2 Pieces Of Advice For 'Perfectionism-Procrastinators'

Being a perfectionist procrastinator can be quite the dilemma. Here's how to break the cycle it can create.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 22, 2024

Imagine Benny, a recently hired software engineer who grapples with persistent self-doubt about his capacity to produce top-notch work. This apprehension leads him to procrastinate, habitually deferring tasks to the last minute—believing that he must achieve perfection on the initial attempt. His underlying fear of disappointing others with imperfect work fosters the notion that postponing his efforts ensures safety from potential failure. Consequently, he reassures himself with the mantra, "I'll start later and give my best, just not now," perpetuating a cycle of procrastination.

Perfectionists relentlessly pursue flawlessness, holding themselves to excessively high standards and fearing negative judgment from others. Therefore, they are overly self-critical.

Often, individuals perceive their perfectionism as a commendable trait or a shield against the fear of failure, inadvertently hindering progress on tasks they once intended to complete, be it something planned days or even years ago.

As a result, their goals become an excuse for not taking necessary actions, ultimately leading to stagnation, with their aspirations buried beneath the weight of unrealized potential.

Perfectionism-driven procrastination can be a difficult habit to break. Here are two ways to overcome it and achieve your best within deadlines without feeling ashamed or overwhelmed.

1. Resolving The Identity Crisis

A 2017 study published in Personality and Individual Differences indicates that procrastination arises when a significant disparity exists between our perceived abilities and actual capabilities. This struggle unfolds as a conflict between our ideal self, representing who we believe we should be, and our actual self, embodying who we are.

To transform your perspective from believing "Perfect work is expected from me" to realizing that "what I do is enough and my worth comes from being my authentic self," it's essential to explore the underlying reasons for your pursuit of perfection.

Here are three ways to reflect on your identity and begin to shift your beliefs:

  1. Find the roots. Pause to contemplate the origins of your expectation for perfection. It may have been shaped by how love and approval were expressed in your upbringing, possibly causing you to internalize this expectation. Explore why the need for perfection is so deeply ingrained in you and remain open to the possibility of discovering a more authentic perspective through introspection. Seeking assistance from a therapist or mental health professional can be immensely beneficial in uncovering and addressing the underlying causes behind your perfectionist-procrastinator tendencies. Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been proven techniques for eradicating perfectionism-related concerns in individuals.
  2. Seek feedback. Try to see yourself as others do. People often judge themselves more harshly than they judge others. Perhaps your work is indeed significant, meeting high standards, yet you fail to acknowledge your achievements. There's no merit in chastising yourself for work that others consider excellent. Seek second opinions from trusted advisors; their feedback can be your anchor.
  3. Progress over perfection. While pushing boundaries is essential, not letting your inner critic sway you is vital. Rather than dwelling on past standards, focus on continuous improvement. Avoid tethering yourself to unrealistic ideals; instead, strive for growth and advancement. Shift your focus from seeking perfection in the initial attempt to valuing incremental progress. Recognize that each effort and every addition matters, and each mistake brings you closer to improvement.

Regardless of the origins of the "not good enough" sentiment within you, it's crucial to understand that achieving the best is not a one-time endeavor. While this concept may be simple to grasp in theory, embracing it and integrating it into your being can be challenging.

2. Start With The Inconsequential

Perfectionist procrastinators often delay tasks that have significant consequences. The fear of judgment can be overwhelming, making it daunting to tackle tasks that appear essential.

However, rather than focusing on these weighty matters, one can gradually work towards change by starting with something simple, inconsequential and private.

Choose a goal, any goal, that you wouldn't be disheartened by if left incomplete. You can always come back to it in your own time. It doesn't have to be a habit. It can also be a one-time endeavor.

For instance, try a new recipe the next time you're in the kitchen. It doesn't have to be complex; the key is attempting something simple you've never tried before. Another option is to download a vocabulary app and learn a new word, dedicating daily practice time. Simply setting the intention to do something and witnessing yourself accomplish it swiftly can be incredibly empowering.

Small achievements can change how you see yourself and approach new challenges—with the idea of progress over perfection. This mindset can help you overcome the fear of failure, harsh judgment, self-criticism and doubt and break the cycle of procrastination caused by the need for perfectionism.

You can embark on your journey of change by gradually empowering yourself to tackle tasks you fear failing at. Always remember, it's not about being "good enough," but about making progress and becoming better than before.

Are you struggling with procrastination? Take this test to discover if it's hindering your productivity: General Procrastination Scale

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