Why "Stop When You Are Done" is horrible advice for perfectionists

Why "Stop When You Are Done" is horrible advice for perfectionists
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

Are things ever actually ‘done’? Sure, a meal might be eaten & hence it’s done, but that doesn’t mean that the recipe couldn’t be improved for the next time.  

As a perfectionist, I always see the next step forward. Another thing to add. Something to improve. Value to add.

Hence, “Stop When You’re Done” could very easily be the most horrific piece of advice one might get. Even worse, such advice is popularised and praised upon by our hustle & grind culture.

When you feel ‘never enough’, that your value is tied to your business success, you’re never done. You never will be.

A major root problem of perfectionists’ overwhelm is exactly the concept of done. There’s always work to do, app features to improve, campaigns to plan, new business ideas to pull-through, e-mails to reply.

The issue with this is that we don’t know where the finish line is. And when this is the case, the finish line most often becomes our major burnout.

You know, that lovely feeling of hitting a breaking point & having a nervous breakdown because your brain doesn’t have the capacity to make the simplest of decisions, such as whether to take a right or a left turn on a crossroads in your evening dog walk. Of feeling exhausted all the time. Going to bed tired and waking up tired. Basically, feeling like you’re in a vegetative state with 0 capacity to do anything.

If we follow the “Stop When You’re Done” thing, we’ll simply stop each time burnout catches up with us (which now makes it chronic). To make it even worse, we’ll sit and think to ourselves how a couple of days of “doing nothing” will somehow magically fix us. But that’s not the case. And what do we do then? We continue where we left off. We don’t stop because we’re not done.

And what happens then? The ultimate burnout. Ending-up-in-the-hospital burnout. Losing-your-mind burnout. Losing-your-self burnout.

The longer you worked without stopping to rest, the greater the consequences will be. It took me a full year to partially recover from my decade-anticipated burnout, and I’m still at some 70-80% of my capacity. For the first 6 months, I couldn’t read a sentence and conclude what it was about. The words simply didn’t appear in my brain. I was braindead.

Even though I was not consciously following “Stop When You’re Done” advice per se, I was certainly living it. What’s worse, I knew burnout was coming - and I intentionally put it off. There’d be signs throughout the years, minor signals in specific situations, and I’d simply put up more work so that burnout can’t find the time to get me! I was too busy for burnout. How naive I was.

I did that because all the stress, the chronic migraines which lasted for days on end and returning week after week, feeling sick to my stomach—was all much more tolerable than allowing the burnout to get me, because I knew it won’t come alone. There’d be years-old demons coming with it too.

My epic burnout was (finally) triggered in March of 2020, after suffering through a heartbreaking family situation, finding out that a loving relative of mine from far away is really sick—and with the pandemic on our hands I can’t fly to visit as I planned even before finding this out, and the earthquakes. It wasn’t a slap in the face, it was a knockout.

That’s why I made a conscious decision to not try to fight it, not to feel bad about it, but rather to welcome it with my arms wide open—and the accompanying demons as well. This newsletter is one of the ways I’m doing that.

I have a couple of tips to share with you (other than don’t listen to that stupid advice), which continue to help me come to peace and almost “melt” with my perfectionism while also taking care of myself and my mental health.

Tip #1 Define your finish lines

In order to truly ‘stop when you are done’, you need to define real and healthy(!) finish lines for yourself. How many hours will you work in a day? (I work a maximum of 6h) What’s the earliest you’ll start? What’s your cut-off going to be?

Tip #2 Schedule in breaks

I took the “what doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done” to heart and have put all of my breaks for each and every day in my calendar. This stops me from filling out the available time in my day with more work, because that time is now reserved. Pro tip: name the break events with action verbs, such as “walk”, “run”, “dance”, or “drink”.

Tip #3 Force rest every 14-21 days

Because I’m extremely passionate about everything I do nowadays, I can get easily swept away by the magical happiness and charm of working on something I love, which leads to me not feeling like I need rest at all. Newsflash: I do. YOU do. To “hack” this, I have a recurring calendar event every 17 days that says “DAY OFF”. I did every 17 days because for me 14 came too fast, while 21 is too long. Test and experiment what works best for you!

I hope these tips will do you well. This is a big & complex topic to chew on in only one post, so I’ll certainly come back to it another time.