Perfectionism and procrastination often make for a challenging experience. You have something to do but just can’t seem to get it started or completed. The pressure to get it done begins to increase and activates the procrastination cycle.
How Does Perfectionism Affect Procrastination?
Procrastination tricks us into believing that putting off the task will lessen the stress around it. We temporarily postpone and then postpone some more until we can’t anymore. Waiting until the last minute is a habit many can relate to. But, for a perfectionist, the delaying of a task is often a coping strategy.
People who identify as perfectionists frequently strive to do everything to their fullest potential. Perfectionists set high standards and expectations and work really hard to exceed the demands of any task ahead of them.
This has many benefits and leads to achieving success. However, sometimes striving for perfectionism can be unhelpful if the expectations are too high and unachievable. In addition, aiming for perfection and excellence increases the perceived risks associated with the task such as failure or underachievement.
A fear of failure often accompanies perfectionism. Wanting to do things perfectly with minimal error is a huge goal. There is also a desire to be perceived well by others and demonstrate one’s self-worth and value through good work.
This has the potential to lead to feelings of overwhelm and guilt. In fact, perfectionism is associated with increased anxiety, fear of failure, stress, disappointment, and reduced overall dissatisfaction with accomplishments.
To try to manage these difficult emotions, a person may start to procrastinate and delay starting a project or task. Perfectionism and procrastination refers to just this. It is procrastinating as a way to temporarily soothe discomfort and manage emotions associated with perfectionistic task completion.
Learning to get unstuck from the perfectionism and procrastination cycle will help you to finally get things done.
9 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism and Procrastination
Identify Perfectionism Procrastination Thought Patterns
Patterns of perfectionistic thinking influence procrastination behaviors. Identifying and changing unhelpful thought patterns and beliefs can help you move forward. A few of the most common ones are discussed below.
All or Nothing Thinking
All or nothing thoughts focus on the extremes on a spectrum. For example, consider the thought, “I must finish answering all of these emails before I take a break”. The word “all” highlights an extreme.
What about phrases such as, “Go big or go home” or “Do it right or don’t do it at all”? These thoughts can be motivating in some cases. They keep you on target with getting something done and to the best of your ability.
But, creating very high expectations can prevent you from ever getting started. Imagine looking at an inbox with 150 emails that need your attention. All or nothing thoughts indicate that you must read and respond to every last email. This can certainly make a regular task like checking emails into a larger one.
The amount of mental energy, clarity and focus needed to complete this task can be daunting. Since the task appears larger now, it is also more challenging. You must now prepare yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically for the larger task.
In many cases, this thought pattern stimulates the procrastination cycle for perfectionists. This is partly because perfectionists have a tendency toward striving for high achievement.
Perfectionism procrastination means that you will likely not start until you are ready enough to produce excellence. If you can’t read the 150 emails, you may delay until you have enough time or energy to do so.
To work through all or nothing thoughts, practice reframing to a more positive and middle ground statement. Something that is more in the middle ground and not on either extreme can reduce pressure.
For example, “Reading emails for ten minutes is a good place to start”. This doesn’t box you into a long commitment. It also makes the task smaller and less overwhelming.
Imagining the worst case scenario can lead to perfectionism procrastination and prevent you from getting started on your goals. Thoughts of failure and other catastrophes coming into your mind can activate the nervous system and influence anxiety.
Consider the following statement, “If I don’t ace this presentation, everyone will think I’m incompetent”. Catastrophizing thoughts such as this one stir up feelings of fear, anxiety and doubt.
We are much less likely to feel motivated to work when we are in a fearful or anxious state. Because of this, perfectionism and procrastination tendencies may kick in and you may find yourself putting off tasks.
Procrastination will temporarily serve to protect you from stress, embarrassment or fear associated with the task. But, in the long run, can be detrimental to your goals.
To work through catastrophizing, remember that the possibilities of something good happening also exist. Counteract worst case scenarios by also envisioning best case scenarios. And then something in between.
Another strategy is to go through your track record of success. Reviewing your past successes can remind you that the likelihood of failing is less likely than you originally thought.
Work Through Avoidance Behaviors
Avoidance can present itself in various forms. Knowing when you are avoiding can reduce perfectionism and procrastination tendencies and get you back on track.
