Sunday, February 24, 2008

Know your enemy (some thoughts on perfectionism)

I used to think perfectionism was about being overly committed to detail, being afraid of making mistakes, studying obsessively and holding on to drafts much longer than necessary. This is probably all true and most of these are certainly true for me and my workstyle. I am attentive to detail and work at getting things right, but these traits are actually valued in research, so it always strikes me as somewhat counterproductive when people suggests "letting go of my perfectionism" as a way of attaining a better balance between my expectations of what I should do and what I actually get done.

When I started out on this self-analysing path some weeks ago, I began my thinking that I needed to let go of some of my ambition and to stop being so uptight about about doing everything correctly. But except letting things slide a bit at home (you wouldn't want to come and see the kitchen floor), I couldn't cut that many corners after all. I couldn't make the final draft of the paper I'm working on more messy, because if I tried, my co-authors would point out the mess anyway and insist that we fix it before submitting. The truth is that scientific work is meticulous by nature, and that final manuscripts need to be spotless. If you have an eye for detail, like I do, you will probably find many of the issues that need to be adressed by yourself, and if not, the reviewers will find them for you. Either way they still need to be fixed. I learned to write messy first drafts years ago. During my Master's I spent hours and hours on meticulously crafting and polishing sentences, but I got over that particular part of myself a long time ago. I don't suffer horribly from writer's block. Yes, I do get stuck and I procrastinate, but I have a whole bunch of little tricks up my sleeve that I can actually apply quite succesfully and get myself started again. So what I'm really suffering from is lack of time and completely unrealistic expectations of what one person should be able to do, and closely related to that, what other people get done. I also have a poor sense of my own boundaries and tend to do what others expect me to do (or what I think they expect me to do).

I tend to wildly exceed other people's expectations. I don't say this to brag, and I actually wish this wasn't so. I have spent years of my life resenting my Master's thesis advisor and the grad school for pushing me to pursue a a very difficult research topic at an unusually independent level and polish it to, if not pefection, at least a very good standard. I still think there should it would have been helpful and recommendable if my advisor had let me know that this was a bit much for Master's, but really, when looking back, this project was crazy. I obviously had no sense what a Master's was supposed to contain or how comprehensive it was supposed to be, but seriously, nobody else did that much work, but I somehow never realized that it was crazy over the top, and seriously feared failing right until the end.

I think I might be doing the same now. I have three big projects (one of them is my own), all requiring field work, processing of data, meetings, colaboration, networking and conference presentations. I have admin work, I try to publish papers, I teach (admittedly not much, but I do it on my own time because it's for a second employer and take vacation days or overtime off to do so), I organize all our group's contact to students and I need to start learning a lot of new stuff in order to invent a new research programme and teach a couple of new courses. It may not sound like an unusual work load, but I do have more field work, admin and teaching than most other people in the department and no one else has as much extra in combination. I am spreading myself very, very thin and more so than anyone else in our research group and yet I think I do nothing or barely keep up to the lowest standard. Technically this is probably considered the Imposter Syndrome, but it's not like I think I shouldn't be here or don't deserve my merits, it is just that I think, I should always do more.

I think I could do more if I could judge more realistically what a given project should entail. When doing the final edits to a manuscript last night and seeing that it barely scrapes in under the maximum number of words limit for the journal, I realised that this could have been two articles. I put in some extra data, because I had this grand idea of how this paper could tie it all together, and I think it might do so (let's see what the reviewers think). But if I could learn to acknowledge the smaller pieces of ideas, maybe I would first of all, be more productive in a measurable way, and second, see the intermediate milestones more clearly.

I also think it would be a great help if I got a more realistic perspective on what I am supposed to do. Beginning to talk about this topic with different people have actually opened up for some unexpected responses. A colleague I respect a lot told me, she thought I was hugely productive, while she always felt like she did nothing (which is obviously not true as I think she is hugely productive and I do nothing). Another colleague shared his frustrations about never having time to write and went on to tell a story about another colleague he just met, who had made the same complaint. So obviously people think about this, are frustrated by their own limitations and I'm not the only one who thinks everyone else are more productive than I am. So why am I doing this to myself.

As I said in the beginning I think this has much to do with my poor sense of my own boundaries. I agree to do things or to do them in an incovenient way, partly because I am ambitious and overcommitted and don't see my limitations, but also because I adhere to some cultural ideas that say I should work hard at accommodating others. I don't know how often I have heard myself say things like "well, I don't even have kids, so this shouldn't be hard" or "I don't have kids, so of course I will pick up that extra work over summer/ winter break/ Easter/ other inconvenient time", like it is somehow illegal to get tired or have wants and needs, if you don't have kids. All due respect to parents, but I use this as a way of undermining and underrating my own accomplishments as if not being a parent on top of everything else means that I'm just a lazy sucker who should do at least twice as much as anyone else. I use the same insane logic when dealing with my family, where career-oriented life styles are not appreciated. Rather than requesting them to accept my choices I hem and haw and bend my plans to fit around theirs, and actually enforce the idea of being the misfit who should accommodate others. I think rather than stop worrying about being nit-picky about the organizational details of a manuscript or the clarity of a detailed figure, this is where I really need to give myself a little kick in the butt and start changing something.


At 2:39 AM, Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

Ecogeoman's sister used to be a professor. Her university would give her a copy of her "workload" each semester. This document listed all her responsibilities for the semester, including each of the courses she was scheduled to teach, the administrative tasks, research, etc. The uni also had a way of determining how many hours should ideally be devoted to each task. one semester, it totalled more than 60 hours per week, on 40 hours' pay. Inevitably, she worked much more than the "workload" document suggested. It goes to show how all these separate commitments add up when you don't really consider how much time each will take.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Ecogeofemme: That's interesting. We have a similar system here, where all hours for all projects are budgeted in advance. A normal year of work is something like 1700-something hours (excluding allowed time for vacation, working the 38 hour work week that is the union-norm here). I checked my "balance" for last year the other day and realized I was budgeted for 2500 hours. I hadn't even thought about how this also contributes to the problem until you mentioned it.

At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Wilhelm said...

I tend to wildly exceed other people's expectations. I don't say this to brag, and I actually wish this wasn't so.

On the plus side, it probably means you're head and shoulders above the mean. Because the alternative - other people expecting more from you in your work environment than what you do of yourself - might mean that you're hardly qualified for your job.

At 7:29 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Wilhelm: thanks for stopping by and yes, of course you're right, it's much better to over-achieve and the other way around. However, I think the problem is that when one doesn't know how to limit each individual project they end up taking so much time and become so extensive that it either leads to not getting very much done in total or to burn-out. At least I think that is a main issue for me. I think that if I had a better sense of when a project should be good enough and done I would probably be able to meet more deadlines, finish things sooner and eventually be more productive.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Wilhelm said...

You're absolutely right about over-achieving and burnout being separated by a fine line.

In my experience, this line is never more blurred than when you're in a temporary position like a post doc, and your contract extension/renewal depends on how much you've accomplished compared to last year, etc.

At 7:24 PM, Blogger Wayfarer Scientista said...

this post reminds me of someone else I know (namely me even though I'm not quite at the same stage of career) especially the part about the master's degree. I enjoyed this post.


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