All or Nothing – The Pitfalls of Perfectionism

all or nothing - perfectionism

Perfectionism isn’t something you just get over and then you are done with it forever. You can learn a lot about yourself and perfectionism, how to give yourself more grace, and live a mostly reformed life, but during stressful times or when you least expect it, it creeps back in.

Writing a post about All or Nothing thinking has been on my mind for a while. The need to share this with you has only increased since the Declutter Challenge started last week and I’ve found myself telling so many different people the exact same thing: don’t give this an all or nothing approach. That is just a different way of saying: don’t be a perfectionist with this.

The irony, hilarious irony, is that I’ve been procrastinating writing this blog post because I’ve been nervous about not capturing this super-important topic the right way. So I’ve been doing Nothing because I was afraid I couldn’t do it All perfectly.

You may be a perfectionist reading this and not even realize it yet. Did you know that some perfectionists don’t necessarily look the way you think they would? Perfectionists can have very clean homes and very messy homes. Perfectionists can look like slobs or dress to impress. Perfectionists need to see a clear path or have a clear understanding how to do something exactly as it should be done perfectly (ALL), or they do NOTHING.

Truth – Perfection isn’t possible. Not for me and not for you.

How does Perfectionism effect decluttering?

  • Perfectionists have a tough time missing a day or two and then continuing on with the rest of the group for the challenge. For them, if it isn’t All, it might as well be Nothing. And so they tell themselves they have to catch-up. Catching-up can be very difficult in an already difficult challenge, so it becomes overwhelming and they just stop trying all together. In actuality, had they been able to look past the imperfect days, and see that in the end 87 out of 91 days is pretty successful, they would be so much better off letting themselves keep going. And heck, while we’re at it, 45 out of 91 days is going to leave a pretty good mark on a home!
  • Perfectionists try to add on additional tasks to the decluttering assignment. They want the room and space to be perfect when they complete the week even though the assignment is just to declutter, so they are deep cleaning and decorating. Even when they know it is not expected of them, they expect it of themselves and will feel like they failed if they don’t do it ALL. Often this leads to burnout, which leads to them doing Nothing instead. And now, not only did they not complete the over-zealous mission in their minds, they didn’t complete the original mission either.

The Pursuit of Better instead of Best

One way I’ve personally combatted my perfectionism, which has been so severe that it has been isolating and paralyzing to me at times in my life, is to pursue better instead of best. It is a small shift in my self-talk when I approach a project or an area of my home I want to work on. How can I make this better? That question is so much easier and less intimidating to answer than How do I make this the best? 

I can feel you bristling at this. “Aren’t we always supposed to try our best? What you are proposing sounds like taking the easy way or giving up!” But as hard as this allowance is for a perfectionist to give themselves, it isn’t taking the easy way or giving up. To a perfectionist, this grace is life-giving. This gives them the room to go on and do amazing things or just regular things, which feels amazing to a perfectionist.

The first step truly is to understand and realize that you are a perfectionist and that you are acting in the All or Nothing mindset. Because if you can figure that out, you can walk yourself to a different mental middle-ground. Know Thyself.

Are you a perfectionist? Do you suffer with this ALL or NOTHING mindset? How will you protect yourself from perfectionism during the declutter challenge or whatever project you’re working on?

Still recovering,

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78 thoughts on “All or Nothing – The Pitfalls of Perfectionism

  1. Thank you Mary! Not only has God gifted you with amazing organizing abilities but also the encouraging truth and words so many of us need to hear. I am going to do better if I can’t do my best! I worked on all my cabinets today but didn’t get to do the spice one…it drives me crazy to have left it undone but everything else the family uses in the cabinets has been redone today and will serve them so much better. It is the “better” I can do right now with a 2 month old, 1 year old, and 3 year old :)

    1. You are amazing! All that and 3 little ones! We both know that the spice cupboard will wait. It is quite patient that way.

