Procrastination for the Perfectionist

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Reader’s Question

I’m a strange kind of perfectionist. I’m a really bad procrastinator, have bad habits like overeating and picking at my skin, and neglect my health with sleep deprivation, infrequent exercise/showers and not taking my vitamins (resulting in some premature grey hairs). But here’s how I deal with it: I stay up at night sometimes making lists of how I’m going to get myself together, obsessing over how I’m going to fix all of my problems, and make a million promises to myself that I just don’t keep. When I mess up the next day, I just give up and continue with my old bad habits. I’ve had these kinds of thought patterns — obsessing and then not following through and ultimately feeling worse about myself — probably in some form since the eighth grade or earlier. I’m a sophomore in college and I’m sick of it, you know? It takes away from my self confidence and my relationships with people.

What can I do about being kind of perfectionist and being a really bad procrastinator?

Psychologist’s Reply

Procrastination and perfectionism can often go hand in hand, or more like fist to fist really. Most often though, people don’t see the two going together. Many think that being a perfectionist would save us from procrastination. However, the real truth is that in our attempts to be perfectionists, procrastination is a tool we use to prevent our own anxiety from eating us alive. That desire to be perfect can actually add stress and anxiety to whatever task you’re applying yourself to. Perfectionism pushes us to make tasks more overwhelming, bigger, and very time consuming. To do something perfect we have to put in the extra effort to make it perfect and free from mistakes. We go over it again and again to make sure we get it right. In addition, the standards we set for ourselves with our perfectionism make our goals that much more difficult to reach. The more rigid our perfectionism, the more unacceptable it is to not attain those high standards. And now the worst part, the anxiety and fear of failure that perfectionism brings for some can be quite threatening. That’s where procrastination can come in. Procrastination is our way to put this anxiety, fear of failing our high expectations and standards, and the mountains we have created for ourselves, into check. Procrastination is our escape, our defense. If we put all of that off, we don’t have to face it and deal with it all.

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Most perfectionists are self-critical, too. So when they don’t meet these high goals and standards, they tend to self blame, self hate, and fear the disappointment of others. Think of procrastination as a shield against all of this emotional quagmire. However, unless you have that rare skill of getting things done right while waiting until the last minute to do it, procrastination is also a curse. Your efforts to avoid all of these feelings through procrastination only brings them about later when you don’t meet the goal or deadline you set out to do. The goal of procrastination is avoidance of these feelings that are eventually brought on by the avoidance of these feelings.

One way to better manage these feelings is to understand what your goal is by using procrastination in the first place — anxiety management. Begin to understand that procrastination is not the best way to manage our anxiety. Begin to understand how it only brings you face to face with those feelings you were so desperately trying to avoid. Once you believe that procrastination doesn’t work like you need it to, you can open yourself up to other ways to manage your anxiety. Eat, sleep, play. Break a big task into smaller ones. Take a break. Yes, take a break. I know, I’m asking you to stop what you’re working on and procrastinate for a bit. This is a more healthy procrastination, though. Allow yourself time to recover and not burn out to keep your motivation going.

Next, begin to uncover your motivations behind your perfectionism. Perfectionism becomes unhealthy and harmful when we do it because we fear making a mistake, fear failure, attempt to live up to others’ expectations of ourselves, or chronically self-doubt. Begin to understand that perfectionism is not the best way to manage these issues either. Challenging our perfectionism often involves examination of our unattainable standards and seeing them for what they are — unattainable. We also need to become comfortable showing our weaknesses, to learn how to celebrate our mistakes, and to change the black and white thinking that often comes with perfectionism.

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