The Perfectionism Procrastination Loop: How To Break The Cycle?

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Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes you strive for excellence in everything you do. It keeps you driven to do your best so that there’s no room for error or slip-ups. It helps you give your very best in what you do, every time. Perfectionism also comes with a host of negative side effects. It can hinder your performance by setting impossibly high standards for yourself. It can cause procrastination by making you avoid anything that could possibly reveal the slightest flaw in your work. And it can even make you sabotage yourself when you feel the pressure is just too much to handle! If this sounds like something that resonates with you, you may just be the procrastinating perfectionist…

Why Do You Procrastinate?

There are many reasons why people procrastinate, but they can be grouped into five main categories:

  1. The difficulty of the task at hand comes with a great amount of stress. A large project that will take up a lot of time and effort may cause people to delay starting a task. Oftentimes, this type of procrastination is directed towards tasks that are associated with negative emotions. For example, cleaning the bathroom doesn’t normally have any positive associations to it, therefore our brain is reluctant to show any motivation to get the task started.
  2. Delayed reward. Many things on our to-do lists do not give us instant gratification. Evolutionary speaking, people are predisposed to taking an easy root and prioritising short-term goals. It is the issue also known as the disconnect from the future self, whereby a person struggles to align their current actions with future goals and aspirations.
  3. The boredom that the task in consideration will bring. In a fast-moving modern world, the fear of missing out can get in the way of being productive. Having to complete a mundane task, when your social media is full of entertaining videos and there are new movies being released quicker than you can watch them may tip the scales the wrong way.
  4. Unawareness. Many of us are unaware that we are procrastinating. Even if you have a daily to-do list, and keep yourself busy, you may have what is widely known as productive procrastination. Have you ever completed every single thing on your to-do list except that one thing (that is actually the most important thing)? Have you started on your tomorrow’s list just to trick yourself into being too busy for that one task that you don’t want to do? Creating busyness for the sake of it may be why you do not get the desired end result.
  5. Perfectionism. With the pressures of 21st-century life, perfectionistic procrastination is quoted as one of the most prominent types of procrastination. Environmental conditions, mood and physical conditions aside, perfectionism is in fact the most common psychological cause of procrastination.
wooden tiles with letters on them spelling out "This is The day".

Why Does Perfectionism Cause Procrastination?

Let’s define perfectionism. Perfectionism is when people have very high expectations of themselves (and/or others). They have an unrealistic view of success, and they strive towards unattainable goals. What may be surprising to you is that there is a substantial correlation between self-oriented perfectionism, low self-esteem and unfortunately, an anxiety disorder. Think about it for a minute. If you constantly think that your work is not good enough and spend endless hours to perfect it, you are constantly in a vicious cycle of negative self-talk and a fixed mindset of unrealistic expectations.

Perfectionism produces two types of procrastinators:

  1. Perfectionist that never starts.
  2. Perfectionist that never finishes.

Non-Starter Perfectionist

It’s easy to see why a perfectionist would never initiate a task. People with this personality trait have high personal standards but can also be very critical of themselves and even suffer from low-self esteem. Whether these are caused by experiencing excessive parental criticism or past negative outcomes and failures, perfectionists may procrastinate work because of feelings of not being good enough. The characteristic fear of not starting what you cannot succeed in is one of the main reasons for them never taking the first step.

Non-Finishing Perfectionist

Another type of perfectionistic procrastinator may be seen as someone who’s always full of motivation and drive to start a task. They typically nurture their projects and spend much time perfecting their work. But the trouble is, they never finish their tasks. Their projects are either constantly ongoing or abandoned completely before they have a chance to be successful (often with a view of coming back to them later).

a word doubt with last three letters crossed out.

A perfectionistic procrastinator will proofread the blueprint of the book a hundred times, add more to it every time they read it, and then proofread the bits that they added. Then they will redesign the book cover, and redesign it again because for them it does not reflect their best work. They will find things to change and fix and make better. And at the end of it all, it will be a great book, but the problem is that the book may never get published. Successful completion of a task never happens. There is no end result if the author lets perfectionistic concerns lead to chronic procrastination in the final step. Perfectionists have a hard time letting go of projects because they are afraid to make a mistake.

