Science and Sensibility

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Break a Perfectionism-Procrastination Connection

Learn to overcome perfectionism and procrastination simultaneously.

Humorist Walt Kelly titled his book, We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us. Kelly was onto something.

When perfectionism and procrastination combine, you can be your own worst enemy. By freeing yourself from this complex process, you can better use your time to accomplish more with less stress. Here you'll see a sample of how this process works, a case example, and some ideas for breaking the perfectionism-procrastination connection.

What is perfectionism? Is it stretching for excellence in areas of your life that you find purposeful? Is it a pattern of nit picking, pettiness, defect detecting, and controlling? Do you  hold to lofty standards, demand perfection from yourself, and make your worth contingent on meeting these standards? Depending on your definition, it can be any one of the three. I'll focus on demanding perfection.

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If you dread the thought of performing poorly, and experience anxiety, what you fear is based on what you think of yourself if you fail, or how others may judge you.You see your performances as successes or failures and measures of your personal worth. This contingent-worth anxiety thinking is a form of dichotomous thinking. According to this judgmental process, you are a winner or a loser, worthy or worthless, strong or weak. For example, you expect and demand at least a B+ grade. The goal is reasonable. The expectation is not. You get a B and feel like a failure.

In a perfectionist world of fixed convictions, it is not enough to do well enough; you have to do perfectly well. It's not enough to have typical performances; they must be exceptional. When attaining perfection becomes a contingency for worth, it is understandable why anxiety is a common consequence. 

Perfectionism is a risk factor for performance anxiety and procrastination.  You expect a great performance. You have doubts whether you can achieve perfection. You have an urge to diverge and do something less threatening.  You wait until you can be perfect. This is an example of a perfectionism-driven procrastination.

There are at least seven operations involved in this perfectionism-procrastination process. (1) You hold to lofty standards. (2) You have no guarantee you'll do well enough.  (3) Less than the best is not an option. (4) As you think of not doing well enough, you feel uncomfortable. (5)  You fear the feelings of discomfort. (6) You hide your imperfections from yourself and dodge discomfort by doing something "safer," such as playing computer games. (7) You repeat this exasperating process until you get off this contingent-worth merry-go-round by working to do better while not demanding perfection from yourself.

A perfectionism-procrastination combination contributes to what Rockefeller University professor Bruce McEwen describes as an allostatic load. This is a wearing and tearing of the body due to stress. If you hear your inner voice telling you that if you are not great you are a big nothing, you've found an anxiety belief that adds to your allostatic load. Uncoupling yourself from this thinking can help end this perfectionism-related stress.

Perfectionism is a changeable form of dichotomous thinking. In this fictional world, you can only be worthy by being perfect; how well you do reflects your global self-worth. However, you are always more complex than what you produce, and so you can't be either perfect or imperfect.

If you find yourself in this contingent-worth trap, consider substituting a pluralistic self view. Here is how pluralism works. You are a person with hundreds of attributes that represent different strengths and levels of strength. All attributes can't be equally perfect.  Work at accepting this pluralistic view, and you are on your way toward easing up on yourself and achieving more of what you desire.

Let's look at Judy's procrastination-perfectionism situation and a cognitive incongruity intervention she used to change her contingent-worth outlook. Judy attended a procrastination workshop that I led. She spoke up and said her problem was procrastinating on moving to a larger apartment. An obvious question was why did she want to move? She told the workshop group that she needed a larger apartment because she was running out of space. Why? Her answer was surprising. Her apartment was filled with yellowing New York Times newspapers and magazines. She needed more space. How did she explain the collection?

Judy wanted to date a highly intelligent man. She expected to find him at a sophisticated Manhattan cocktail party. Here is the rub. She convinced herself that if an intelligent man spoke to her about a New York Times editorial, she'd look like a fool if she hadn't read it. So she daily purchased the Times and stacked each new one on top of the others. Reading and understanding the editorials was her precondition to appear smart, which was her precondition for dating an intelligent Manhattan man.

Anxious over the thought that she couldn't develop a perfect understanding of the editorials, she put off reading them until she could research the topics. Her preconditions were self-protective and diversionary and self-defeating.

Judy's precondition for success, in finding a mate, was a red herring. But first things first. Before tackeling her procrastination, we needed to rule out a hoarding compulsion. Several group members helped her start ditching her New York Times collection. Judy reported feeling better with less paper.

What could Judy do differently about her perfectionism and procrastination? In a television skit, the comedian Bob Newhart played the role of a psychologist with a two-word solution to curb all problem habits. Here is his stock solution: STOP IT! In a perfect self-help world, when you afflict yourself with a needless problem, you tell yourself to STOP IT. Then you permanently stop. We don't live in a perfect world. So, let's try a different way.

Judy turned to meet her contingent-worth challenge. She quickly grasped the idea that she made her worth contingent on meeting unreasonable standards. She discovered how to challenge her contingent-worth belief by exploring an incongruity between her theory of worth and her theory of self.

Judy saw herself as worthy if she performed well and worthless if she didn’t. That was her theory of worth.  But how did she see herself? She was a pluralistic person with a broad array of talents, emotions, beliefs, and experiences. That was her theory of self. Here is the cognitive incongruity intervention: How can you be either smart or dumb if you also are a person with hundreds of talents, emotions, beliefs, aptitudes, and millions of varied experiences? Her theory of worth didn't match her theory of self. (Judy left the workshop with a few good ideas on how to become less perfectionistic and she soon stopped procrastinating on meeting attractive men.)

To break a complex procrastination-perfectionism connection see  End Procrastination Now  or The Procrastination Workbook. To combat procrastination, tune into my free multimedia program: Combatting Procrastination Part 1 Combatting Procrastination Part 2 Part 3: 7 Principles for Change, Part 4: Procrastination Thinking

 Dr. Bill Knaus

Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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