I had never thought about the link between executive functions and perfectionism until I watched a client – a medical professional, circle around and around and around her desire to craft beautiful sentences in her patient records.
Her time-brain was “stuck” in her striving for an ideal: to do her very best on a task that needed doing multiple times in a stressful day. Her lack of mental flexibility, an executive function, was causing negative consequences in her life. She was constantly behind on submitting her patient notes. Her superiors were coming down hard on her to become more efficient with her time. There just aren’t enough hours in her demanding day to carefully construct paragraphs when simpler, condensed notes communicate the essentials for quality patient care.
When I shared her dilemma with my husband, also a physician, he summed up her problem this way: “She has a decision to make. She can either write beautiful sentences, or be a doctor.” Ouch…
This client’s struggles made me look anew at my own perfectionist tendencies. While I give my brain a “plus” for mental flexibility when it comes to going with the flow and thinking outside the box, my time-brain can really get stuck in wanting to make something better and better and better.
Case in point: I have been getting down to the wire completing a huge video product project for my Building Executive Function Skills in the Classroom course that has taken up months of my open time, including weekends.
I can now hear my mother’s voice (her lack of perfectionism drove me crazy as a kid). She would say, “Enough, is enough.” She had what I call a great “in-time” brain: never late, always organized. Using my time tools to support my brain, I can now function mostly with an “in-time” brain, until it comes to large projects…
On a recent perfect Oregon summer Saturday, I was bound to my computer, fussing over video editing details for the course. It was about 4:00 PM. I had been at it since 8:00 AM. My motivation was shot. I resented the whole thing for eating up my life, staring at what looked like a minimum of 16 more hours of work if I continued as planned.
And then I paused. I had one of those “ah ha” moments, when my wiser higher-thinking brain – my metacognition – overruled my inflexible brain.
I looked again at my plan and realized that I was making it more complicated than it needed to be. With only minor edits I could still produce a high quality product – if I could let go of my need for it being as perfect as possible.
I went with my wise voice. My shoulders dropped. With this decision, I would be done with this phase and have my Sunday free.
I loved that suddenly open Sunday. I filled it with memories. I gave the morning to my husband and we spent hours walking hand in hand along the Portland waterfront. I returned home to an afternoon of cooking dinner for my son and his wife, which is a creative outlet for me. When I put dinner on the table, my son sighed and said, “Mum, this is beautiful. It looks like a magazine spread.” His comment filled me with joy and I celebrated getting the upper hand on the perfectionism that wasn’t bringing me joy!
I am working with that client to help her find a middle ground with her notes. There are some strategies she can develop to be more efficient and still have some beautifully written sentences in her future.
Is there some part of your time-brain stuck in perfectionism? I suggest a talk with your wiser self. You might just be able to set up some time for fun!
Marydee Sklar is the president of Executive Functioning Success and the creator of the Seeing My Time Program®. She is an educator and author of three books on executive functions, as well as a trainer and speaker. Marydee has more than twenty-five years of experience working with students and adults with executive function challenges.