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How your Perfectionism, Procrastination and Anxiety are powerfully linked

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Perfectionism and procrastination are often intertwined. And the overlap of procrastination and perfectionism is even more likely if your internal engine runs on the anxious side like mine does.


If you get caught in the tangle of an internal pressure for flawlessness and a pattern of delaying tasks, you're in good company. Let's look at:



There’s a strong connection between perfectionism and procrastination, especially for my anxious folks out there.

 

Why?

 

Because anxious folks usually have an amplified fear of failure or fear of judgment inside. There’s a constant focus on being “good enough” in the eyes of others.

 

We can believe that if we do something perfectly, we will be seen as good. But then worry that if we make a mistake, we will be seen as bad. It’s an all-or-nothing dynamic. Anything less than perfection equals failure.

 

Man, that’s a high bar.

 

So, we put off doing things because of these impossibly high standards we’ve set. Part of us knows that complete perfection is not possible (or even human).

 

But part of us is still fixated on the idea that if we do everything right, we will get approval & acceptance from others that we crave. That maybe we will feel acceptable and okay as a person.

 

The problem is…this fear of non-perfection (“failure”) is debilitating. Every task, even little ones like making a phone call, represents an opportunity to fail. So enters procrastination as a coping mechanism to avoid the possibility of falling short.

 

You’ve felt this, right?

 

You have a project looming over you, and the thought of starting it triggers a wave of dread. Your perfectionistic tendencies kick in, whispering that unless you can guarantee flawless results, it's better not to start at all. You delay taking action, seeking the illusion of safety in procrastination.



So what causes a person to be a perfectionist in the first place?


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Early Experiences


Perfectionism often has roots in our childhood experiences. We can get messages that we have to excel in order to be worthy. These messages can be stated out loud or just implied by the way caregivers act towards us.


Maybe you grew up in an environment where:

  • Love or approval was shown mostly when you achieved something

  • Competition & winning were elevated (sports activities, performance, etc.)

  • Criticism or correction was frequent (at home or other settings)

  • A caregiver was overly fixated on perfection in themselves and/or you

  • Religious beliefs focused heavily on avoiding “sin” to avoid being “bad”

  • You had an older sibling that was a very high performer

  • You had a sibling that was NOT a high performer and was ridiculed for it



Personality Traits


We are all born with certain personality qualities that are part of our genetic lottery. These traits can predispose us to perfectionism if we don’t learn to moderate them.


Maybe you were:

  • Born innately more detail oriented or conscientious

  • The first born sibling -  It’s common for first born children to be more focused on doing things “the right way” to help offset the anxiety of their caregivers.

  • An only child - Children without any siblings are also prone to perfectionistic tendencies because there’s no one to share the burden of performing in ways that make the caregivers happy.

  • Born with a stronger inner desire for control which increases the craving for things to be "just so" or perfect (maybe it’s all genetic, maybe it’s astrological signs…who knows…)

 

Along the way, perfectionists begin to equate mistakes, imperfection, or lack of control with being personally inadequate. Striving for perfection is a hopeful attempt to avoid this negative self-perception.


 

So what causes Procrastination?


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Often, we procrastinate because we are not feeling confident in our ability to pull off a task or because we anticipate it will be quite painful to do it.


Coping through avoidance

  • Procrastination is often a form of coping.

  • People delay tasks to avoid undesirable emotions such as anxiety, shame, melancholy, or boredom.

  • Instead of facing the discomfort head-on, we seek temporary relief through distraction or avoidance.

 

Task exaggeration

  • Procrastinators tend to magnify tasks in their mind.

  • Exaggeration looks like amplifying the difficulty of the task, the amount of time it will take, or the awfulness of the experience.

  • Exaggeration makes tasks seem more daunting than they actually are, which fuels avoidance behaviors.

 

Competence concerns

  • Some procrastinators doubt their ability to complete a task successfully.

  • If you’re already feeling ill-prepared for a task, it’s appealing to delay working on it to avoid failure, criticism, embarrassment or disappointing others.

  • Combined with Task Exaggeration, it’s easy to think you lack the ability or resources to handle the task.

 

Prioritization mismatch

  • This looks like prioritizing less important but fast or easy tasks.

  • These tasks don’t generate the above concerns about hard emotions, task difficulty, or personal competence.

  • Keeping busy with lower-level activities leads to putting off the more undesirable tasks, but usually doesn’t help you feel any relief about the situation.

 

Motivation



The Overlap Between Perfectionism & Procrastination

 

There are several ways perfectionism and procrastination influence and feed off each other.


Paralysis by Analysis

  • Perfectionists can get trapped in a cycle of researching, overthinking & over planning to ensure a perfect outcome.

  • This leads to indecision and inaction.

  • This over planning aligns with the “lack of competence” fear that fuels procrastination.

 

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Both perfectionism and procrastination are characterized by all-or-nothing thinking patterns.

  • Perfectionists may believe that unless they can complete a task flawlessly, it's not worth doing at all.

