Perfectionists Listen Up! This Accounting Concept Can Help

perfectionistHi. My name is JC and I am a perfectionist. I strive to be as thorough and accurate as possible in nearly every given situation. Sometimes the outcome is a rewarding job well done. More often than not, I get bogged down in all of the details – striving to ensure complete accuracy in exchange for inefficient use of time and, unfortunately, frustration.

Don’t confuse perfectionism with being an overachiever. The two often go hand-in-hand, but can be mutually exclusive. And when your perfectionism is not helping you overachieve, then watch out, it can be a recipe for disaster. I often find myself in this latter category.

Being a perfectionist is truly a double-edged sword. It’s a gift and a curse all rolled into one. For example, I attribute my perfectionist tendencies to excelling academically. My grade point average (GPA) was among the top of my class in a fairly large high school. I graduated Summa Cum Laude (“with highest honors”) when earning my Bachelor’s degree. And, I obtained my MBA again coming in among the top GPA’s. Now, I didn’t particularly enjoy school and would bemoan the assignment of homework or the announcement of papers or projects. However, once I got started on the schoolwork, I would complete it with thoroughness and a high standard of quality. I just could not let myself do anything less. There were isolated incidents over the years during my studies where my perfectionism didn’t serve me well. That said, this is an area where being a perfectionist was an asset.

On the flip side, I work in finance at a large, multi-national corporation. You might think being a perfectionist would be a valuable trait to have in finance. In reality, it can actually be a hindrance. Sure, you need to be as accurate as possible with the numbers, but if you get too caught up in the minutiae you’ll likely be setting yourself up for trouble. In a fast-paced environment, making sure you’ve got all the “i’s dotted and t’s” crossed can hold you back from taking on additional and increasing responsibilities. Throughout my career, this has been a challenge for me. I inherently want to make sure I understand every last detail and want to put my best foot forward by continuously verifying accuracy. If these finer details and increased accuracy won’t have an impact in the final decision to be made – it doesn’t matter! In those situations, my only consolation is taking solace in knowing I “did a good job.”

Side Effects of Perfectionism

  • Ineffective use of time – Some people work more efficiently than others, but all perfectionists invest more time than really needed. After all, it takes lots of time and effort to be perfect. It’s not uncommon for perfectionists to be left spinning their wheels because their steadfast diligence won’t let them move on until they’ve got it just right. The result is you could be putting in long hours at the office or constantly feeling like you can never get enough done to climb your way out of the hole.
  • Takes away from other needs – This consequence is a product of the above bullet. Ineffectively using your time means you have less of it to use elsewhere. When you are busy perfecting one task, you are neglecting others. Perfectionists tend accomplish less volume wise than others even though they are usually producing at a higher quality.
  • No one notices - Here’s the real kicker – more often than not, no one notices all the work you’ve put in…no one but you. Joe Schmo won’t know you spent hours making every detail flawless. He probably won’t even know it really is flawless. Most of the time, you are only being perfect to appease yourself – not anyone else.
  • Critical of others – Perfectionism makes it easy to look down on others. After all, if you invested so much energy and effort to be perfect, surely others who aren’t as thorough or dedicated do an inferior job, right?

What should we perfectionists do to help us with our “affliction”?  The answer is simple – let’s turn to accounting! What? Yep, accounting.

An Accounting Solution for Perfectionism

One of the basic elements of financial accounting is the concept of materiality. Technically speaking, materiality is defined as “the magnitude of an omission or misstatement of accounting that, in the light of surrounding circumstances, makes it probable that the judgment of a reasonable person relying on the information would have been changed or influenced by the omission or misstatement.”

Say what? What does that definition of materiality even mean and what in the world does that have to do with perfectionism? It’s actually pretty simple. In a nutshell, materiality means some things are bigger or more critical than others. The large items are material, or important, and should be focused on to ensure they are accurate. Conversely, immaterial accounts aren’t as vital.

Applying this concept to a perfectionist’s life can lead to enhanced performance. You need to discipline yourself to only address the material tasks. The immaterial or trivial details should be left alone because they don’t change the overall picture of what you’re trying to accomplish.

For example, let’s say you’re putting together a presentation at work. You’ve got all the information on your slides in an easily conveyable fashion. You’ve verified the data used is accurate. The format is generally appeasing to the eyes. You will be able to effectively communicate your message to your intended audience. Now stop! Be done with it. Unless this is the absolute most important presentation of your life, don’t go back and waste time playing with the font size to make it “just right” or mess around with the graphs to make it more visually appealing. That kind of stuff is immaterial. Move on to your next task.

Or let’s say you are doing a quick vacuum because you will be having company over tonight. You’re halfway finished when you notice there’s some dirt around the baseboards. And then you see a few cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. Ah, and then there’s too much dust behind the TV set. Oh, and darn those few scuff marks on the wall – got to get those cleaned up too. You end up spending an extra hour cleaning. Chances are your guests wouldn’t have even noticed! Everything aside from the original quick vacuum was immaterial. You didn’t need to do them especially if you find yourself short on time to make other preparations. So skip that stuff – well, except for the cobwebs. Always clean the cobwebs ;-)

Use common sense when applying materiality to your perfectionism. Some things in life you simply cannot ignore. Thus skipping over the immaterial items would be detrimental. Also, don’t use materiality as an excuse to be sloppy. You still need to make a quality effort…just know when to step away or let go.

Note: for all of the accounting professionals and CPA’s out there, I must point out that in accounting materiality does not mean you can simply ignore the “little” items. You must account for those too. Rather, materiality means there’s a threshold whereby you need not focus on these immaterial items if they don’t impact the “big picture” (the financial statements).

I hope you fellow perfectionists have found this article helpful. I spent lots of time perfecting it. :-)

Are you a perfectionist? Do you struggle with managing your perfectionist tendencies? What is the least desirable aspect of being a perfectionist? Do you think the accounting materiality concept is applicable? Could it help you if you remind yourself not to focus on the immaterial tasks?

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Image courtesy of jazbeck at Flickr.
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