Is Your Procrastination a Symptom of Perfectionism?

Procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism. Perfectionists, believing they can never complete a task perfectly, put it off as long as possible.

If a writer doesn’t attempt to finish her project, she can’t fail. She won’t be ridiculed or get bad reviews that will break her heart. The greater the fear of criticism, the more she will procrastinate.

Some people think procrastinators are plain lazy. They’re making excuses not to write because writing is hard. Well, many of us have moments when we feel that way.

I talked about this as well, in previous posts. We stare at the computer screen, and out of the corner of our eye, we notice the floor is dirty. We jump up and grab the mop, telling ourselves we won’t be able to concentrate on writing if the floor is dirty.

This isn’t necessarily laziness. Granted, some writers are lazy, and that’s why they procrastinate. They like the idea of being an author, but they don’t really want to put in the hard work of cranking out great books. They may tinker with writing the way they toy with many activities in their life. Everything is a hobby to dabble in. But dabbling does not a super-productive writer make.

The perfectionist procrastinates because she doesn’t want to suffer the imagined pain that will come along with her perceived failure.

And there may be good reason for her to think this way. She may have grown up with a lot of criticism. With parents who had ridiculously high expectations of her and put pressure on her to excel (even to be perfect). Every time she tried to please her parents, she failed, and those mean, disparaging words they uttered still burn like a hot brand on her heart.

Just knowing why you are a perfectionist doesn’t make it go away. I get that. It’s a lifelong struggle for some of us.

Some of us spend the first twenty or so years of our lives getting all screwed up by our parents, then spend the rest of our lives trying to undo all the damage they caused. If you had great, supportive parents that didn’t mess you up, thank the heavens for that.

How Can You Hack Around That?

 Let’s start looking at ways we can hack around some of these mind-sets.

Some research has concluded that people procrastinate when they view concrete tasks in abstract terms. There’s this big, scary, massive novel waiting to be written, and the finish line is somewhere out on the horizon, far away and unreachable.

One of the hacks we looked at previously centered on breaking down the big task of writing a book into small pieces. Setting smaller goals for your writing time—ones that aren’t daunting. Ones you can allow some imperfection to slip in.

Perfect Is Relative

Who sets your standard of perfection? I mean, when you finish that book, who is the big scary judge out there just waiting to pounce on your project and tell you it sucks?

It’s one thing to learn or know that your book could be better, could stand for some improvement. But you do know that no book, no anything, is ever perfect. Because there is no one standard that sets the definition of perfect.

Perfect is relative. It’s subjective. It’s a matter of opinion. Whose opinions are you going to listen to and why? And will you be willing to accept the opinions of those you hold in high regard?

I like the ancient Greek meaning of the word perfect: having reached its end; complete.

If we understand that perfection is really just completion, to the best of our ability, it can take some of the pressure off.

Some writers have given their book to a critique partner or group, or published it, only to get harsh negative feedback. And rather than be motivated by that criticism to improve their craft and write better books, they slip into the trap of perfectionism.

Criticism hurts, so it makes sense that we’d be afraid to write another book or finish our current book because we don’t want to go through that again. So no way will we move forward because the book has to be perfect, and we know it never will be.

It’s true—an artist who puts his work out into the world has to have the backbone to face the critics. Some people just can’t seem to develop that strong a backbone. Some writers would rather not write or not finish their book because they can’t bear the thought that someone (or many someones) will hate what they write.

There are ways to work through this, and I believe the best is to get the help of a supportive writing coach (either one-on-one or in a group setting). A writing coach can honestly point out your strengths and weaknesses and give you tools and insights to help you gain mastery of your craft, which instills confidence and can help you break through the trappings of perfectionism.

How We Can Counteract Perfectionism

In addition to having supportive, concrete help with our writing, we can go back to that self-talk we covered in an earlier post.

If you catch yourself thinking in these perfectionist ways, you can do an exercise to help you put your fears in perspective.

Write down what you think are the worst things that might happen if you publish your book. Then next to each consequence you listed, write what subsequent results you fear most will develop from those. Then write a more realistic scenario and offer yourself practical next steps.

Here’s an example:

If I publish my book, I’ll get terrible reviews.

If I get terrible reviews, everyone I know will laugh at me or gossip about my awful writing behind my back. They’ll unfriend me on Facebook and refuse to have lunch with me. I’ll have to change my name and move to a new town.

[This is where you let your paranoid fantasies run loose. Just let them all out.]

If I get terrible reviews, I’ll feel yucky for a while, but it’s not the end of the world. Probably no one I know will even read the reviews. Or if they do, they aren’t going to make fun of me. And if they do, they aren’t really my friends, right?

So, I’ll read the reviews and see what specifics are addressed. Then I’ll find a professional editor or writing coach, or ask some trusted author friends for help, so I can improve in any weak areas. I’ll find some books and blog posts and work on the main weaknesses in my writing.

I also know that a bad review doesn’t mean I am a bad writer. Reviews are subjective, and what one reader hates, another reader may like. If a lot of reviewers complain about the same issues, then that gives me some good ideas of what I should work on. That’s a good thing.

Let go of your desire to impress others. Understand the difference between excellence and perfection. You can learn to write an excellent book—but never a perfect one. Demanding perfection generates negative feelings from any perceived mistakes made instead of celebrating the effort put in.

Be sure to pick up Crank It Out! If you find yourself procrastinating, making excuses, or letting distractions keep you from writing productivity, you need this book!

Get yours in print or as a Kindle ebook HERE.

How do these views on perfectionism help you counteract it? Share in the comments!

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  1. Such good advice here. Back in the day when I was teaching beginning college writers, I was amused at how many thought procrastination was something to be proud of. (I wrote it at the last minute and I got an A!) Procrastinators aren’t lazy, they’re afraid, and figuring out what the heck it is that you’re so afraid of, is the first step to moving past this crippling habit.

  2. Wow. Just…wow. I have to be brutally honest here and admit that as I read this post, it made me tear up. Because I’m a perfectionist. And I also, more often than I care to admit, put off my writing in favor of other chores, tasks, etc.

    My kids are young. My husband has a demanding career. If the house is going to run, it’s going to run because I’m making it so. That often means me putting my writing on the back burner or not even getting it into the kitchen. And I’ve spent time fretting and crying over it without fully analyzing every single avenue available to me.

    I never really thought about procrastination as an active symptom of perfectionism, but it makes complete sense. Thank you, Susanne, for this lesson. It’s a hard one to read today, because lately I’ve been putting off my writing for some legitimate tasks. I know, though, that there are times when I can work on my writing and I choose to do something else.

    Going to spend some time turning this one over in my mind. Thank you so much.

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