People strive for perfection to the point of toxic productivity. The only problem is that perfection is impossible. How can you strike a balance between being productive and wanting to achieve great results? Dr. Kevin Sansberry talks to Judy Dang. Judy is the founder of Avid At Work, and she helps people transform their ideas into realities. In this episode, Judy discusses productivity and perfectionism. Learn how to spot those warning signs for toxic productivity and how perfectionism works. Also, learn how she coaches people to work on their priorities. Don’t miss out!
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Productivity And Perfectionism, Exploring The Impact Of Culture With Judy Dang
We have Judy Dang here. How are you?
I am happy to be here, Kevin.
I am very happy to be here, especially as we dig into productivity and some of the toxic aspects of productivity as we all try to navigate this culture and navigate work. I’m thankful for you to come to talk to me.
I’m so excited to explore this topic with you, too.
Before we jump into your expertise and into that topic, tell me about who you are and how you got into the work that you do.
I was born in Vietnam. I came here when I was six and lived in the Bay Area all my life. I’d always been pretty organized and got things done. It was a natural talent of mine. I stumbled onto this business. Originally, I had taken a break and then got an interior design degree in one pivot. My focus was home office design and organizing. My clients would say, “Thanks so much. This is a fantastic home office. I love it. Could you help me with time management? My inbox is a disaster.” They’re the ones who helped pivot me to focus on productivity. I call myself a personal trainer for work. I had a very zigzagged life.
I like how you came about this. They called you for the home office, the outer world and the inner world. Sometimes our inner clutter reflects our outer clutter at times. I’m happy that you were up to the challenge to pivot.
I suspected that the inner and outer spaces mediate.
They relate to each other.
I suspected that and I enjoyed helping people both with their outer and inner.
It’s great that happened because a lot of times we focus only on the outer. We focus only on, “I need my office to be decluttered, but I might have some anxiety or something. I’m not cleaning it up or I’m not focused. My email is cluttered. My desktop is cluttered and I’m cluttered.” I like that you’re able to hit both sides of that and be complete support for people. That’s awesome. We talk about toxic behavior on this show, toxic leadership, culture, whether that’s in the workplace or things that manifest outside the workplace. One of the things I’m curious about is when you hear toxic leadership and toxic behavior, what’s your relationship with that concept?
I didn’t realize that I was in a toxic work environment until I heard your show with Lee Meadows. In my early twenties, I was on a team with a supervisor who would make one person the favorite and then everyone else was the stepchild. I thought it was me. “Should I try harder? Should I try to meet her standards? What’s going on?” When I saw that it was everybody, and the turnover was high. One person went on medical leave due to depression. I didn’t have a label for it, but it’s been in my early twenties and now thinking back, that was pretty toxic.
I appreciate you saying that because A) I’m happy that you are not in that environment because I’m sure you’ve recognized the growth in you since leaving. B) There’s also that notion of a lot of people don’t even realize the environments they’re in because it’s so normalized. It’s also normalized for us to think about, “What should I do differently because it’s my fault? How do I need to be different because it’s my fault?” We put too much stock on ourselves as the cause and not looking at what is it in my environment? What is it in the leadership? I appreciate you sharing that revelation.
Being in a very hierarchical environment, questioning her behavior to her supervisor was not the option. There was no way to get help from her superiors. It was not done.
I hear that a lot, too. That helped mold who you are now and you work with productivity, time management, organization and stuff like that. When you think about productivity, when did you realize that it had a dark side? Talk to us about what that could look like.
Early in my business, my entrepreneur journey about years ago, I didn’t know anything about being an entrepreneur. I’d always worked in an organization. Going out on my own, I had to supervise myself. I realized that there was a dark side. When I would go to business classes and they’d say, “You got to do this. You got to do that or read this book. Do this marketing. Set up a YouTube channel.” I would do all the things. I would try to build my website on my own until 2:00 in the morning nitpicking, obsessing about this color, one little piece of the whole website color.I realized the dark side for me at that time was working nights and weekends. I thought I could make more money working for an organization, work less. It’s not sustainable. I understand that the first couple of years are hard when starting a business, but there had to be a better way than every night and every weekend. That was when I first suspected, something was up here.
