Do you ever experience task paralysis at work? Get distracted by daydreaming when you have a deadline? Or get bogged down in perfectionism? In actual fact, these issues have the same root cause…
We often think of procrastination and perfectionism as two totally separate issues. One seems to be about struggling to get started on work tasks, while the other seems to be about wanting to perform those tasks perfectly. Yet when you think about it, they’re both about the same issue — not being able to complete things.
With procrastination, this is because you are avoiding looking at the task, while with perfectionism, you are looking so closely at smaller aspects of it that you’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. In other words, with the former you have a lack of focus and with the latter, hyper-focus. Both of these behaviours can be a paralysing force that makes every task feel like a painful mountain to climb.
Yet if procrastination and perfectionism have the same core issue in common — being unable to complete things — then perhaps they have the same underlying cause as well?
In actual fact, they do — and that cause is fear.
We can actually understand both perfectionism and procrastination through an evolutionary lens, by looking at our body’s survival responses to perceived threats. In other words, our nervous system’s Fight-Flight-Freeze triggers. In the case of perfectionism and procrastination, the ‘threat’ is the fear of not being good enough, of being ‘found out’ as an ‘imposter’ at work (even if you are good at your job).
Perfectionism can essentially be seen as our Fight system taking over — in other words, our drive to ‘fight against’ a threat to our self-esteem by falling into obsessive and at times even ‘workaholic’ behaviour. This could include obsessively checking the beginning section of a report that you’re writing, so that it’s difficult to move onto the next section.
In contrast, procrastination can be a sign that either our Flight or Freeze systems are taking over. You might be ‘running away’ from the difficult feelings that writing the report could trigger, including inadequacy and shame. Or you might be ‘frozen’ in inaction and experience ‘task paralysis’ where you can’t really get started on the report because it just feels too overwhelming and your thoughts are scattered.
Yet the question is, what makes some of us chronic procrastinators or perfectionists?
At the core of these paralysing behaviour patterns is often a powerful belief — that your self-worth is based on your achievements. This means that you might lack a deep inner sense that you are worthy of love no matter what (and whether you succeed or fail). Instead, it might be the case that if you under-perform at a task, your sense of worth takes an agonising hit alongside this. And if every significant task feels as if it is linked to your inherent value as a person, then getting bogged down in perfectionism or procrastination is an understandable reaction.
Yet why are you in the habit of linking performance with self-worth in the first place?
Research indicates that perfectionism can sometimes be rooted in having parents with high expectations, or who were critical, shaming or abusive in some way. Or even just very busy and achieving was a way to get their attention. Perfectionism can also be a learned behaviour, so if your parents and older siblings were high achievers then you may have felt pressure to be the same.
And if you didn’t always manage to be perfect or ‘the best’, your parents could have reacted in different ways. This could have included criticising you, withholding praise, giving you the silent treatment or even abusing you verbal, emotionally or physically. Since as a child you weren’t able to comprehend that this was wrong behaviour on their part, you might have come to blame yourself for not ‘measuring up’. Eventually, these high and harsh expectations might have become internalised into an inner critical voice that still haunts you to this day.
Perfectionism and procrastination can be a huge drain on your wellbeing and career performance. Yet if you want to deal with them, the key is to pay attention to the underlying issues that they might be flagging up. And usually, this is a deep-seated belief that you are not good enough, as well as related fears of judgement, rejection, guilt, exposure, failure and shame. You are not to blame for any of this, but you do have the power to change it. And change starts by realising that procrastination is not about avoiding a task, it’s about avoiding the emotions that doing the task triggers.
In other words, you will have to deal with the buried, often complex emotions driving perfectionism and procrastination. Which is why dealing with this issue isn’t a case of finding one ‘quick fix’ but rather, building up a toolbox of strategies to manage these patterns.
If you find yourself feeling frozen when faced with beginning a task — or getting bogged down in tiny details when trying to complete it on time — then acknowledge that this is how you are feeling. Take a moment to observe that the perfectionistic or procrastinating side of you is taking over and check in with yourself to see if there are any difficult feelings being masked.
Next, write down any specific fears you have, for instance, ‘I’m scared I’ll look stupid in front of my colleagues during this meeting’ or ‘I’m scared I’ll mess up this presentation’.
Putting your fears down on paper might not make them magically vanish, but it can take some of the heat out of them and help you to start rationalising them.
You don’t have to do every single thing absolutely perfectly.
Does that statement make you flinch a little? If so, take some time to consider why that is — then ask yourself whether it could be true anyway. Because the fact is that trying to perform everything at full throttle is the road to stress, burnout and poor mental health.
So why not test out the idea that everything doesn’t have to be flawless? For instance, you could experiment with choosing one lower stakes work task this week, then completing it to a ‘good’, ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’ level. Observe how you feel when you are doing this, both before, during and after. What emotions came up for you? Did you experience any sense of liberation or relief? Did you feel guilty? How did the people around you react, if at all? Did the world fall apart?
If you think of a big goal in terms of its final outcome, then it is very easy for the perfectionist part of you to become freaked out and frozen in fear. Suddenly, you zoom in on details, obsessing over the choice of font for a work report rather than researching the actual content.
So why not aim to break your task down into smaller, more emotionally manageable chunks instead? For instance, setting goals like ‘Today I’ll write 100 words of my report’. By breaking down bigger work tasks into smaller ones, they become a lot less intimidating.
Next, try making it a practice to assign priorities to tasks, identifying which ones you want to give your absolute all to (and which you can go a little easier on). Once you have done this, you can decide which order to perform each task in. This way, you are less likely to deplete and exhaust yourself, meaning that you can save your energy for the things that you most want to excel at.
Some handy tips include:
· Do the worst task first to get it out of the way.
· Or alternatively, do the most enjoyable task first to ease yourself in and build momentum.
· Plan to work on each task for only a short block of time, say five minutes. Then set a timer, stop after the five minutes and go onto something else for another mini time block. Of course, when you do this, you might find that you want to stay on the same task for another five minutes, as it wasn’t as daunting as you thought — if so, keep going. An hour might have passed before you know it.
Research has shown that when you act kindly towards yourself and take time for self-soothing activities (such as deep breathing exercises at your desk), the feelgood chemical oxytocin is released. Not only does oxytocin boost your sense of wellbeing but it is actually great at enhancing your focus. This means that through self-care and self-soothing, you can complete tasks with greater clarity and drive.
So make sure that you take time out to be kind to yourself throughout the working day. And also, once you have ticked something off your to-do list, don’t be afraid to give yourself a little reward. For when you start becoming willing to treat yourself, you might find that you have less inner resistance towards difficult activities in the future.
Managing perfectionism and procrastination doesn’t mean that you will suddenly stop having high standards — and after all, there is nothing wrong with healthy striving. But by getting on top of avoidant behaviours around starting and finishing tasks, you will be able to have a better relationship with your career and goals.
Want to overcome perfectionism and procrastination? Connect with a Lumo Health therapist or listen to our expert webinar on the topic.
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