Everything in moderation: walking the line between detail-focus and perfectionism

Attention to detail is a good thing… isn’t it?
Detail-focus is a funny thing. At the right level, it can help you to avoid career-limiting mistakes, and ensure your loved ones feel cared for and respected. Too much, though, can be paralyzing: a stumbling block that stops you from accomplishing your goals and dreams.

Here’s what I mean…

When it’s working for you, being detail-oriented can be wonderful
A couple months ago, at an ATD (Association for Talent Development) meeting, the woman in front of me turned to introduce herself – not realizing we’d met before. So when she told me her name, I smiled and said, “Oh, yes. I remember you. You work at CVS.”

“Wow!” She replied, impressed. “Do you always have such great attention to detail?” Remembering her name and workplace really made me stand out in her eyes.

It’s not that I never miss details (ask my usually-well-fed cat, Chloe, about the “Empty Cat Feeder Debacle of 2016”!) At work, however, I’ve always been the queen of detail-focus. And – in that context – it often paid off for me. I can even remember a job interview where the conversation basically went:

C (the hiring person): “Do you pay attention to detail?”
Me: “Yes!”
C: “Great. When can you start?”

(OK, the interview may have been slightly longer than that. But that was definitely the key focus!)

The problem starts when your detail-focus becomes perfectionism
Sometimes, attention to detail can turn into a need to account for EVERY single element before you take any action. It can end up making you so anxious about everything that could go wrong that you can’t make a decision about anything.

When that happens, the same positive trait that impresses a potential client or employer becomes a crushing source of paralysis. It steals the joy you take in anything you’ve already accomplished, and keeps you from moving forward to achieve new goals.

When I was in the corporate world, attention to detail was paramount. In that context, it meant getting repeat business, or being able to co-ordinate a complex workshop.

Now, however, I’m out on my own. I have a business I want to use to share my unique gifts with the world. And, as a creative woman, I just can’t allow perfectionism to rule me. I need to enjoy the process of creating, which means allowing myself to make mistakes.

Sometimes, the answer starts with lowering the bar
Becoming a business owner has meant I’ve had to learn an alternative to my previous focus on detail. And it’s one that my old, perfectionist self would be shocked to learn has made my life far more interesting and fun!

Here are the three keys to this new way for me:

  1. Start by lowering the bar: I ask myself whether everything really does have to be perfect. What might a meal, blog post, or night out have to include to simply be “good enough”? And what would enjoying something that was “good enough” actually look like for me?
  2. Break it down into achievable tasks: once I know what my “good enough” is, I can figure out how to make it happen. What small steps and achievable milestones can I set for myself to get me from here to there?
  3. Focus on enjoying the process: finally, I regularly remind myself that being creative is about a process, not a specific result. If I enjoy that process and let it energize me, I lose my fear of moving ahead with it.

Where do you need a little moderation in your life?
The old saying “Everything in moderation” is as true for skills and talents as it is for anything else. The line that I need to walk is the one between detail-focus and perfectionism. Yours might be something completely different.

Take a moment now to ask yourself what your own line is. Which skill or talent do you have that’s wonderful in moderation, but damaging in excess? And how do you manage it?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Felicia Baucom
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