I decided to write a blog post on procrastination quite some time ago; yes, there is already an irony in that opening. Exploring just why it has taken me so long to actually produce it, we run into both procrastination and perfectionism: seemingly simple concepts that in fact have many dimensions and share a surprising connection.
The general consensus runs like this: perfectionism, while not all good, has some redeeming features, while procrastination is flat out bad. Striving to achieve perfection is frequently seen as a positive trait: high standards and attention to detail mean great work, don't they? Yet the way we achieve those standards can powerfully affect our self-worth.
Researchers have identified two broad types of perfectionism: positive and negative. The former includes adaptive strategies that improve one's resilience and resourcefulness, whereas the latter can prove disastrous to one’s psychological well-being.
A positive perfectionist is fully aware of their strengths and limitations and chooses tasks accordingly – challenging but not impossible, and responsive to persistence. Failure and disappointment cannot always be avoided, but even then stimulate learning and renewed effort. Such people are often said to be resourceful, assertive and conscientious. The negative perfectionist in contrast suffers from an inability to face their own unrealistically high, self-imposed standards. Fearing that a task will not be completed perfectly, and that inevitable errors will make them appear or feel inadequate, the perfectionist copes by not starting it in the first place. So yes, a perfectionist very often turns into a master (dare we say perfect?) procrastinator! This can only bring temporary relief as the task must eventually be completed, which then happens in a rush and to an unsatisfactory standard; and this in turn reinforces the fear of failure for the next task.
What, though, if we feel that it is someone else who is placing high expectations upon us? This time, as well as the fear of being judged, we want to retain control over what we do. Feeling a threat to our autonomy, we engage in behaviours that aim at restoring the balance. Paradoxically, we procrastinate to feel more in control.
So how does that explain my procrastination over this blog post? Obviously, I wanted to make it perfect – but for whom? You the reader, or myself as my own worst critic? Was I trying to achieve some control over what was doing? Of course. Was it counterproductive? Absolutely - you could have been reading this blog post a week ago. What have I learnt from it? To understand that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and approach my next post with the constructive attitude of the positive perfectionist.