  2. Oh Mary, this is brilliant! You hit the nail on the head. This is me 100%! Your insight has really spoken to me. I have been a member for four years, and have come to an understanding of this concept. I can’t believe how freeing this is. In my current deep dig in my office I am only deep decluttering. And am pretty ok with waiting on the cleaning. The decorating phase won’t happen until the office is moved into my hubbies workroom, which won’t happen until……domino affect in play hear. But one step at a time. Almost done with going through the long neglected paper piles!! 1.5 large, black garbage bags of shredded paper, and lots of filing later, I SHOULD be done with that today! Then on to the next job. My reward is going to be to measure hubbies workroom, and office furniture, and play with arrangements. Fun!

      1. Your blog is just the boost I needed today. Was disappointed in what I got done. But today after reading your blog. I really accomplished a lot more. All filing is done!! Major accomplishment!! Tomorrow I will start the cleaning phase, Friday will be get ready for dinner guests and movie!! Yeah!!

  3. Thanks!!!! I know I can’t possible finish all those cabinets today. A neighbor suggested picking on cabinet in which to place all the things I am saving for a yard sale we are doing together when it is better weather then to proceed with the rest of the decluttering knowing that one cabinet will be decluttered when the time is right.

    1. All those decluttered cabinets will be great. I’m not sure I would pick a kitchen cabinet as the place to store stuff, but if that works for you, then go with it. You’ll find that being willing to do what works for you is very empowering. :)

  4. Thank you so much for your wise words! I never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but my teenage daughter thinks I am. She sees my life as totally put together, and I know exactly what I am doing! (perish the thought) What has helped me already, when I thought about tackling this challenge this week, I immediately felt better when I split the cabinet days into two days! I had just decluttered the fridge, so I used that day to just do 1/2 the cabinets. I keep telling myself, no matter what progress I make this week, the kitchen will look better than it did last week.

    1. Yes, exactly!! And with that attitude in mind, of better, better, better, better … we don’t let it go to “nothing” again and go back to the same mess to start with. It is a wonderful thing to finally embrace – life changing.

  5. Reading this post has given me the permission to continue. I definitely am an all or nothing and I took comfort I it although it does not Steve me or my family. Thank you Mary for identifying this challenge of all or nothing.

  6. Thank you! I needed to hear these words. The Declutter challenge has helped me a lot. It is so freeing to discover I can do some things and it makes a difference. My challenge is not sticking with it when a bump appears in the road. I know my kitchen is going to take a while, yet I’m procrastinating because I know there is so much I need to get rid of, but I’m emotional about.

  7. I feel so much better now that I read about not being a perfectionist. I missed the last two days of the challenge and I almost tried to do three days in one. Now I know I will do today’s challenge and the rest can wait -I’m so excited!! Thank you

  8. Wow! Thank you. Sundays off seemed silly to me. I’ve had a pile of mittens and hats to sort through covering my living room floor since then. I guess I can put them away and continue working at “better” now…

    1. Yes, I think better might be better than mittens and hats covering the living room floor for another week. ;) lol. You can definitely do this!

      ps – Sundays off are for a multiple reasons – #1: Religious, #2: I really do think people need a break to make it for the long-run, #3: it gives people a chance to reset and breathe before we switch focuses for the next week. There are probably more reasons, but those are just some off the top of my head.

  9. I’ve learned that nothing gets done when I think I have to do it all. Now I just do a little bit and know that it’s better than nothing. Earlier this week I went in the garage with plans to declutter in my freezer. I came out with meal plans for the rest of the week and meat thawing in the fridge. My freezer is still a mess, but a weeks worth of meals clearer.

    1. I think we all learn pieces of this of this lesson at different times. The idea of doing it all is just so very daunting that I think it scares many people into doing nothing. So glad we can all figure this out together!

  10. Thanks! That is so me! I have to deep clean, take down and wash curtains, try to find the perfect containers for my newly organized stuff. I guess my take on it is I have to do what makes me happy in the end and if it takes more than 91 days – that’s okay!