Symptoms Of Procrastination Caused By Perfectionism

  1. You often carefully plan every aspect of how you’re going to complete a task, but never start it. E.g. you prepare for an interview by doing thorough research about the company, and your interviewer, and plan your answers to commonly asked interview questions but never actually go to the interview for fear that you will not be selected for the job.
  2. Your to-do list is often unattainable. If it is attainable you keep adding to it, until it becomes impossible to complete. E.g. you keep adding tasks to your daily to-do list only to postpone seeing the final result of your actions.
  3. You always feel that you could do better. E.g. you keep editing, rewriting and adjusting the blog post that stops you from publishing it for other people to read.
  4. Your projects seem to stall just before the finish line. E.g. you find a number of additional details to add to your home-sown dress before entering it into a “sowing-bee” competition.
  5. You cannot let things go if there are any possible opportunities for improvement. The common saying “Better done than perfect” sends chills up your spine.
  6. You demonstrate signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder when it comes to the final steps of a task.
  7. You think that any failure or negative outcomes will irreversibly change your life.

“What happens when perfection isn’t good enough?”

― Scott Westerfeld
wooden tiles with letters on them arranged to spell out "Broken Crayons Still Colour".

Break The Procrastination-Perfectionism Loop

A man with white t-shirt and glasses with a worried facial expression.

Perfectionism can become a serious issue and can stop you from achieving your full potential whilst chasing after… well… your perceived full potential. The perfectionism-procrastination loop can have dire consequences in both your personal and professional life. Not only will high levels of procrastination prevent you from being productive and achieving success, but it may produce negative internal messages that will, in turn, lead to mental health issues and high levels of chronic stress.

The good news is that there are ways you can help yourself to combat the habit of procrastination that’s caused by your perfectionistic personality traits. And it’s no surprise that it involves changing your mindset. Here are some ways to break the loop of procrastination that you can start implementing right away:

  1. Consider the cause of perfectionism.
    • Is it the pressure to keep up with someone who you consider perfect? Are they on the same path as you? How many times have they failed before they succeeded?
    • Is it the expectations your family and friends have of you? Would they be more proud of you if you did your best to achieve slightly less than perfect? Or not being brave enough to take the final plunge?
    • Why exactly are you scared of failure? What will you lose if you achieve less than perfect?
  2. Shift your mindset from a ‘perfect-first-time-around’ to a ‘growth mindset’. Many great achievements in real life have been made thanks to the well-known trial and error method. Even if you are not successful in your endeavour, failing only means that you are one step closer to being successful because it gives you an opportunity to learn and become better next time around. Actively seek out the positives in every negative. Easier said than done? You’re right. Try:
    • Listening to realistic inspirational podcasts and learning from books to get other perspectives on the definition of perfection and success.
    • Have a conversation with a person who you find successful and admirable about how they dealt with failure.
  3. Try and strive for personal excellence, not perceived perfection. If your perfectionism is caused by external factors or people, concentrate your focus on comparing your today’s self with your yesterday’s self.
  4. Set yourself (realistic) deadlines and practice the “better done than perfect” approach.
  5. Having a contingency plan may help you take the plunge. Complete the task within a set amount of time even if you think you could do better. Keep a plan of your next steps if things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to. Having a plan to fall back on will have you prepared and less worried about the impact of achieving less than the absolute best.

Bottom Line

Perfectionism can be a great trait, but it has to come with a warning. Pushing yourself towards perfection should not mean delaying your chance at success until you are perfect. It may be hard to accept for the perfectionist that perfection, in fact, does not exist. Instead of striving for an ideal result the first time around, aim to take small steps towards getting better with each task that you complete. There is always next time. And The best way to keep on moving towards the perceived ideal is to repeat the action that you’re trying to perfect. High achievers, like gold medal winners at the Olympics, do not wait to beat the world record until they enter into the Olympics. They train, they try, they fail, and they win silver before they win gold! Don’t let your perfectionistic procrastination prevent you from winning that silver medal!

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