If you’re trying to read two books at the same time just to cross it off your list, then that is a sign of toxic productivity.
That’s something that I faced as an entrepreneur. It resonates with me because I thought it was a good thing to be working nights and weekends. I also found value in resting. I found that resting is work too. I have to schedule rest but it has an outcome and that outcome is less stressed. I get better ideas. I’m able to come back refreshed. I don’t feel as drained. I’m happy to hear that you had to do that because that’s something I struggled with because I felt guilty about resting.
Where do you think that guilt came from?
It came from expectations internally and also expectations culturally so externally. These were deep-rooted expectations that I grew up with. We talked about the American dream and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. We don’t talk about taking care of your mental wellbeing. We don’t talk about setting up a system where you are whole. We don’t talk about that. We talk about focusing on mental wellbeing when you’re having a nervous breakdown. That’s when we talk about it. It came from internal and external pressure, but as I become wiser, I learned to be proactive before something knocks me off my balance.
That’s a huge external pressure. Who’s on the front cover of Entrepreneur magazine, Inc. or Forbes?
We praise like, “So and so sleeps two hours a day, time blocks and does this.” We seldom praise those who get a full night’s rest and those who are productive and proactive. We don’t praise that. We praise the grind and the hustle.
You had internal and external pressure. Me too.
What are some warning signs for yourself as it relates to what you went through that one is in danger of toxic productivity? What are some warning signs that you’ve had that you can share with others?
I noticed there were warning signs when I checked out too many books at the library. I enjoy reading business and professional development books. The warning sign is that if I try to read two at the same time or more, I want to get through the book and not enjoy it and take it in. It’s to cross it off my list. That’s one. My library boring habit. Another is when I feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit that I struggle with productivity when I feel pressure to be the expert. There’s a shame feeling.
I’m writing a book and a manuscript. I put in my schedule writing time every morning. I write 50% of the time that I schedule it in. When the shame comes up because I’m not meeting my own expectations, that’s a warning sign. The nights and weekends are easy to see like, “How many nights and weekends am I working?” Occasionally is okay, but too many in a row that’s a flag for me.
I love the fact that as a productivity expert, you’re vulnerable enough to share that. Even you had to figure out warning signs and go through them because that’s so helpful for people who work with you to know that you have empathy for them because you went through it yourself. Let me throw one out there. One of my warning signs and I didn’t know this was this warning sign. When I wake up in the morning, I want to go back to sleep and not because I’m tired.
I don’t want to be awake. I want to go to sleep because it’s easier to be asleep for eighteen hours or whatever because I’m stressed about something. That’s how I know I’m in the rough patch. For me, to contrast, I love working nights at 3:00, 2:00 AM. That’s who I am. Mine is that wake-up feeling. As soon as I wake up, if I’m in a state of dread after I’m asleep immediately, I know something’s wrong. I know I need to fix something.
Going back to sleep, not because you’re tired, but because you want to avoid something.
It’s an escape. Another thing is I’ll play computer games or something for a long time because I’m trying to escape reality in a way. That’s another thing too. What I’ve learned as it relates to coping as you’re describing is recognizing it and not being afraid to address it, face it or encounter it. That’s one thing I’ve learned as I age and get wiser.
Recognize, accept and acknowledge it. Not judge ourselves about it. Not put a label.
To the point of those external and internal pressures, we tend to judge ourselves based on, “I’m a mother, so I need to be doing this thing. I’m a father, I need to be doing this thing. I’m an employee, I need to be doing this thing. Otherwise, I’m a failure,” versus “I need to take care of myself.” A lot of people that I coach have that pressure and they judge themselves negatively, unfortunately.
How do you help them?
