Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Don't Wait!: How to Overcome Perfectionism and Procrastination

Written by Hillary Rettig

   
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Who doesn't want to do well or aim high? But you've got to be careful, because you don't want to cross the line into perfectionism. Perfectionism isn't about having high standards—we love those! It's about defining success very narrowly, and failure very broadly, and then punishing yourself harshly for perceived failures. For instance: “If I don't get an A on this test, I'm a huge loser.”
   

Who doesn't want to do well or aim high? But you've got to be careful, because you don't want to cross the line into perfectionism. Perfectionism isn't about having high standards—we love those! It's about defining success very narrowly, and failure very broadly, and then punishing yourself harshly for perceived failures. For instance: “If I don't get an A on this test, I'm a huge loser.”

Most people are surprised to hear that there's an element of grandiosity to perfectionism. Grandiose people think the rules don't apply to them or that things that are hard for other people should be easy for them. E.g.:

•“I should be able to work through a raging flu.”


•“Even though my boss is disorganized and my workplace chaotic, I should be able to do a great job.” (Few people could do a great job under those circumstances.)


•“I should look like the models in the fashion magazine.” (Ignores the fact that it takes a lot of time and money—and, often, some Photoshopping—to get those models to look the way they do.)


•“Being a good drummer isn't good enough—I have to be the best!”

Other aspects of perfectionism include over-identifying with your work, so that your mood swings based on how well you think you worked today, and getting your self-esteem from external rewards and recognition (always dangerous). Perfectionists also love to compare themselves to others (and they always lose in the comparison), use a lot of labels (“I'm so stupid!”), and also hyperbole (“I'm the worst dancer in the world!”).

All of these qualities cause a perfectionist to have not a fear, but a terror, of failure. And it's the terror that causes the perfectionist to procrastinate. If you feel you are doomed to “fail” (say, by only getting a B), and if the idea of failure is horrific, then not doing your work at all can be your safe escape.

Most people are perfectionists, because our society itself is deeply perfectionist. A lot of advertising slogans –you know, the ones that say, “no excuses, just get out there and do it”— are perfectionist. And magazine articles, television shows, and movies that show people effortlessly living lives of fantastic success and happiness are perfectionist, because in the real world most of us have to work hard for our success and happiness, and no one's successful and happy 100 percent of the time. A lot of perfectionism is also catalyzed by toxic rejections or criticism from parents, bosses, teachers or others—and most of us have had that experience, too.

Here's the specific mechanism and link between perfectionism and procrastination:

1. You start to do your work.

2. You encounter a problem—maybe you don't know what to do, or you don't have the help you need, or you have conflicting priorities, or maybe you're tired or distracted.

3. You think, “Uh oh, I may not succeed.” And then your inner perfectionist steps in, frantic, and says, “Holy cow, you'd better succeed, otherwise you'll never get that scholarship!” And then it uses the only method it knows to try to get you to resume your work: coercion. “What's wrong with you?” it asks. “Why are you so lazy? Where's your commitment? Where's your discipline?” But all that harsh voice does is increase your fear until you are no longer able to work at all—and that's your procrastination.

Non-perfectionists, in contrast, skip that whole sequence in favor of simple problem solving. If they don't know what to do, they ask for help. If they have conflicting priorities, they make to-do lists or delegate. If they're tired they have some coffee and make sure to get more sleep in the future. There's no shame, blame, remorse, regret, or guilt at all.

Perfectionism can really limit a person's happiness and success, but fortunately it's very solvable—so let's talk about the solutions.

Journaling is one. Write out your fears, confusions, and ambivalences about your work in as much detail as possible, and also write out potential solutions. What you'll probably discover is that many of your fears are small and easily dealt with, while others are larger and will take more time and perhaps help from others. But the more fears you identify and deal with, the easier it becomes to deal with the remainder.

Also, cultivate a mind-set of what I call compassionate objectivity, which is the voice of the inner kind and wise adult who adds perspective by looking at the whole situation. For instance, “Okay, so I didn't get an A on that paper. That's disappointing. But I was sick for part of the time and also really worried about my relationship. Also, the instructions were really unclear. I should have checked in with the teacher and will do so next time. And I'll go get some counseling to help me with the relationship.”

Note how the compassionately objective person is not giving herself a pass: she clearly identifies her mistakes and makes a plan for improvement. But she dispenses with the counterproductive guilt, shame, blame, regret, and remorse that mire the perfectionist.

Also, practice compassionate objectivity while you work. Get a kitchen timer and set it for two minutes. Then, do your work during that interval. The key is not what you produce, but how you felt producing it. Your goal is to maintain an engaged but noncritical, nonjudgmental mind-set where you're attached to the process of your work, but not at all to the product. This is not giving up on quality, by the way: I promise you that the quality will manifest itself automatically as an offshoot of your process.

After you can work with compassionate objectivity for two minutes, increase the timer to three, five, eight, and then ten minutes; and then fifteen, thirty, etc. In just a few months, you'll be able to sit and work for hours at a time.

Perfectionism is a habit that you acquired, and that you can work to unacquire. The benefits of doing so are profound in terms of your happiness, success, and productivity: just take it a “baby step” at a time, and good luck!

(c)2011 Hillary Rettig. Hillary Rettig is author of The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer's Block (Infinite Art, 2006). For more on her and her work, and free downloads, visit www.hillaryrettig.com.

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