  • Procrastinators may postpone tasks if they have mentally exaggerated the task and therefore no element of the tasks feels possible. The task is all bad.

 

Reward/Dopamine seeking

Most humans have a tendency to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed gratification.

  • Perfectionists may prioritize feeling good about something they know they can do “perfectly,” like cleaning a toilet, over the 12-page quarterly report that needs completed.

  • Procrastinators feel immediate relief by avoiding a task and may choose more rewarding distractions like scrolling social media or playing a game.

 

 

Connection between Perfectionism, Procrastination & Anxiety

 

So, how does perfectionism intertwine with procrastination in the anxious mind?

 

Anxiety amplifies an internal belief of brokenness or imperfection as a person.

--> Perfectionism with tasks and behaviors feels like a way to offset that.  

 

Anxiety amplifies the fear of failure, making it even more daunting to initiate tasks.

--> Procrastination is a way to manage the 'fear of failure' anxiety in the short term, despite exacerbating it in the long run.

 


Anxious folks are grappling with the fear of not meeting impossibly high standards, the dread of making mistakes, and the anxiety of judgment from others and ourselves. This internal panic leaves us feeling stuck and afraid and ashamed. You can learn more about the specific link between procrastination and anxiety in this article.



Strategies to decrease perfectionism & procrastination


With time and attention, we can untwist from these unhelpful patterns. Get started with these strategies:


Call a spade a spade.

  • Acknowledge the perfectionism/procrastination trap you’ve fallen into.

  • Practice catching yourself in the moments of over-planning or task exaggeration or dopamine-seeking.

  • Decide that you want to try and shift it.  

  • Pick one area below to start implementing

 

Practice Self-Compassion

  • Start to replace self-criticism with self-compassion.

  • Talk supportively to yourself about the legitimate struggle you feel inside.

  • Remind yourself that it really is okay to make mistakes (that it’s impossible not to at some point).

  • Encourage yourself to believe that your worth is not determined by your productivity or achievements.

  • Read on for more ways to foster self-compassion.


Break Down the Task

  • Break tasks into tiny, manageable steps.

  • Identify the smallest possible action you can take and start there.

  • Focus on progress rather than perfection or completion. Progress counts.

  • Celebrate your achievements along the way, no matter how small they may seem.

  • For help with breaking down tasks into tiny bites, try the “Magic ToDo” function on the Goblin Tools app or webpage. (See pic for how it broke down the task of "dishes") 




Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts

  • Observe your thoughts about a task or about your performance expectations.

  • When you catch yourself exaggerating a task, write down what you actually need to do as if you were teaching someone else the task.

  • Pull back from the way you've built it in your head and look at the step-by-step process to help it feel more manageable.

  • When you catch yourself fixated on perfection, challenge yourself to consider what B+ effort on a task would look like.

  • Or how you could cope with a B+ outcome. Zoom out on your beliefs about what must happen.

  • Learn more about how to change unhelpful thoughts here.

 

Use Structured Procrastination

  • Instead of avoiding tasks altogether, channel your procrastination tendencies into a boxed amount of time.

  • Set a timer for yourself to procrastinate with something fun or distracting.

  • When the timer goes off, set another timer.

  • Now focus yourself on doing a little bit of work towards the task you’re avoiding.

  • Toggle back and forth between procrastination (reward) and difficult effort (task work) to get your task done little by little.

 

Get Support

Try leaning on others in the following ways:

  • For validation that the task is hard or big or boring.

  • For encouragement that you have what it takes to do it.

  • For accountability to make consistent progress. Ask them to check in on you and your task (without judgment).

  • For body doubling or co-working. Ask them to be present or on the phone or online with you while you are working. This helps you to help you stay focused and feel supported.


The PINCH strategy

(Not my original acronym) Keep in mind ways that you can bring the following to the situation when you find yourself procrastinating:


P - Play

Ask: How can I make this more playful? Can I add humor or creativity?


I - Interest

Ask: How can I make this more interesting? Can I gamify this chore?


N - Novelty

Ask: How can I bring newness to this? Can I shake it up in a way that spikes my curiosity?


C - Competition/collaboration

Ask: How can I bring someone else in on this?


H - Hurry

Ask: How can I use a deadline or consequence to create a sense of urgency?

 

 

Your recap on perfectionism, procrastination and anxiety

...unless you procrastinated on reading to the end of this article...


  • Perfectionism and procrastination are often linked.

  • If you have anxiety, it's even more likely for you to struggle with perfectionism and procrastination.

  • The reasons for perfectionism are rooted in our upbringing and our innate personality traits.

  • The reasons for procrastination are rooted in lack of confidence in ourselves or a desire to avoid difficult feelings.

  • Perfectionism and procrastination are both tools that folks with anxiety use to avoid feeling like a failure, like a disappointment, or otherwise unlovable in some way.

  • There are solid strategies you can use to start shifting yourself out of the perfectionism-procrastination cycle.



 

If you want some deeper understanding of anxiety and tools to manage it, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.


Image credit in order of appearance: lechenie-narkomanii and 41330 and Vicki Nunn on Pixabay 

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