Expectations and Perfectionism
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Expectations Holding You Back?

Last month, when drafting the post on weaponized incompetence, it occurred to me that there is a corollary concept that warrants its own discussion. Where previously we focused on team members offering excuses to avoid responsibility, this month I want to turn the lens around. Could you be compromising your potential expecting too little from your team and colleagues? And/or are you shortchanging yourself underestimating your own competence?

The Expectation “I Can’t”

I once worked with a client stuck in a never-ending cycle of “I can’t.” She came to me because she was frozen, unable to move an important project forward. I asked her what she believed to be the issue. First, she cited a lack of time. But after deeper reflection, she concluded that she was stuck because she felt she could’t complete the project the way she felt it should be finished. I share this as an example of an expectation holding a person back. We’ll come back to her shortly, but first, let’s break down the main driver to this self-limiting expectation because it’s a common one.


Perfectionism is, in and of itself, an expectation. It’s an ideal, an admirable one, no doubt. But sometimes it is better to be done than to be perfect. Certainly there are things that must be perfect (think ingredients and the technique for meringue), but many things do not require perfection to satisfy the requirement (i.e. a nice store bought pie for dessert at a friend’s house). You wouldn’t want to turn down a dinner invitation just because you doubted your meringue-making, would you?

Only you can make the call on what has to be done perfectly, but make sure you’re being honest with yourself when setting the bar. Keep in mind that rough drafts provide excellent traction for forward momentum. Perfectionism can be a form of procrastination. Often something is better than nothing. Evaluate the stakes. Assess the incremental benefit of striving for perfection and make certain the return is in line. If you find your desire or perceived need, for perfection is keeping you frozen in place, or that is keeping you from even starting something important to you, that’s a red flag to stop and evaluate your options.

Delegation & Teamwork

Teamwork and delegation are lifelines when someone is frozen in a self-limiting expectation. Unfortunately, perfectionism can be a roadblock to productive delegation. Maybe you believe you’re the only one who can do X. Test that theory. Maybe you believe no one can help you. Make sure you’ve asked and tried it before deeming assistance impossible. Don’t default to “they can’t.” With proper training and clear communication, delegation and teamwork are reliable means to moving a project forward.

Consider the Opportunity Cost

Further promoting the case for delegation and teamwork, keep in mind that there is an opportunity cost at play, too. What could you be doing with your freed-up time if you trained someone else to competently complete X? Maybe you could knock out Y, or strategize for Z. If you are the one charged with doing the strategic thinking necessary for the overall forward momentum of the enterprise, you owe it to your team to effectively delegate.

Don’t Forfeit Novel Thinking

There’s one more cost at play when you forego delegation I want you to consider. It’s the forfeiture of novel thinking. Handing a task or challenge off to another person allows them to bring their own strategies and techniques to the collective problem-solving table. Sometimes we expect a project to turn out one way, but when we pull in another’s idea or method, we often get something even better than what we originally expected.  Two heads are almost always better than one.

Is what you expect your team members possible of delivering actually tried and true? Have you given them a chance to show you? Give them a try and give yourself the opportunity to capitalize on the time freed up via smart delegation.

Bite-Sized Pieces

Lastly, let’s talk about the self-limiting expectation that a project or task, or goal is simply too daunting. Again, we must be honest with ourselves. Is perfectionism at play? Have we identified the correct definitions for successful completion? Is there a definitive timeline, or have we created an artificial one? I’ll add one more question to introduce this final concept: How do you eat an elephant?

Answer: One bite at a time.

Establish a plan for accomplishing a seemingly daunting project and then chip away at it. Begin by identifying realistic steps you can take to move the project forward. Manage the project with time blocking. Cordon off time on your calendar to advance the work, segment by segment.

For years, I had the goal of organizing my old print photographs. I had accumulated a huge box of photos, which sat in a closet bringing me zero joy. They did bring me anxiety. I cared a lot about the images. Many are old and all are one-of-a-kind, but I kept putting off what I knew would be a majorly time-intensive project. Then, during Covid, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of expecting it to be a five-hour project, I decided to make it a 30-minutes-a-day project. Knowing I’d be home every evening, I slotted in time on my calendar to work on the box each evening Yes, the project took several weeks, but it was not overwhelming because I worked on it a little at a time.  

Tackle Your Self-Limiting Expectations

To summarize, let’s go back to the client I introduced above. She found success by applying all three of the overcoming self-limiting expectation strategies we’ve discussed here. First, she had to evaluate her definition for successful project completion. Did it need to be done all at once? Could she tap into resources? Pulling me in for strategy was one teamwork angle she took. She also acted on viable delegation opportunities we identified together. Importantly, she broke her project down into manageable parts. Where she could, she mapped out steps. When she was uncertain about the next step, she stayed confident in the fact that progress was being made.

Faulty expectations compromise your potential. Perfectionism is a self-expectation that can freeze progress. Expecting too little from others can truncate your potential. (And their potential.) Teamwork and delegation enable you to do more. And when you break down a daunting project into manageable parts, you’ll have a navigable roadmap to success. Pay attention to your expectations, and expect to see results.

Sara Genrich | Productivity Consultant

Sara Genrich, CPO® is a Productivity Consultant, an Evernote Certified Consultant, and the creator of the Organizing@Work for Success Workshop.  She’s committed to providing real-life solutions so her clients have time to focus on the things that really matter.

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