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Megan Wallin-Kerth


Is There Really a Link Between Perfectionism and Procrastination?

How to rein in perfectionism to produce excellence

Published: Wednesday, April 5, 2023 - 11:03

“The best is the enemy of good,” wrote French historian and philosopher Voltaire. Today that quote seems more appropriate than ever. A longitudinal meta-analysis study from 1989 to 2016 looking at data from more than 41,000 students across the U.S., U.K., and Canada revealed that perfectionism has increased significantly. And in the years since, we’ve endured a global pandemic—an event that prompted many to learn new skills, adapt, and prove themselves in ways they hadn’t been pressed to do before.

The concept of perfectionists who fall prey to their own mentality has become something of a pop-psychology stereotype: procrastination bred from perfectionism. We all know that person who struggles to complete tasks or stay focused, and yet states, “It’s because I’m a perfectionist.” When they do something, they argue, they want it to be perfect—and that pressure prevents them from accomplishing set goals.

What is perfectionism?

A study published in the 1990s by the American Psychological Association (APA) broke perfectionism into three categories: 1) self-oriented perfectionism, 2) other-oriented perfectionism, and 3) socially prescribed perfectionism.

In self-oriented perfectionism, a person strives for perfection in their tasks, job, ideals, and life goals. They set unrealistically high standards for themselves, and may have extremely negative emotional reactions when they fail to meet their own expectations.

For those with other-oriented perfectionism, those expectations center around what other people ought to do. In other words, they expect perfection from others. They may be judgmental and critical of other people’s behavior and performance.

People with socially prescribed perfectionism will exert a lot of time and effort meeting the standards of others, specifically a romantic partner. They believe other people’s expectations of them to be quite lofty, and as a result, their failure to be the perfect partner, child, employee, or friend to whomever they believe sets these expectations can result in depression and anxiety.

How do perfection standards affect people at work?

In an article from Forbes, the first problem with perfectionists at the office is fairly straightforward: They may struggle to get work done. People who get lost in the details (for instance, writing and rewriting standard emails, needing excessive reassurance) often lose their ability to power forward. This prevents them from actually presenting deliverables and meeting deadlines in a timely fashion.

In further explanation of this procrastination cycle, an article from Academic Ladder explains, “Ironically, the perfectionist often achieves a product that is far less than perfect. In contrast, those who aim at more realistic goals can outperform the perfectionist.” This is, in part, because aiming for perfection is really setting yourself up for failure. The article continues to explain that in the long term, discouragement from repeatedly not meeting unrealistic standards can lead not only to delays and self-doubt but to an ultimate halt or paralysis. So they outline the cycle as one of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis. In contrast, the drive for excellence without the nagging need to achieve “perfection” has a positive correlation with creativity.

Lastly, perfectionists are more likely to suffer from medical conditions and mental health problems, and to have worse long-term outcomes when they are diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, Crohn’s, and other health issues. Obviously, getting sick frequently or suffering from worsening mental health will have a negative effect on any employee, and their organization may see them calling out sick more often or turning in lower quality work.

Perfectionism disguised as procrastination

When a person wants everything to be perfect they set put themselves on a stage that doesn’t exist, one where everyone is paying attention and no mistakes are allowed. That alone is enough to prevent someone from wanting to get started on a project, paper, or other task. Add to that the complexity that may be inherent in said task and the pressure can increase tenfold.

For instance, someone charged with the task of answering incoming phone calls and routing them to the correct person at their organization may feel some pressure to do their job perfectly—and can succeed most of the time. However, someone who regularly sorts thousands of documents by hand or who handles intricate legal cases with many changing variables runs into a larger predicted margin of error. Their perfectionism may, in fact, be a hindrance.

Take this a step further into the creative realm (e.g., writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists), where “perfect” is not an objective term but subjective one, and critiques may come from all angles for any number of perceived deficits. Perfectionism now becomes entirely unattainable.

These are a just a few of the factors at work in procrastination that stem from a mindset that cannot fathom applying the phrase “That’s good enough.”

As for the theory of reduced creativity, based on a single study done by researchers at the University of Ottawa, the primary finding was that the students who pursued excellent work were more open-minded, more accepting of mistakes, and therefore more creative than their perfectionistic peers.

In summary, standards that are impossible to sustain—rather than merely difficult—cause discouragement and disruption of tasks, causing performance and creativity levels to drop. This is how perfectionist qualities can turn into procrastination tendencies.

How to stop perfectionism from raining on your parade

In a medically reviewed article from Healthline, author Meagan Drillinger gives seven tips to keep making progress despite tendencies toward perfectionism.

First, Drillinger says, you need to deliberately lower the bar. Set your standards to a realistic level, with tasks that are achievable and make success easier to attain. That should, in turn, lower your stress and allow you to focus your energy on meeting your new—and much more definitive—goal.

Second, break your tasks into bite-sized pieces. There’s a reason the saying, “biting off more than you can chew” exists. Don’t do it. Manage your efforts more effectively by breaking down your to-do list into succinct, defined, smaller items.

Third, keep track of time. Reexamine your priorities. No one likes to see a schedule monopolized by one or two tasks, so make sure you’re not using up extraordinary amounts of time that are disproportionate to the actual accomplishment. To do this, Drillinger suggests using a timer, allotting yourself a set time, taking breaks, and checking off tasks as you complete them.

Fourth, have your own support group. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who have your best interests in mind is always a surefire way to increase confidence and get a more realistic read on the quality of your work. True friends will tell it like it is while also encouraging you to pursue your interests. If you’re someone who has a permanent detractor in your own head, the last thing you need is a room full of critics.

Fifth, say “no” once in a while. And, Drillinger says, practice doing so. People-pleasing, taking too much on, and promising the impossible are all common habits of perfectionist types but are usually a recipe for burnout.

Sixth, reward yourself. A reward system helps form new neuropathways that remind you to celebrate when you complete a task—not fret about what could have been better. It’s basically an updated version of checking something off your list; you’re just adding in a bit of incentive.

Seventh, be mindful of the present to avoid getting overwhelmed. There are many details that could command your attention, and it takes mental discipline to focus on the ones that matter and call it a day.


About The Author

Megan Wallin-Kerth’s picture

Megan Wallin-Kerth

Megan Wallin-Kerth is a Quality Digest editor and writer.