We have probably all heard the phrase, “You have to do the work,” from a personal trainer, a therapist, or a spiritual advisor at some point in our lives, but what does it actually mean?
A personal trainer might use this phrase to emphasize the importance of consistently following a workout routine, keeping to a healthy diet, and pushing yourself to overcome physical challenges. It implies taking responsibility for your fitness goals and trying to achieve them.
In therapy, “doing the work” could mean actively engaging in the therapeutic process, which may involve attending sessions regularly, being open and honest during sessions, completing assigned exercises or homework, and applying insights gained in therapy to your daily life. It requires a commitment to self-reflection, self-awareness, and personal growth.
From a spiritual advisor or mentor, “doing the work” often involves practices such as reading, meditation, prayer, mindfulness, self-inquiry, or engaging in acts of service. It may also entail confronting and working through internal obstacles, such as ego, fear, or attachment, to cultivate a deeper sense of connection, purpose, and inner peace.
In any case, “doing the work” is not easy, so why do we do it?
I can tell you why I do it. I love developing new skills and overcoming limitations; it makes me feel alive to push myself! I also know those I lead, and they expect me to keep reaching higher. Another reason I “do the work” is because I want better relationships. I am better equipped to communicate effectively and cultivate deeper connections as I become more self-aware. “Doing the work” helps me find my true passions and pursue goals aligned with my sense of purpose.
Most importantly, in the career context, “doing the work” showed me how I stood in my own way. I am a recovering perfectionist and have had to “do the work” to understand the root causes. I have even made excuses for it, saying, “What else would you expect from a firstborn, Virgo, with diagnosed OCD?” It is funny because there is truth, at least in birth order traits and medical diagnosis, but I will let you decide on the astrology point. If you know a Virgo, I know you are tracking with me.
So, how has perfectionism shown up for me at work, and why is it harmful?
I have often set excessively ambitious standards for myself and others. Expecting near flawless performance in all tasks and projects. Just writing this makes me laugh because now, as a seasoned professional, I know there are no “perfect projects,” but I wanted things to be perfect in my twenties. Therapy taught me that because my childhood was chaotic, I was hypervigilant about creating order (perfection) because I thought it meant control. This created undue pressure and stress, leading to feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and burnout. Back then, I blamed the job and maybe even the boss, but the truth is, there was nobody harder on me than myself!
I was terrified of making mistakes or falling short of expectations. Being a perfectionist was paralyzing in a way that reduced the risks I took, which most likely hindered my advancement. It was not until I had a job where I was the first person to hold the role and the success of a new department was tied directly back to me that I started to break out of perfectionism. There was no place to hide; I had to create and share what I had created as I led the new initiative. There was no time for perfection. Many beta versions were tried; some worked, and many did not. I started to build trust in my ability to lead.
In my early thirties, I was a manager of people managers. While I may have been able to hide my micromanagement tendencies when managing one level, it is harder when managing two or three levels. I did not micromanage in terms of hounding them and following up on tasks, but I did not delegate at all sometimes due to my perfectionism. This was horrible. It undermined team morale and autonomy. It also truncated the development of others, not to mention that my time as a leader could have been better used elsewhere. This work was hard. I had to learn to trust. My perfectionism was born out of childhood trauma, and it has taught me to be “perfect,” so I do not have to rely on others at all. However, now, with decades under my belt, I recognize that the trauma response that kept me safe as a child is no longer needed in a healthy work environment. Over a couple of decades, my trust in others and myself grew as my leadership roles grew.
As a perfectionist, I felt compelled to work excessive hours to ensure everything was flawless. I have never really counted hours because I hate the word “work-a-holic.” I am lucky enough to do work I love, so I called them “passion hours,” not overtime, but still, I had to realize that if the leader works 80 hours a week, the people downstream will feel the pressure, too. This led to cycles of burnout and fatigue. Not to mention, I was neglecting other important aspects of life outside of work, namely my health, as I became inactive and started to gain weight.
How did I overcome perfectionism?
If I am honest, I identify more as a “recovering perfectionist” than someone who has overcome it altogether because the process of shedding perfectionism seems like a lifelong practice to me. This is how I do it:
I practice imperfection. I have had a saying for the last five years, “sometimes good enough is good enough,” and I live it. Not everything needs to be flawless. In fact, most things do not. I set realistic expectations and recognize that mistakes are part of the learning and growth process. This is so freeing to a perfectionist. Once I got the hang of it, I realized how much time and energy I wasted running after perfection.
I delegate and trust. I recognize that I do not have to do everything myself. Allowing others to take on responsibilities fosters teamwork, empowers my colleagues, and frees up my time to focus on higher-level tasks. I give clear instructions, providing support and feedback but relinquishing control over every detail. This is freeing.
There was a time in my career when I would never have thought of exercising before work or taking any time for myself before work. I woke up, and in the shower, I had a “to-do” list so long that a workout distracted me from the “always urgent seeming” job tasks waiting for me. Now, I have a morning routine that is all about me. Depending on the day, I practice yoga, lift weights, write, walk, garden, meditate, and drink coffee. Good coffee, single-sourced, French-pressed, with full cream. So, satisfying. I set my day up right by taking care of myself, and when I am centered, I am a better me; I trust easier, accept “good enough” more easily, and enjoy work more. I know that investing in my physical and mental health will enhance my productivity, creativity, and overall effectiveness as a leader.
This year, I am 55 years old. Reflecting on my three-decade journey as a leader, I have understood the transformative power of “doing the work.” I shared how perfectionism affected my career, which is just one example from many I could share, but your work may be on something else. It could be about overcoming defensiveness, active listening, leading with empathy, having difficult conversations, assertively using your voice, or letting your ego take a back seat. Whatever the challenge may be, the call to action is still the same: “Do the work.”
For me, the work is about embracing imperfection, delegating with trust, and prioritizing self-care—these are not just strategies; they are commitments to personal growth and leadership excellence. As a recovering perfectionist, I have learned that the path to progress is paved with self-awareness and the courage to confront my own issues.
So, let us heed the call together. Let us commit to “doing the work,” not just for ourselves but for the betterment of those we lead and the organizations we serve. It is time to create workplaces where authenticity, empathy, and personal growth flourish because mental health and self-awareness are valued. Let’s “do the work” because that’s where true leadership begins – leading ourselves higher.