CPA INSIDER

When perfectionism becomes a problem

Follow this advice to balance turning out high-quality work without overdoing it.
By Dawn Wotapka

Hard work and lots of long hours helped Michel Valbrun, CPA, graduate from the University of Florida and pass the CPA Exam. But, during his first job as an auditor, he realized he was spending too much time trying to reach the unattainable goal of turning out perfect work.  

Instead of lowering his standards, he decided to work smarter. Key to this was learning to recognize when his drive for perfection became counterproductive. "I noticed that the idea of perfectionism could actually be a hindrance," recalled Valbrun, now president of the Valbrun Group LLC, an Atlanta-based tax firm.

Indeed, accounting generally attracts a studious crowd with a penchant for accuracy, which is certainly a good thing. But it can also lead, in some instances, to an outsized drive to be perfect, which can hold people back in their careers.

"Individuals well suited for a career in accounting often share several desirable characteristics: attention to detail, efficiency, organization, and reliability, to name a few," said Molly Tucker, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Long Beach and Newport Beach, Calif. But "it is not uncommon for perfectionism to develop in fields where accuracy is prized."

Taken too far, perfectionism can be counterproductive and even damaging to one's health. But it is possible to do a great job without being perfect. Here's how:

Recognize the problem. Be on the lookout for self-criticism, stress, and anxiety, Tucker said. Studies have shown that that perfectionism can lead to health issues, including insomnia and anxiety. The issue is becoming more prominent, and it starts early: Research published by the American Psychological Association found that perfectionism has increased in college-aged students for several decades, fed by comparing grades in school and, more recently, social media.

Establish a reasonable bar. Recognize that you don't have to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can, which is likely better than most others can do. This might be hard at first, said Alistair Bambridge, CPA (Canada), founder of Bambridge Accountants, a firm with offices in London and New York City that caters to artists. He advised prioritizing what's worth the most effort and focusing your attention there. For other things, decide what you need to achieve and stop there.

"Getting comfortable with getting work to a certain level, you need to ease yourself into that," he said. "It's a really uncomfortable thing to do."

Valbrun said he realized that he was harder on himself than anyone else was. "I have this bar of what's perfect, but it's something that I pretty much made up," he said. "I can put out high-quality work even if it's not perfect," which he defined as being flawless without any inaccuracy or defect.

Examine your time. Don't be afraid to ask for guidance on how long a project should take, Tucker said. "Consult with peers and superiors to get a realistic sense of the expectations and how much time you should be spending on a project," she said. "You may find that you're overburdening yourself unnecessarily."

Talk to a manager or mentor to assess whether the time, effort, and energy you're investing are adding value to your output, said Brandon Pfaff, CPA, a tax expert in St. Louis who serves on the advisory board of Wealthy Living Today, a financial information website. "This will help you figure out if what you're doing is producing quality work or spinning your wheels."   

Let it go. This may be hard, but letting go is critical to moving on. "Checking and rechecking your work compulsively can increase anxiety, ironically leaving you less efficient overall," Tucker pointed out.

Taking a break and then revisiting the work with fresh eyes is much more effective, said Stacy Caprio, a business coach based in Chicago. If an extra pair of eyes feels reassuring, ask a trusted colleague to check your work. "This way you can do your best and then simply let go," she said.

Valbrun asks himself if he's ready for others to see his work — even if it isn't picture-perfect. "That's kind of my mark," he said. "Would I feel comfortable sharing this, even if there's the opportunity of it being criticized?"

Forgive yourself. Understand that no one is perfect and that messing up doesn't make you a failure, Valbrun advised. "We're human," he said, adding that he tries to apologize when necessary, learn from his mistakes, and develop processes or fill in educational gaps to reduce the chance of it happening again. "The focus should be more on progress versus perfectionism," he said. "It's part of the process of development."

Seek help if needed. Finally, don't be afraid to seek help from a professional if perfectionism is hurting your well-being, said Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. Warning signs include feeling depressed, not sleeping because you replay errors in your head, being irritable with loved ones due to the stress of your perfectionism or procrastinating to avoid a project because it isn't perfect, she said.

According to Tucker, if you are dreading work or working later than required, "it may be time to consult a therapist for more intensive intervention and guidance."

While finance professionals are expected to excel and be accurate and complete in their work, a drive for perfection shouldn't get in the way on the job. "The focus should be on achieving excellence," Valbrun said. When he realized that, he said, "that's when I let go of the idea of perfectionism."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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