College /// Thoughts x
in an article about perfectionists, a frustrated student looking at a desk
Illustration by Skylar Owenby, Western Carolina University

Striving for perfection can be motivating, but it must be balanced with rest and compassion.

A healthy dose of perfectionism can motivate you to put your all into work — whether it’s professional or academic, there is a time and place for being a perfectionist. But when taken too far, perfectionists can procrastinate for fear of not doing an assignment perfectly, fail to make time for rest and constantly compare themselves to their peers. As a chronic perfectionist, I know firsthand how important it is to catch warning signs early on and have strategies in place to prevent a spiral.

1. Avoiding a task, because it might be harder than you anticipated

It’s a new semester, with new assignments and exams and tasks to complete. It feels fresh and exciting for a while — until the dread seeps in. When I have difficult readings to get through, or a research paper to start, it can quickly begin to feel insurmountable. Thoughts like, “If I can’t do it perfectly first try, why start?” clang around my head. Perfectionists might feel terrified of starting, but at the same time make themselves feel guilty for not starting. That blinking cursor on an empty Word document starts to feel like a taunt. It feels like I’ll never get it finished to the standard I want.

When you’re starting a new assignment, you need to remind yourself that you just haven’t laid the groundwork yet. Good essays and research papers take time, and this includes time away from the paper, to let your brain settle before you look at it again — hopefully, with fresh eyes the second time around. Break the task down into small steps; if diving headfirst into research feels like too much, start with skimming titles and bookmarking a few sources without reading abstracts or articles yet. For an argumentative essay, you could try making a dot point outline of your argument — you can even dictate into your phone if you don’t feel up to typing yet. Starting is the hardest part. Conquering the blank page with a few lines on your central argument or theme will make a huge difference when you pick it back up in a few hours.

2. Burning out and not scheduling in downtime

Busy feels good. Busy feels productive and useful, especially in a culture of constant “grinding” and goal chasing. But busy isn’t always best. Busy also often means losing sleep, not eating well because you’re distracted by everything (mentally) on your plate, and eventually burning out. The issue here is how perfectionists view productivity. Being productive seems to be synonymous with making long to-do lists, keeping your space immaculately tidy, working late and getting up early to do it all over again. But failing to make time for downtime or rest is not productive — in fact, it often makes me feel worse.

Usually toward the end of the semester, I’ll find myself working nonstop without breaks, cutting my sleep schedule short to get a “head start” on the day, and not seeing much of my friends and family. It’s only when I’m totally burnt out that I wonder, “Should I watch an episode of ‘The Vampire Diaries’ to switch off?” This response needs to come much earlier, before the burnout. “Productive” is defined as “having the quality or power of producing especially in abundance.” But you are not a production line; you are a person. Look out for warning signs like having trouble focusing on tasks, changes in eating habits, headaches and fatigue. Learn to listen to your body and allow yourself to rest when you need it.

3. Moving the goalposts

Especially in university, it can feel like a case of “one assignment down, a million more to go” for perfectionists. Once you’ve submitted that essay, it’s time to start preparing for that final exam. I quickly start to feel like a mouse on a wheel, barely keeping up before another cycle begins. The pressure can feel constant, but the key is mindfully slowing down, listing out what you’ve accomplished and rewarding yourself occasionally.

Making a list of what you’ve already done gives your brain a dopamine hit and allows for a moment of congratulations for how far you’ve come. Those tasks weren’t easy, but you got them done — and you will do the same thing when you’re tackling the next round of assessment. Treating yourself doesn’t have to be lavish, but it must be mindful to signal a sense of accomplishment. A walk around your favorite park, journaling in a café, buying yourself a new shirt or cooking your favorite dinner can all be ways to thank yourself for your hard work and hype yourself up for the next thing.

4. Giving yourself self-imposed pressure and deadlines

The pressure that perfectionists feel is often completely self-imposed, rather than applied externally by friends or family. For me, growing up doing well in school meant that getting good grades and appearing “on top of it all” became a core part of my personality. I like to get things done and done well. I don’t think there’s any shame in this, but I do think that it can get out of hand quickly. In order to feel “on top of it all,” I tell myself that I need to get assignments handed in early, give peer feedback early, turn up to work early — none of which are actually true.

Perfectionists sometimes need a reality check. Ask yourself, does this need to be done right now? If no, take a step back and make a plan to prioritize what’s really crucial for the next few hours or days, and then go from there. Brain dumping and mind-mapping can help for making sense of a sprawling to-do list. If you’re the one setting the standard, you’re the one who can change it, too. See point 2 and give yourself a break!

5. Comparing yourself to others

Maybe it’s a natural competitive streak, maybe it’s years of hustle culture ingrained in our brains, but perfectionists are especially prone to imposter syndrome. It’s easy to compare yourself to peers — how often they post their study spots on their Instagram stories, how easily they seem to understand content in class, what grades they get. What’s important to remember when these thought patterns crop up is that everyone is striving and struggling! Everyone else is working hard at their own pace, and nobody’s study habits or methods are the same. There’s room for everyone to succeed.

Being a perfectionist isn’t a bad thing — it often makes you detail-oriented, efficient and ambitious. But it’s important to balance these qualities with self-compassion and kindness. Give yourself a break, just like you probably tell everyone else to. I know that you’ve heard about the studies that prove that downtime and rest are crucial for productivity — but maybe you feel this doesn’t apply to you, that you need to work harder and faster and smarter. This is your inner perfectionist rearing its head, and this is a sign to maybe quiet them down and rest, just for a little while. You clicked on this article after all, and maybe that’s all the sign you need.

Writer Profile

Anna Merlo

University of Queensland, Australia
Law/Arts (Extended Major in Writing)

Anna is a fourth-year law/arts student, majoring in writing. She loves reading, baking and really long walks. She plans to write a shelfful of novels and pursue academia after her bachelor’s degree.

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