The Modern Time Crunch

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Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity

The truth behind the personality trait

Far from being a motivator for productivity, perfectionism (or more precisely, the byproducts of it) can be a debilitating pattern that inhibits healthy functioning.

Though it’s driven many of the great feats of art, science, and sports, it has driven many others to distraction and led to significant problems with beginning and finishing projects. One of the main roadblocks to productivity created by perfectionists is a tendency to procrastinate.

While procrastination is often confused with plain laziness, sometimes it is the byproduct of perfectionism. The daunting nature of the unrealistic goal of perfection can be so intimidating that it leads to a crippling fear of beginning. This is particularly true when one’s self-esteem is closely tied into (or contingent) upon success.

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This tendency for perfectionists to yoke their sense of worth to the success of a project can be a prime driver of procrastination. It’s that fear of failure (and the ego-crushing that would inevitably result) that is powerful motivation for avoiding the situation altogether.

Falling short of an unreasonable goal too many times can lead to a sort of learned helplessness, i.e. “no matter what I do, it’s never quite good enough.” Disempowerment follows, which is another significant nail in the coffin of productivity—not perfectionism per se. 

The best way to fight this self-reinforcing pattern of negativity is, of course, to water down the perfectionism and thus its unwelcome side effects. How? It’s simple: First, try beginning any project with a good-enough plan and a good-enough skill set. Remind yourself that you can always adjust your plan as you go along, and that you can always find a work-around or draft in help when you’re in over your head.

The important thing is beginning, taking the first steps of the journey. Only then you can develop momentum that can carry you along. Remember the Newtonian gravity rule that, “an object at rest tends to stay at rest”. This can help break through the icy barrier of anxiety that causes procrastination.

Second, decouple your performance from your sense of self-worth. One is not dependent on the other, and punishing yourself for failing to meet an unrealistic goal is simply counterproductive. Talking yourself into a very negative self-image as you castigate yourself is dangerous. Take a more holistic view of yourself and your role in life. Perspective is the key.

This is all easier said than done, and therapy can help.

With these initial steps, you can begin to better manage the anxiety and insecurity issues that drive procrastination and negative self-esteem, the insidious byproducts of perfectionism. 

Former journalist James Ullrich is a psychotherapist in Seattle.

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