behavior and way of thinking.


Angela June 1, 2009 at 9:25 am

This really hits home for me. I now consider it a success whenever I do things without analyzing every detail and just jump in. (Which was also the way I started my blog- touch and go, feeling my way through it).

Perfectionism has definitely kept me from starting projects over the years. It’s still always there – sort of a little voice in my head – but I’m able to ignore it more and more. It may be because there’s a stronger voice yelling out “You just don’t have the time!” That line is one of the best pieces of advice about life I’ve ever gotten, from Annie Lamott in her excellent book about writing called Bird by Bird. The line comes from her friend who’s dying of cancer.


Sandy June 1, 2009 at 10:25 am

Thank you for posting this. I am especially confronted with my perfectionist tendencies when I want to make things from scratch. They don’t look like store bought and are, therefore, not perfect. I think this attitude doesn’t come entirely from within. We are conditioned to think that only perfect is good enough, Martha Stewart, perfect loaves of bread (full of perfect looking preservatives), you name it. Perfect is an unattainable illusion, and like you said, if I had to be perfect, I wouldn’t DO ANYTHING!! Thank you so much for this. I really needed the reminder!!


Jessica Wolk-Stanley June 1, 2009 at 2:18 pm

My sister has a great line that I often tell myself, “Better done than perfect.”


sunny June 1, 2009 at 2:22 pm

I’m so glad you wrote about this. I struggle with perfectionism every day…even though for 8 years I’ve read daily emails from about how cleaning your house imperfectly still blesses your family. (vacuuming the middles of the rooms without moving furniture – will bless your family more than not doing it until you can vacuum perfectly).

I have been on two trips with my church: one to Asia in 1998 and one to NYC post-9/11 to help wherever needed. When I returned from NYC on Sunday night, I had photos printed (pre-digital camera popularity) and put them in an album so I could bring the album to choir rehearsal that Wednesday. The album was not perfect but people got to see how NYC was and the people who were affected by the tragedy there.

I went to Asia in 1998. It’s 2009. I still have a box of “to be put in an album” photos and momentos from that trip – waiting until I can do it perfectly.

*sigh* perfectionism certainly paralyzes me.


Julie June 1, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Sigh!! This problems crosses national boundaries. I too, here in Australia, struggle with this daily. Recognising it for what it is sometimes helps but I think I need to post a message in my house somewhere. I especially like “better done than perfect!” Thank you Jessica!


calimama June 1, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Jessica, you’re sister has some wise words! 😉

My thoughts are along the line of “better finished imperfectly than talked about perfectly.”

I recognize that I am a perfectionist and that having things less than just so bothers me immensely. I also know that if I don’t tell people that the house, the food, the project isn’t perfect they won’t know.

Luckily my husband things everything is perfect. We’re so well matched!


Kristin @ klingtocash June 1, 2009 at 6:19 pm

First off, grats on the $400 tag sale!

Perfection does not work in my house. We just have way too many things going on to be perfect. I could spend more time working around the house but then I wouldn’t have time for my business, my blog or my civic obligations. I think I’ll stick with the messy house.


Sue Madre June 1, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Ahem! I happen to know where “Better done than perfect” comes from! It’s an old quilter’s saying, passed along from a certain mother to a certain daughter. It’s so true, though, isn’t it? I find that if I don’t just dive in with an “OK, now what do we have here?” attitude, it ain’t gonna happen. Also — I love the Flylady message — she calls perfectionism “The P Word”! All too often, we spend WAAAAY more time dramatically grousing about something needing done than it would take to Just Do It, as the old Nike slogan went.


Jacquelyn June 1, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Oh, I’m so feeling this one. I’m realizing as I get older that if I want to do anything, I have to just do it and give it my best. Things may not always be perfect, but I am always learning and improving, which I wouldn’t be if I were waiting for things to be just so.
My husband has been wonderful for encouraging me to just do things, because he knows how I will procrastinate forever because I want things to be ‘perfect.’
I think we really love ourselves more when we let go of the unrealistic standards that we don’t even hold others to.


Angela June 1, 2009 at 10:23 pm

I love “better done than perfect.” True wisdom.

My father’s favorite saying was “If you can’t do a job right, don’t do it at all.” No kidding. And I wonder why I’m a perfectionist.

Like perfectionist father, like perfectionist daughter.


BohoBelle June 1, 2009 at 10:55 pm

I too suffer from this affliction.

Things currently waiting to be perfect:

1. Painting watercolour paintings
2. Wedding (we still haven’t set a date even though we keep talking about having it this November)
3. Making cheese
4. Decorating our bedroom (painting bedside tables, getting lamp shades, doona cover etc) I’m waiting for divine interior design inspiration.
5. Ebay clothes sale – like you I was waiting to get all the clothes ready

So well done to you for just doing it! And you’re almost halfway to your emergency savings goal.

Angela, I know that saying too. I also grew up with it. It’s a very limiting saying now that I think about it clearly.


Tracy Balazy June 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Jessica, I like the “Better done than perfect” line! Thank you for an inspirational blog about getting things done; I did the same with my own garage sale two years ago, and I still let perfectionism get in the way of getting other things done! I’ll keep your words in mind.


BarbS June 3, 2009 at 5:57 am

Katy, congrats on your great success at the sale! $400 is a ton of cash!

And I couldn’t agree more about the whole perfectionism thing. I find it affects me in some areas more than others. For example, I’ll happily invite people over for a simple meal (no need to get fancy) even if the house isn’t perfectly spotless. But organizing photos (as Sunny says above), closets, etc., well, since I don’t have time to do it perfectly, I don’t do it at all.

Thanks for the inspiration to just get started. Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


Betsy at Married with Luggage June 4, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Katy, I’ve always used the variation of the phrase “done is better than perfect” to keep me sane.

Martha Stewart makes me feel inadequate, so I don’t want to mimic her and make my friends feel that way when they come to visit. I want my home to be a fun, comfortable place to relax and have fun, not a museum. I’d rather them come by and see a bit of a mess than never see them.

So good for you for setting a date and sticking to it. Done really is better than perfect – just ask your savings account!


Justine June 4, 2009 at 8:29 pm

I can completely relate to this concept…I am a procrastinator extraordinaire! The thing that gets me though (and I just blogged about this today) is that I go around the house, looking and thinking about all the things that I need to get done or attend to and measure my self worth by what has or hasn’t been done (always a much larger list of the latter!) It stinks to do this to myself and I do it so naturally that it took a dear friend to point it out today for me to realize how much I do this….thanks for posting this one and No you are not alone!! PS sorry about the font size, can’t figure out that I did….


Tu Nguyen September 6, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Thank you so much for posting this. I can REALLY relate to you in every aspect of my life which seems to be consumed with this ideal for perfection, an ideal that is doomed for failure. It really is a struggle in itself to overcome, thank you.


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