Why Perfectionism Is Bad for You and What You Can Do About It

Thinking about your grades is important, but too much worrying can turn unproductive. Read on for ways to avoid becoming your own worst enemy.

We hear a lot about how kids these days don't work hard enough in school.

For example, a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that young people spend more than 7.5 hours a day on activities such as watching TV, surfing the web, and playing video games, while a study by Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks found that college students study about ten hours less per week than their counterparts did in 1961.

But what about students on the opposite end of the spectrum? The workaholics who literally can’t stop studying, and who drive themselves crazy with inordinately high expectations? I went to school with a lot of students like this, first at New York City's renowned Stuyvesant High School, and then at Columbia University. I have never seen such hard workers in my life — and although they accomplished much, many of them also suffered from stress, depression, and anxiety.

For students with perfectionist tendencies, the constant focus on grades can make it hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Overachieving can be just as harmful as underachieving, and it can take a serious toll on students’ self-esteem and quality of life.

So how can such students rein in their drive for perfection while still maintaining their academic performance? Here are my top six recommendations:

1. Being a perfectionist may hurt more than help you.

Several studies have shown that the need to appear perfect has harmful effects on a student's learning ability. In a study by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, students who were afraid of making mistakes wound up learning less and scoring lower on exams than those who focused on effort.

Similarly, a 2012 French experiment showed that students who were told mistakes are a natural part of learning performed better on tests. As one of the researchers, Frédérique Autin, put it:

“By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. Acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning."

2. Set time limits for your work.

If you’re a perfectionist, you know that it can be very hard to stop studying — there’s always more to be done. To keep your study sessions from turning into painful all-nighters, set a limit whenever you start a project or pick up a book. Think about how much time you want to spend on it, and make sure to set a timer; when it goes off, move on to something else. Knowing that you have to be finished by a certain time can help you speed up your work and study more efficiently.

3. Make time for friends and for yourself in your schedule.

Don’t just say that you’ll meet up with so-and-so or watch a movie when you have time — chances are, that time will never arise. You’ve got to be proactive about this. Grab your calendar and designate specific times for having fun. Do whatever makes you happy, and don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself. To be a good student, you must be able to recharge your batteries!

4. Exchange bad forms of motivation for good ones.

Lots of overachieving students are driven by unhealthy urges — the need to be better than everyone else, the fear of failure, the feeling of guilt or worthlessness if perfection is not achieved, or the desire to get into a certain school because of its prestige. This way of thinking can be very harmful to a student’s psyche.

Whenever you find yourself subject to one of these thoughts, try to replace it with an alternate form of motivation, such as the desire to learn, wanting to do your personal best, and taking pride in your work. I like to repeat a mantra to myself that goes something like this: “I’m proud of myself for doing my best; that’s all anyone can ask of me.”

5. Don’t compare grades.

Some students like to make their grades public. When they get back a test, they’ll go to all their friends and ask what they got. Don’t be a braggart, and try not to get involved in conversations about GPAs. These discussions will just make you worried and tense, and are seldom useful. Concentrate on doing your best, and don’t worry about what people around you are getting.

6. Your life isn’t over if you don’t get into your dream school.

Lots of students are obsessed with getting into a certain school because of the prestige factor, or because of their parents’ expectations. But it’s important to remember that there are plenty of good schools out there, and no institution is right for everyone. If your grades aren’t good enough to get into the top-ranked school in the country, that’s all right. Really, it is. You can find a way to succeed no matter where your path leads you.

If you want to know more about how to cultivate healthy and productive study tips, check out this article: 7 Bad Study Habits You Should Immediately Change

About the author: Stefanie Weisman was valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School in New York City and graduated from Columbia University with the highest GPA in her class. She has a B.A. in History, a B.S. in Computer Science, and an M.A. in Art History. She is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College (Sourcebooks, 2013). Stefanie is currently the Academic Success Program Developer for the International Academic Alliance in New York City. Follow Stefanie on her website, www.valedictoriansguide.com, or on Twitter.

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