In my writing, teaching and research, I always do much more than I should. I produce excellent work, but it's always late because I seem to be incapable of scaling back my (unrealistically high) expectations due to time constraints. I am exhausted and demoralized. I know this isn't group therapy, but has anyone had success with concrete strategies to delimit themselves when a "good enough" job really is good enough? (ADHD + perfectionism is a bad combination.)

  • I just edited the title to actually ask the question that you are asking in the body. If you disagree, then please change it back!
    – Flyto
    Sep 19 '18 at 13:11

Get counselling. Really.

There is no shame in that, and you don't need to have full-blown burnout to get support from a therapist.

Aside from that, what has worked for me is to schedule private things I like to do (including simple and "obvious" things, such as spending time with my family, watching TV, playing video games, etc.) in exactly the same manner as work tasks. At the very least this makes it explicit that you are actually making a trade-off when you burn the midnight candle at work. Keep in mind that, hopefully, other non-work things are important to you as well, so if you decide to burn 20 more hours on a paper that's basically done you are effectively trading off one thing you want to do for another. If you look at it this way it basically becomes an optimization problem - do I really want to proof-read this paper three more times to make sure that there are no typos in it, or do I rather want to spend this time on something else that is also important to me?

A second thing I do is rigorous time keeping and time budgeting. I actually learned this during the teacher's seminar that our university mandates for all tenure-track faculty, but it's actually applicable to all aspects of academic work. Basically, one can always invest an infinite amount of time into every activity, so it is important to assign a budget of how much time one practically has for a specific activity (say "I can only spend 6 hours to prepare a single lecture"), and then do the best that is possible in that time. This may mean that you can't make the fancy flipped classroom work that you had in mind, or it may mean that this really interesting data analysis will need to wait for the next paper, but time is finite and ultimately a great paper that is never submitted is worse than a good paper that is.

But, again - if you feel like you can't bring yourself to make these trade-offs on your own, get professional help before you burn out completely and/or drop out of academia.

  • Great answer, but I think sometimes family (or friends) can help more.
    – SnOwl
    Sep 19 '18 at 19:21
  • 1
    @BalazsToth Yes, with reservations. I think for people who are just feeling a "normal" amount of stress family support works well, but if you start to cross over into clinical mental health issues (which may or may not be true for OP, obviously) you really, really need professional support, not the advise of family (or random strangers on the Internet). "Common sense advise" is really dangerous when dealing with clinical levels of stress.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 20 '18 at 9:31

Speaking as an undergrad that likes to 'perfect' all these long projects assigned to me... I have gotten to the point where I no longer laser-in one one item and get it perfectly done, then move to the next. Rather. I find it more beneficial to simply get a (in my mind) "rough draft" of anything I need to turn in, then when all is done, I go back and perfect it until out of time. This way, I can somewhat satisfy perfectionist tendancies, and not be caught without a submission by the deadline, should perfecting take a long time.

It does take some adjusting, to force yourself to work differently, but I recommend it.

  • So, in other words, get everything done at the same time, with increments of quality across the board at the same time instead of sequentially.
    – Nij
    Oct 26 '18 at 3:13
  • Something like that. Getting all items done and then tweaking to your liking seems most beneficial to me.
    – Kyle C
    Oct 27 '18 at 6:37

A few tips:

Wait until the afternoon or evening before class (or even morning right before class) to prepare a class. Can be a bit risky because of ninja meetings being sprung on you. But if the time constraint forces you to just G.I.D. without putting in the effort you really wanted to, that's a success.

Intentionally set out to write "ok" papers that only cover the unpublished results you are sure about and perhaps bored of by now (not necessarily the super-awesome-but-not-quite-completely-clear new result that you are on the edge of having ready). Revise the paper to improve it with the hot new stuff if you can, but do not completely iterate from one set of results to the next, that's the next paper. Also the usual advice: write according to a writing schedule and into an outline. The process must be a job, completely devoid of any reliance on inspiration or enthusiasm.

If you are spending too much time reading, stop trying to learn new things from the readings and just focus on understanding what's been done and why. If you aren't spending much time reading, read more papers. It helps you keep on top of the line for what's good enough to publish despite obvious shortcomings.

I left out research because it's probably too variable between fields and to be honest it's what make the job fun for me, so I try keep as much fun there as possible (as opposed to making it just a job too)


Perfectionism is really something that a mental health counselor, therapist or psychiatrist should be helping with. That said, some things that I've found to be useful based on my own experience and that of others:

  • Deliberately set a goal to complete a task in a flawed way. You have to exercise judgement to make sure you actually perform it to an adequate level, but if you have a problem with perfectionism, most likely you are aiming for much more than is expected. Take a moment to identify the least you can get away with doing, and then try to do not only no less than that, but also no more. As soon as you notice yourself "polishing up" something that is pretty much done, force yourself to stop and call it a day.
  • Set deadlines for yourself and follow them. To be fair, I haven't had much success with this - I just don't have the discipline to follow my own deadlines. But setting and attempting to respect limits in terms of calendar time as well as actual work time can help, especially if you are cognizant of the time limit throughout the task (as opposed to just when it's about to run out) and plan accordingly. It also gives you space to come to terms with the fact that you don't have enough time to do a perfect job.
  • Set out to fail. I've heard others get good results from setting a personal goal like "fail one time everyday". This will help you get used to the idea of occasionally not succeeding, and hopefully reduce anxiety over the fear of doing an imperfect job.

In my experience, the whole process of dealing with your perfectionism is a bit like training a muscle. You will never truly "cure it", but there are certain techniques that you can apply over and over, and gradually teach yourself effective skills to mitigate it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.