To be honest, we probably have very similar methods in our work. While you’re working on the root cause for lack of productivity and all that stuff. I do the same thing, except it’s not necessarily focused on the office or anything like that. It’s more focused on deliverables for work and stuff like that. One of the things I do is recognition, honoring and normalizing. Normalizing is them understanding that, “You’re not alone in how you feel. You’re also not the first one going through it. What can you learn from other people? Who can you lean on? What resources can you gather?” When we start to alienate ourselves and put ourselves in like, “I’m alone in this. I’m in a box,” that tends to make you feel like there are no solutions too.
You help people by not normalizing it.
Stress is normal. Pain is normal. Trauma is normal, but what becomes the differentiator is how do we deal with it?
Thank you for that. I’m going to add it to my toolkit.
One of the things that we talked about offline that I enjoyed hearing from you and I’d love for you to share this with readers. I love going upstream and I love looking at root cause because I focus on behavior. One of the things we talked about was your Asian heritage and how it influenced your experience of productivity. Tell us more about that.
Perfectionism is like climbing a never-ending ladder with a backpack full of rocks.
My book, which I’m researching is about perfectionism for Asian-American women, perfectionism in the Asian culture, especially specifically for women. What I’m learning is something that I didn’t know because it’s like the water we swim in. We don’t see it. I didn’t know about the impact of Confucianism on creating perfectionists because one of the teachings is to strive for perfection, but perfection is impossible.The teaching is to strive for it, but you know it’s impossible. That’s what I grew up with. This carrot dangled in front of us. We work hard, strive and reach, but it’s never going to come. The metaphor I use is I didn’t know how to describe my perfectionism until I got this image of climbing a ladder that never ends with a backpack full of rocks. That’s what it feels like for me.
That’s powerful imagery as I think about that. In my mind, when I’m picturing climbing a ladder with a bag of rocks, I am tired.
It’s heavy and tiring. It never ends that striving for something that is never going to be reached.
As you think about that Confucian perfectionism that’s a root of your being at least, what’s the opposite of that? What does it look like?
Growing up in America, I had both cultures influence me. This Asian pressure to get straight As. In our household, straight As was the floor, not the ceiling. That was the basic. I also went to school where I got other affirmation in doing a good job or being creative in art class. It was attention growing up. Straight As, go to college, get a good job, that’s the path. With non-Vietnamese friends and teachers, there was a wider choice. As I work on this manuscript, I’ll come back to you on that.
One of the things that makes that question hard to answer, at least for me, is even here in the United States, it’s not like you left Confucian perfectionism when you left Vietnam and then you went to a country that didn’t have perfectionism. We have it too here. These tendencies are on the rise for young people, especially as you examine social media. You examine our need to be flawless. All of that is there and it could contribute to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem that plenty of people face. That is a very difficult question because to be honest, some of us don’t know any different.Perfectionism is a lot of people’s bar. I’m going to ask you a question. When you work with clients, let’s say I’m a perfectionist and I’m hiring you for my productivity. My office is a mess. I want to do better on my desktop. I feel like I’m on this hamster wheel of life and I’m very perfectionistic. How would you approach that in working with a client?
I start with compassion. Usually, most of my clients are overachievers. I start with things like, “Do you need to do that?” We use a lot of Post-its in my practice. When I work with clients, I mail them whole posters and Post-its and they download everything from their brains onto these Post-its and they see, “All of this is what I’m trying to do?” They look and do it for themselves like, “This isn’t as important. I thought it was.” Looking at all of them together, comparing like, “That isn’t that important.”Starting with, “Download everything on your mind. It’s basic. Whatever’s going on outside onto paper so you can look at it and not have it swimming and swirling. Get it out on paper. Make it visible. Look at it and compare.” I once had a client who had this Excel spreadsheet of all of her tasks or her team projects. It was 158 rows of the spreadsheet. Her system for prioritizing was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, first priorities. Her problem was everything was a one.
I would hate to go through all that typing and then realize, “Everything’s a one. This project made no sense.”
