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How I conquered stress (and became less perfect)

woman holding head

3 a.m. I was jolted awake, my pillow wet with sweat.

"It was just a dream," my left brain said. "Your abandoned blog post did not chase you down Wilshire Boulevard asking, ‘Why me?’"

Ah, the joy of being a perfectionist. Please tell me you’re one, too, to make me feel better.

Actually, you probably are a perfectionist. According to the World Health Organization, an increasing number of young people are suffering from depression and anxiety disorder as social media-fueled perfectionism is rising.

Chances are, you are as stressed out as I used to be. It was just very tiring to be second-guessing what other people might think about the quality of my work (and blogs) all the time.

Somehow, we all believe that ambition, perfectionism, success and stress arrive at our door as a package. One of my friends works in her empty office until 11 every night. Another complains that all but a few in her team are bone lazy.

I used to be proud to be a perfectionist. I wanted to be just like Hermione Granger. I mean, who doesn't love her? (Voldemort, maybe?)

Then, Professor Laura Empson came along and made me think twice.

Her research revealed that star performers in professional organizations all share a couple of traits: The big salary doesn't make them feel worthy and they push themselves to work longer and longer hours to please clients. They’re “insecure overachievers.”

Here’s my personal three-step process to reduce perfectionist tendencies and be more productive.

Step 1. Stop the denial and embrace that you are a perfectionist.

Back in my start-up days, I partnered with a 100-percent perfectionist marketing manager. "Hi Grace, can you ask the printer to make this [19th] correction? This "a" is just off (0.01 mm) and the noodle should be 5 percent brighter."

I hated that. The third revision looked darned perfect to me. It was not like we had plenty of time. "I am not a perfectionist like him," I comforted myself.

Until I saw the result of an "Are you a perfectionist?" test, which concluded: "You feel pressured to live up to societal standards of perfection."

Yup. Okay. That's me. I realized that the person I hated was actually the perfectionist in me.

Step 2: Admit your perfectionist attitude makes you less productive and anxious.

Michelle, a successful marketing executive, told me the story about the cabinet sitting in her trendy Paris apartment's living room. "For five years, this living room was a mess. Paul's toys were everywhere while I searched for the perfect cabinet. Isn't it funny I will give up one form of perfection for another? We finally bought a good-enough cabinet, but I am still unhappy. I still want the perfect one that I cannot afford."

I wanted to laugh, but I caught myself quickly. Didn't I make the same choice day in and day out at work?

How many times did I freak out over the font size, color and margin of my PowerPoint presentation deck? There were countless times I stared at the prompt of a Microsoft Word document unable to type a word for the upcoming report.

Result? I forgot to go to the restroom. I ate lunch at my desk. I worked on the weekend. I woke up at 3 a.m. pondering if the formula in cell B24 was correct.

I decided this had to change or I’d go crazy.

Step 3: Replace "perfect" with a new goal: "done"

“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’” — Brené Brown

I was afraid to fire my inner perfectionist.

The perfectionist in me said, “If you fire me, you will be lying in bed, binge-watching ‘Stranger Things’ on Netflix and you will be fired and everyone will think that you’re a loser.’"

I learned that I was confusing healthy striving and perfectionism in Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You‘re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

Healthy striving means I do my best at work without constantly listening to my inner critic say things like, “Let's find another picture for this slide. This 10th version is still not good enough."

And this is exceptionally freeing.

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Grace H. Woo is director supply chain strategy at McCormick & Company.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.