    1. Definitely do what makes you happy, just make sure you aren’t burning yourself out. If you find yourself procrastinating doing any of it, just jump right back in the challenge where everyone else is.

  11. I have dealt with this in my life as well. Not long ago, during a time that I was completely overwhelmed in to the do nothing because I can’t do it perfectly, I discovered “good enough”. If I only had 10 minutes to do something that really would take longer to get “right”, I’d give it my ten minutes and say “Well, it’s a lot better now than it was ten minutes ago”.
    Grace is a wonderful thing!

  12. I have tried to redefine what perfection is. Old definition – “all or nothing” or “doing everything exactly right”. If perfection doesn’t occur for any reason, I am a failure.
    New way to look at it – Perfection is progress. Perfection is NOT giving up. Perfection equals persistence.

    It is a small, but hard shift to make. Yes, I am still striving for “perfection”, but it is perfection over my responses. Realizing that I cannot control outside influences is hard; however, I can control how I react. Not allowing myself to give up when I have an option is attainable.

    It is hard to set the goal at “better”, but it makes me feel great when I can reach my goal. I can be perfect in reaching my goal of progress.

    (And yes, I keep re-reading my post trying to make it better and better. Just let it go! Lol)

  13. I was going to say, “Oh my goodness, this is SOOOO ME!” and then I noticed that Wendy beat me to it. :-) I guess there are lots of us out there. :-) I have been this way my whole life, and it is debilitating at times. I am getting better though. Sometimes I have to I remind myself that something is better than nothing, and “better” is better than “worse.”

  14. I just had an ‘aha’ moment reading your post. I have always thought that I “used to be” a perfectionist but I’m obviously not anymore because of the way my house looks. Turns out, I am definitely still a perfectionist! Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    1. Yes, many of my clients tell me they “used to” be a perfectionist, but then we find out as we work together that they’ve not done this thing or that thing because of things in their way of doing it perfectly!

  15. Echoing your encouragement, one of my life phrases has been to “just make it better than it was.” It works. ;-)

  16. A very wise supervisor I had early in my career pegged me with this issue and gave me a sign for my bulletin board that said “if you wait to do something until no one can find fault with it, nothing will ever get done”. This was a regular reminder to me to “just find a starting point and jump in”….these pearls of wisdom have served me well over the years.

    1. That is so great that you had someone looking out for you that noticed that, but even greater is that you were able to be teachable and use the advice!

  17. I started a few days late and didn’t do the goals in the order they were given. I don’t have lower cupboards, so I assigned that day to “totes”, then had to revise as I had to move totes out of the way to get to the upper cupboards! I am a recovering perfectionist … one day at a time. :D

  18. grow up hearing good, better, best
    never let ’em rest
    ’til your good is better
    and your better best.!!!
    I am sure I do not need to add anything to this and you get the picture.

    1. I think we have to learn the difference between trying our best and only allowing ourselves to do/be the best. We should always try our best, but when we don’t feel like our best is enough, we’ve crossed the line into perfectionism.

      1. AMEN. it is hard not to hear that little ditty playing on an endless loop and your blog lesson was right on and appreciated. hope it will drown out the ditty.

  19. Hi, My name is Crystal and I have the perfectionism problem. Boy did you hit the nail on the head with this one. I couldn’t agree more. I tend to do the all or nothing thing. I do catch myself doing it so I know I am trying to get better. Thanks for the eye opening post.

  20. Haha oh my goodness….this is totally me in every aspect of my life! I’ve been an all or nothing personality my whole life and I never knew why. I just assumed that my “nothing” times were due to laziness, but really I just stop if everything’s not “perfect” and if I don’t complete the extra tasks I’ve given myself. Thank you, Mary!!!!!

    1. So many people have misdiagnosed themselves as lazy and this kind of harsh self-talk only makes matters worse. You can do so much if you give yourself room to do it in a human way. :)

  21. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist… but the all or nothing mentality is totally me. It’s something I struggle with daily. Especially when dieting…. I am slowly starting to get it to sink that tomorrow is another day.

