Perfectionism is an all-too-common state of mind amongst scientists and engineers. And it makes sense – the work that we do comes with high expectations and a low margin of error. Our gifts to the world bring significant value to society – be it synthesizing a new medication to treat a serious illness or creating a material that is more sustainable.
…and there can be serious consequences if we don’t get things just right.
Maintaining high standards is important, but this type of pressure can lead to unreasonable expectations and bleed into our personal lives. While we can accept a certain level of entropy, we are used to order and structured processes in the lab. This regimented thinking is not compatible with the twists and turns that are a natural part of life. Life will never perfect (nor should we want it to be!) and there are tangible things that you can do to protect yourself from all-consuming perfectionism.
1. Change your perspective.
Perfectionism is all about perspective, and a perfectionist mindset is not a realistic one. Try the perspective exercises in my free resilience workshop and supplement them with therapy, talking to a trusted loved one, or a support group. Over time, your brain will begin to form new cognitive pathways that do not support the perfectionist mindset. Recognizing your perfectionism is the first step toward healing it, so congratulations on taking that first step!!
Work with your professors, fellow students, colleagues, and supervisor to prioritize your tasks. It is critical to determine the deadline/timeline and expectations for each task so you can strategize appropriately. And recognize that the project doesn’t fall entirely on your shoulders. You have a team to support you and to safeguard against mistakes. Mistakes happen to everyone. Don’t beat yourself up when you make one, be grateful to have the opportunity to fix it and learn from it.
Don't be afraid to ask for help, and don't forget to budget in time for your own self-care and wellbeing.
3. Dial back your energy output on tasks.
“Perfect” is an impossible goal, so focus on completion. When I was struggling with this last year, my psychologist challenged me to reduce my effort and expectation for a task from 100% to 80%. You cannot devote 100% of your energy to everything that you do (it's unrealistic and will lead to burnout). Think to yourself - what does success look like for this task? What needs to be done to complete it? Then focus on only those requirements to complete the task. If you enjoy the process and/or have extra time, certainly take it up a notch. But if you're balancing a lot - just focus on getting it done.
If you need more guidance on perfectionism or any other challenges, please don't hesitate to email me directly here to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lori Ana Valentín is an analytical chemist who holds doctorate and master’s degrees in chemistry from Binghamton University as well as a bachelor of science in biochemistry from SUNY Fredonia. She is a forensic scientist at the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center in Albany, NY. Valentín began her work in forensics in 2015. She was assigned to the seized drugs section where she analyzed hundreds of evidentiary items for the presence of controlled substances in local, state and federal criminal cases. In her current role, she manages the internship program and leads learning and development, community outreach, and organizational health and wellness.