The perfectionist’s dilemma: 6 signs you’re setting goals too hard to achieve

When I’m asked to write about perfectionism, I’m always more than a bit hesitant.

I’ve been a so-called perfectionist for most of my life, focusing intently on details and always trying to make anything I work on as good as it can possibly be.

I have a hard time letting go of any piece of work because I always think there’s something I can add, subtract, or tweak that will make it even better.

At the same time, I’m fully cognizant of my perfectionist tendencies, and I work hard to be less hung up on trying to make everything perfect.

I set time limits for myself and look for clues that I’m obsessing about work that I should have already submitted.

You could say I’m trying to perfect, not being a perfectionist!

Perhaps, like me, you’re caught in the perfectionist’s dilemma, and you’re setting goals for yourself that are too hard to achieve. Let’s take a deep dive into this dilemma and look for signs that you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

The perfectionist’s dilemma

What is the perfectionist’s dilemma? As with any dilemma, it represents a choice between two unfavorable options.

In this case, the choice is between:

A) continuing to strive for perfection, an impossible goal, and

B) accepting things as good enough and stopping your efforts.

To a perfectionist, the choice is bleak indeed.

One option is to stop before something is perfect, but the other option, reaching true perfection, is unattainable. So what can you do if you’re a highly meticulous person, always striving to do your very best?

Like me, I think you know in your heart of hearts that perfection is never, ever attainable. 

Think about a perfect circle on your screen, then zoom in further and further. Eventually, you’ll see pixelated roughness instead of a perfectly smooth line. 

That’s a screen resolution problem, you might say.

OK, think of a perfect circle drawn in pen, then. Zoom in again, and you’ll see that the thickness of the line isn’t consistent while the paper is rough and its fibers are jagged.

You won’t see perfection ever because it’s actually not a physical possibility.

Perfection is just a concept in our minds.

Once we can accept this truth, it becomes easier to let go of option A and see there is no real dilemma.

But it takes a lot of work to accept this, and you can start out by looking at clear signs you’re setting goals that are too hard to achieve.

1) You always submit work late / at the last minute.

When I was in college, I was famous for pulling all-nighters.

How many times did I pull all-nighters in front of my computer powered by Twinkies and pots of strong coffee?

But I wasn’t there for the same reason as most of the other people I knew.

They’d mostly messed around and partied until there was only one day left to write their big paper, and they had no choice but to work until the crack of dawn.

But I never got started at the last minute.

I was good at managing my time, studying for exams, and starting assignments well in advance.

I just couldn’t let things go.

So even though I’d written a paper the week before it was due, I’d still be up all night trying to perfect it.

I’d be doing more research and rewrites until the sun came up, and only when I was completely exhausted would I submit my work and manage to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

If I could sleep – normally, I lay awake thinking about what else I could have written.

If you’re always pushing deadlines like this, then it’s a clear sign that you, too, are trying too hard to make things perfect.

2) You never feel what you’ve done is complete.

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This is the real essence of the perfectionist’s dilemma.

No matter how hard you try, you always feel like there’s room for improvement.

I know because I still suffer from this feeling daily. But at the same time, I try to accept the truth that nothing will ever be perfect.

But you still have to try, don’t you?

The answer is actually no.

Imagine you work for 20 hours on a project to get it to what you feel is 99% as good as it will get.

Sure, you can see another 1% that could improve, but how long would that take?

Sometimes, you can see how to improve things, but it would take another 5, 10, or 20 hours to do so.

Is that 1% improvement really worth this much time and effort?

The answer is almost always no, and that’s why this is a goal that’s not only too hard to achieve but far too time-consuming and costly to make it an efficient option.

3) You’re constantly tired.

How much can you actually do in a day?

Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep per night just to maintain health and mental acuity. Sure, you can skip sleep to get work done, but if you get into a sleep deficit, this will harm your productivity in the long term.

And yet, this is a habit that so many of us perfectionists fall into.

This isn’t a dilemma; it’s a contradiction.

While we’re striving for perfection and sacrificing sleep and rest to attain our goals, we’re simultaneously damaging our ability to produce high-quality work.

There’s just no way around it. Humans need to sleep to maintain proper brain function, including memory, focus, and concentration.

Without getting this valuable rest, you’re setting yourself up for failure down the road.

So if you’re constantly tired, even sleepy and irritable, this might be a sign that you’re setting your goals too high and working yourself too hard.

4) You take on more than you can handle.

One thing that many perfectionists do is take on lots of tasks and responsibilities.


Well, for one thing, we think we can do things better, following the old adage, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

Another reason is that we try to set performance goals as well. Producing a certain amount of work is another way to attain success for most of us.

The problem lies in the fact that we almost always over-commit ourselves.

And then we end up in a predicament. Do we do all the work we took on to the best of our ability and wear ourselves out in the process?

Do we give some of the work away to others and thereby relinquish our control over its quality?

Or do we do some tasks to a lower standard to ensure everything gets done?

For a perfectionist, none of these options is a good one.

Obviously, the best thing to do instead is to only take on what you know you can achieve to the standard you set for yourself. Otherwise, you’re just setting your goals too high.

5) You feel like a failure.

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As perfectionists, we almost always feel like we’re not doing enough.

In our minds, there’s always something else that can improve, and that means that in almost every task we undertake, we don’t feel we’ve done well enough.

For us, that basically means failure.

The problem is, since no task we ever do ends up being perfect, we risk feeling like failures all the time.

And this is not a nice feeling, as you probably know.

Doesn’t this seem like a really bizarre contradiction?

You work as hard as you can to achieve perfection but never quite get there, so no matter how well you do, you feel you’ve failed.

The quality of your work can be higher than anyone else’s, but it still doesn’t satisfy you.

What else could that mean, except that you’re setting goals that are too hard to achieve?

These unattainably high standards are never going to be met, and until you change them, you’re never going to be pleased with yourself.

6) Other people tell you.

Not every sign you’re setting your goals too high comes from yourself.

Other people can tell you directly, or at least insinuate this to you through comments like, “Wow, that’s ambitious,” or “Are you sure that’s achievable?”

But we perfectionists often simply ignore other people’s opinions, don’t we?

We like to think that we know better and try harder, and they simply have lower standards.

But it’s about time we start changing our minds and listening to the people around us to help us set more realistic goals.

As a recovering perfectionist, I know what it’s like to set high standards.

I also know how setting your goals too high can end up doing a lot more harm than good to yourself.

Ultimately, if you want to do the best that you can, you also have to give yourself realistic goals and the opportunity to actually meet them.




Picture of Marcel Deer

Marcel Deer

Marcel is a journalist, gamer, and entrepreneur. When not obsessing over his man cave or the latest tech, he’s failing helplessly at training his obnoxious rescue dog ‘Boogies’.

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