    1. Yes, and it is really important to remember that one failure is NOT a reason to CAUSE another failure. Look at mistakes as isolated incidents instead of a reason to quit or cave in.

  22. I do this a lot and it has really bad ramifications sometimes. Like when I’m studying for law school :( but I have learned to list the goals and mark them off as I go. Seeing something done is far better than seeing nothing done and then feeling worthless because of it.

    1. Yes, perfectionists tie our worth to our accomplishments, when really, our worth is not related to what we accomplish. These are really hard lessons to learn, but it is comforting somehow knowing that there are lots of people out there who feel this way too. And when I think of how I don’t want other people to feel bad about themselves because of these things, I realize, I probably shouldn’t feel bad about myself either then.

  23. This has been me and may be still to some extent…but I’m getting better. If I don’t have time for a whole bureau then I still feel good about doing one drawer.

  24. Ah, you always know what to say to me, Mary! I feel like this may be the root of a lot of my procrastinating. I took your advice to heart immediately! Today, instead of waiting until I had every single piece of laundry in the house all sorted into specific loads, I just threw a load in. There’s still some in the hamper that MAY be the exact same color, but guess what? They’ll get just as clean in a different load. I don’t think I’ve ever done laundry so casually before! Part of my brain is still in shock. Haha. It seems so simple, but wow is it ever freeing!! Thank you so much for your always fantastic advice! :)

    1. I’m so glad this was able to help you!!! You are amazing!! Sometimes its’ the simple things, and removing the easy-to-remove roadblocks, like laundry, that make us feel so free!

  25. Omg this is just what I needed to read! Where have you been my whole life! As I lay in bed, with my house a complete disaster, thinking of everything I must do, feeling that weight and depression coming over me. I used to think I was a perfectionist, fast forward 10 years, marriage, health issues, 2 children, weight issues, self worth issues, I started listening to those voices in my head saying I’m a failure and lazy for letting things get so bad. When I talk to my husband he doesn’t understand why I can’t just do it…. do the dishes that fit in the washer and leave the rest… clean the counters and wait on the dishes…. mop the kitchen but leave the rest…. do one load of laundry and be ok with the rest…. and if I’m honest with myself I never understood why I couldn’t either. But what you have said all makes sense. I try to do something to the fullest completion and then get depressed when I don’t reach it and then get bogged down until I get that second wind that might take days, weeks, or months down the road and it all starts again. What my husband always tells me that I don’t think I had the capacity to really understand fits this perfectly! How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! I don’t need to eat the whole elephant, I maybe not even need a whole bite but as long as I keep taking nibbles it will still get eaten eventually…. it’s gonna be hard to keep this mindset but I’m excited to try. Thank you so much! Sorry for the novel.

  26. Thank you Mary so much! This is me and I’ve always wondered “what is wrong with me!?” Thanks for making me feel like I’m not alone. Thanks for the permission to not make it all or nothing and for understanding. My son told me once that the reason he doesn’t like to help me clean is because I don’t just clean I have to rearrange and decorate too.

    1. Knowing and fully realizing what is happening will make you more aware in the future when you start to think “all or nothing” … and that is when you can start to make changes. Knowing is the beginning of it – change won’t happen overnight. I call myself a Recovering Perfectionist, as I’m still working on it.

  27. Yep, this describes me perfectly! Started in childhood. I was a latchkey kid who had to have the house cleaned by the time my mother got home from work everyday. I felt pressure to get it all done and done right from 10 or 11 years old. She would come behind me and “perfect” the lines in the bedspread where I made the bed, etc. To this day I do not make my bed. And I have difficulties at work finishing on time because I have to make sure every last detail is charted…I’m a nurse. So I procrastinate starting any decluttering project at home unless I know I will have plenty of time to finish and some idea of where the things I plan to keep will go….and they usually do not have a new home either because that’s another project. Seems like a never ending cycle.

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