Some common avoidance behaviors include:
Disconnecting and numbing behaviors. This can look like mindless scrolling through your phone or social media. Forgetting to call friends back and avoiding talking to others about your problems. There is a lack of presence with the important things in your life.
Engaging in distraction behaviors. This looks like doing every activity other than the one you need to pay attention to. Distracting yourself may at first seem to reduce stress around what you need to do. But, it inevitably prolongs the discomfort because you will be thinking about the task in the back of your mind.
Spending too much time in the planning phase of a task. You spend a lot of time thinking about getting things done but you are not taking steps toward doing it. Planning for too long can make you feel that you are being productive. You may arrange and organize the details in your head or in writing, but the action is missing.
Our behaviors are deeply connected to what we are thinking and believing. If you believe that the plan has to be perfect, you may spend too much time “perfecting” it. More is not always better. Too much time planning often results in less action.
To reduce avoidance, be mindful of when you are engaging in these behaviors. Practice coping strategies to reduce anxiety and other underlying reasons associated with avoidance.
Reframe perfectionism thoughts that convince you that you must be perfect. Allow yourself the opportunity to get started without pressure that you need to achieve perfection on your first attempt.
Focus on Progress and Not Outcomes
Perfectionism and procrastination behavior that is connected to outcomes can slow down progress. Perfectionists may abandon working toward a goal until there is certainty that their efforts will be rewarded with successful outcomes.
However, there is never a complete guarantee of perfection or success. In addition, thinking too far ahead can make the task feel insurmountable or overwhelming.
To work through this, stay focused on the present moment. Redirect your mind when it jumps into future thinking and predicting outcomes.
Start small and celebrate the fact that you got started! Acknowledging your efforts along the way can motivate you to maintain momentum. Focusing on each step forward will get you to where you want to be and with less stress.
In addition, try using positive, non-extreme statements. For example, “Done is better than perfect”. “Some work is a good place to start”. It relieves pressure from needing to achieve a certain outcome and frees up mental energy.
Being flexible is difficult to achieve if you are deep in the midst of perfectionism procrastination. You may be either doing a ton of work or none at all. Flexibility means that you are in the middle.
You may do some work but not pressure yourself to complete it all if you aren’t feeling up to it. Similarly, you aren’t taking three weeks off from doing work, you are making some progress.
The concept of flexibility can also be applied to resources such as your time and energy. Perfectionism can lead to increased amount of time spent planning, reviewing, and correcting until you achieve a desired result.
Doing things over and correcting until you get it right consumes enormous mental energy. What if instead this energy is channeled into taking care of yourself or enjoying time with friends and family members?
What would it feel like to have more free time in which you aren’t worried about the tasks ahead? When you aren’t worried about procrastinating because the fear of failure is taking over?
Allow yourself to be flexible and do it at 90% right and not 100%. What would that feel like?
Flexibility can also be used in reference to our thoughts and beliefs. For example, letting go of perfectionism and procrastination means relinquishing the attachment that everything having to be perfect.
Abandon the idea that every action needs to lead to excellence. See what happens when you aim to do things well. Not perfect. When you aim for imperfect action. When you aim for “good enough”.
Setting Boundaries With Time
Procrastination is associated with overestimating the amount of time and energy it takes to complete a task. If you are putting off a task because it appears too overwhelming, consider doing it for a short-time period.
Schedule in your calendar to work within a predetermined timeframe. Many people find it helpful to set a timer for approximately 15-25 minutes. Allow yourself to engage in whatever task you have been avoiding for this amount of time.
When the timer goes off, you are done. Even if you want to do more, don’t. This will be helpful in desensitizing the stress around sitting down to do work. Sometimes you will be productive and sometimes you won’t be. Both are ok.
The benefit of setting a timer is that the goal is not to work for any specific or successful achievement. The goal is only to work until the timer is off. This takes the pressure off of perfectionistic behaviors and motivate you to get out of the procrastination cycle.
Prioritize Tasks and Break Them into Small Chunks
Breaking down goals into small, specific, and manageable chunks will increase the likelihood that you will get it done. Start with identifying the overall goal. Write down a list of steps needed to obtain it.