She was frustrated why her team couldn’t deliver on all of these priorities because when everything’s important then nothing is. I invited her. I sat down with her and said, “Let’s order them 1 through 158. One at a time.” It was hard for her, but it needed to be done.
That allowed you to create tiers based on that ordering, which made that a little more clear. I like that. When you examined your heritage and what drove your productivity, have you worked with other clients who had Asian heritage and background who faced similar upstream effects as it relates to how they grew up?
When I speak to other Asian men and women clients, we get it. We don’t need to explain. That’s the benefit of having some commonality. We can get right away to what’s truly meaningful for them.
Are there other things that you do when you get that similarity and you’re like, “That was my childhood?” Are there other things you do as it relates to how do we declutter?
Most of the time, when Asian clients come to me, they’re in their 30s, 40s. They’ve done what they were supposed to do. Get a good education in a top-notch school and get a good job. There’s something’s wrong when they get what they want, but it’s not satisfying. We take a look at that too. It’s not around productivity per se, but it’s more like, “What are my priorities?” When I got into this work, I originally thought, “I’m going to help people with their email and be more efficient.” How many more time? I discovered there are some deeper issues that I help with. Sometimes I get nervous about going that deep. “I might need a therapist.” Invariably, there’s something underneath.
It is important to have that avenue to talk about the root behind one’s perfectionistic tendencies. It’s important to have some mental health or someone to talk to about it to dig underneath.
I have seen my therapist for many years and she’s Vietnamese as well and that’s helpful.
One of the things I want to do is thank you for your insights because I think perfectionism is something that a lot of people struggle with and yet it’s so normalized. We tend not to talk about it as much. We also have this erroneous viewpoint like, “I am successful because I’m a perfectionist.” In reality, that’s sometimes false.
You’re stressed because you’re a perfectionist. You probably could have similar success with less obsessive compulsion around whatever the task was. As you mentioned, a lot of people in their 30s and 40s realized that and yet when we were in our twenties and growing up as teens, we didn’t. It takes time for us to hear that and believe that.
When I’m doing my research, I hear from folks who say, “Professionalism has helped me. It certainly has benefited me.” I recognize that. There are both sides.
I’m not vilifying those that think that. I think that too sometimes, but we also have to be able to be real about the negative impact of perfectionism as well. If you are living a life where you’re literally worried about imperfection and you’re striving for something that’s unattainable, I don’t see any world where just because I climbed an endless ladder with my backpack full of rocks on, I don’t see a world where I’m going to celebrate climbing at the end of this ladder. I’m going to see a world where I can get off that ladder. That’s what I want to celebrate. That’s what I’ve learned to want to celebrate. Thank you. What words of wisdom would you want to leave our readers with?
When suspecting that professionalism is stopping you, ask where it comes from. Is it from you or is it something else? Make a note like, “I feel like I need to work extra hard on this PowerPoint at work or my boss will think I’m a slacker. I need to respond quickly to my email from my boss to let her know I’m here.” Check that out. Ask like, “Where is that coming from?”
The more you do that, the better.
Just to be aware. That’s my word of wisdom.
When asking about it may also accompany, “Who can I talk to help me talk about this?” That could be another connection to that.
I don’t feel so alone. Get a reality check.“
Is this normal? Is this common?” How can people reach you? Feel free, I want to hear what other initiatives are you working on? What should we know about?
If everything is important, then nothing is.
My book research is front and center. If readers know of Asian women who would be open to being interviewed, I would so appreciate that. A twenty-minute phone call on their experience with perfectionism.
Judy, I want to thank you for this conversation. Perfectionism is something I love talking about because we all hide from it sometimes. I appreciate being able to hear your insights of how perfectionism connects to our productivity, which a lot of times may be impacted by how we grew up and where we grew up. I thank you for your insights.
It was super fun. Thank you for sharing your insights too. I learned something.
I hope we can connect again. I can bring you back for another episode. We can do some online Instagram lives or wherever you want to do. I definitely want to continue this work together.
Thank you all for reading.