For example, preparing your home to receive guests for a dinner party involves many steps. You may need to create the menu, purchase necessary ingredients, clean the home, etc. Write down a to-do list and then break down the steps. And then still break it down into even smaller steps.
This will clarify what needs to be done. In addition, when we see small things that we can do quickly, we may be more motivated to get it done. For instance, taking out the forks and napkins is less overwhelming than setting the entire table for ten.
Start small and do what you can. Prioritize the things that you believe will reduce the most stress. Taking incremental steps will reduce perfectionism and procrastination.
Switch Up Your Environment
Switching up your space can stimulate your brain and inspire creativity and ideas. If the very thought of sitting at your desk makes you anxious or overwhelmed, don’t do it! Consider going to a coffee shop, library, or sitting outside.
If leaving the office or home is not possible, organize your current space so that it works more for you. Decluttering and organization can make your work area inviting and a place that you won’t want to keep avoiding.
In addition, consider using items that bring you joy. For example, if you have a favorite pen or enjoy looking at a certain photo or painting. Bring them into your workspace to comfort you and reduce feelings of overwhelm.
Address Excuses and Possible Roadblocks
Remember that there is never a perfect time to start on a goal. Many circumstances and obstacles are possible and can hinder progress even when motivation levels are at their highest.
However, when low motivation and procrastination are present, you may be less likely to focus on reducing obstacles. We may actually welcome them as a way to avoid doing what we know we need to do.
But, addressing excuses and possible roadblocks will help you in the long run. This is because many people who identify as perfectionists experience anxiety when conditions aren’t 100 percent perfect.
There is a belief that things must be set up just right in order to increase probability of maximum excellence.
For example, imagine a scenario in which you have to write thank you cards. You may postpone until you have the right color pen, a full roll of stamps, or updated addresses of a few friends.
In a perfectionist mindset, all of these conditions must be met before you can feel comfortable starting and finishing this project. While having all of these things in order can facilitate the task, they are not absolutely necessary.
You may be able to write ten cards today and when you have the updated addresses, you can complete the missing ones. This will require an adjust to your mindset that includes some of the tips we discussed above.
In particular, this will address all or nothing thoughts and breaking down the tasks into smaller steps. Achieving optimal conditions is not always possible. Don’t let it keep you from working on your goals.
Self-Compassion for the Perfectionistic Procrastinator
Perfectionism is hard. There is no doubt about that. Living up to an ideal version of ourselves or what society wants us to be can be exhausting. And most of the time, it simply is not possible.
Be kind to yourself when you fall short of meeting a goal. Or when you find yourself in a mode of self-criticism and harsh judgments of yourself or your performance.
Your inner critic and intense attention to detail are somewhat protective. There is a part of you that is the procrastinator. This part of your person is holding on to the idea that procrastination is needed.
Maybe procrastination behavior is trying to keep you safe. Safe from risk. Safe from experiencing feelings of inadequacy and failure.
Remind yourself that procrastination is not needed all of the time. There are other things in your toolbox that you can draw upon next time you are faced with stress. Taking deliberate pause or rests can be beneficial. However, procrastination as a primary coping strategy is detrimental overtime if it is used too often.
Be mindful and trust that your self-worth is not dependent on the success or lack of success of any particular task. Have compassion with yourself when you face hard times.
Practicing self-acceptance and self-care will help you to move past perfectionism and procrastination.
How Do You Beat Perfectionism and Procrastination?
The way to beat perfectionism and procrastination is to make a decision and commitment to do so. It will require entering into a process of self-awareness and growth. A conscious effort to choose differently when you get the urge to put off tasks for later.
Meaningful change is a process. The journey to try new and different behaviors will involve good days and bad days. Days when you feel successful and days when you may wish you were doing better.
This is a normal part of development and a common experience as you invest in yourself and well-being. Recovering from perfectionism is a challenging process. Believe in yourself and take one step at a time.
Practicing self-care and seeking the support from family and friends can help you get through it. Seeking professional support is also a possibility and can help you get to the root of perfectionism.
Get Help with Perfectionism and Procrastination
Many people with perfectionism also have anxiety. As an anxiety therapist in Rockland County NY, I help women work through anxiety and perfectionism. If you live in New York and are looking for support, schedule a consultation today to get started.