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Published on January 14, 2022

How to Break the Perfectionism-Procrastination Loop

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How to Break the Perfectionism-Procrastination Loop

You’re probably full of the usual impetus to make changes in your life as the new year lies before us. At the time of writing, we’re at the dawn of a new year. Bellies full and rife with lethargy, we’re all likely sat around (in the West at any rate) contemplating our moves for the next 12 months.

This is, of course, prompted by our arm-chair assessment of the year just gone. Did we achieve the goals we set out for ourselves this time last year as we nurse our splitting sides and slip into yet another food coma?

No! Of course we didn’t, and I’m not speaking from a hyperbolic or purely anecdotal point of view. According to a 2016 study, of the 41% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, by the end of the year, only 9% feel they are successful in keeping them.[1]

Is it because of procrastination or perfectionism?

Is Perfectionism And Procrastination Holding You Back From Achieving Goals?

The failing rate of New Year’s resolutions is 91%! A big part of that is how we set our goals. What these studies often cite as a predominant reason for failure is the setting of unrealistic goals. But I think this speaks to something else, namely that we’re not properly connecting to or aligning with our goals — this is where perfectionism and procrastination come in.

Perfectionism is just fear manifesting itself as a mental block. Not fear of failure and/or social ostracisation, so much as fear of change. Our subconscious is set up to favor the status quo. All it knows is that your choices, up until now, have resulted in your survival. Change is just rocking the boat and risking an unknowable outcome (or so it thinks).

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This is what’s at the root cause of your perfectionism and procrastination. You might claim to be a perfectionist, but what does that really mean? Do you mean that you won’t stop working on something until it is, in your opinion, perfect? Or do you mean that you don’t embark upon an endeavor until you can guarantee that the outcome will be perfect?

If you fall into the latter camp, you might consider that this perfectionism-procrastination loop is just an excuse—a manifestation of your deeply rooted subconscious fear of change.

Put it this way:

I think you could substitute the word “unrealistic” for the word “vague,” and you’d have a more accurate assessment of the problem. People often say that they want to make more money, lose more weight, eat more healthy food, etc., but they don’t define what that actually means. Setting out with such an ill-defined destination means that you can’t set an accurate course towards it, and without that, you’re just wandering around in the wilderness.

Think about a time when you’ve performed a task so mundane that it barely registered in your mind. It could be doing the grocery shopping or the laundry. Something that you do, not necessarily every day, but with regularity and (crucially) purpose. If you don’t go to the food store, you won’t have food. If you don’t have food, you can’t eat. If you don’t eat, you die. That’s a pretty clear purpose.

As you head out the door to the supermarket though, that precipitous chain of catastrophic events isn’t weighing on your mind. It’s just a case of making sure that you get everything on the shopping list. There is no doubt in your mind that you’ll make it back with what you need, though. You’ve already mentally and energetically connected, albeit subconsciously, to the outcome of “bringing home the bacon” (or meat-free bacon substitute, if you’re vegan).

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You’ve already achieved your goal mentally. Now, it’s just a case of physically going through the motions. You probably don’t even have to think that much about what you’re doing as you go round the store!

How to Break the Perfectionism-Procrastination Loop

1. Recognize the Loop

The first thing you can do to break this perfectionism-procrastination loop is to recognize it. Bring your awareness to what is really going on and consider what lies behind your claims of perfectionism. Be honest but gentle with yourself. Try, if you can, not to bring judgment into the equation.

Judgment and overly harsh self-criticism can be just as debilitating as your subconscious fear of change, so try not to introduce it in the first place. Consider yourself, as best you can, an impartial observer. You’re just there in the first instance to witness what’s going on.

2. Set Intentions Properly

Armed with that knowledge, you will find that your approach to your goals starts to shift naturally anyway, but you also need to learn how to set intentions properly. If you are one of the aforementioned New Years’ resolution setters who winds up making claims of perfectionism while not taking any action, you ought really to ask yourself:

“If I’m such a perfectionist, why do I keep setting such vague goals?”

Would a perfectionist set out to make “more money” this year and leave it at that?! Would somebody so obsessed with perfection in all things, looking to reach their ideal weight and body shape, really set a goal of simply “lose more weight”?

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You might think, genuinely, that the possibility of not hitting your target dead-on is a reason not to even start. But what are you aiming at in the first place?

Let’s back up the truck for a second, and assess what we mean by procrastination. Procrastination, as defined by researchers, is:[2]

“a form of self-regulation failure characterized by the irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences.”

So far, we’ve spoken about procrastination as if it is simply “never doing something,” which it is, over time. But really, it’s the delaying of something for no reason. When it comes to achieving goals, procrastination in and of itself isn’t what keeps you from achieving them. It’s procrastination over time. As the Spanish would say, it’s “mañana” thinking.

If you put something off till tomorrow because you just don’t want to do it today, that might still be procrastinatory behavior. But if you then actually do it tomorrow, what’s the harm? It’s the consistent putting off of something based on irrationally (or subconsciously) held beliefs that, over time, means that you never get there. This might seem blindingly obvious, but it’s important to lock down exactly what we mean before seeking to make changes.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, hopefully, it shifts your thinking on what procrastination is enough so that you can accurately assess whether or not your procrastination is hindering your progress. It should help you not to sit in judgment of your procrastination, too.

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3. Try Reaching Out for Help and Mentorship

You can’t expand in a vacuum. You need others to support your journey and provide you with objective feedback. How else are you going to realistically assess whether or not your outcome is perfect anyway?

Find others who have walked the path before you, and reach out to them. Unless they’re huge names with layers of people around them, you’ll probably find that they are willing to help. Even if they are hard to reach, check out interviews with them or look for guidance that they’ve put out publicly in the past.

Part of the problem you’ve been facing is that you can only see what the perfect outcome should look like as filtered through you. By understanding what the wider community (and market) consider to be an ideal outcome for something, you’ll get a much clearer, realistic idea of what you need to be aiming for. From there, you can identify what you’re lacking and therefore, what gaps you need to plug.

Get used to defining your terms better. Think about the language you’re using, both when you talk to others and with your internal monologue. What are you telling yourself?

Is the Narrative You’re Running On True?

Perfectionism is a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable after all.[3] What does that have to do with an irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences? From a literal point of view, perfectionism should provoke a desire to continue to take action long past the point of an acceptable outcome, not irrationally abstain from taking any!

So, check yourself the next time you utter the words “I’m just a perfectionist” as a pretext for why you haven’t done something, whether it’s to yourself or somebody else. You don’t really mean that, but that’s okay! You’re just afraid to change, as we all are predisposed to be.

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Don’t beat yourself up. See it for what it is, and start to shift the stories (belief systems) that you’re running on.

Featured photo credit: Nubelson Fernandes via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Discover Happy Habits: New Year’s Resolution Statistics (2021 Updated)
[2] SpringerLink: Procrastination and Task Avoidance
[3] Merriam-Webster: perfectionism

More by this author

Daniel Mangena

CEO of Dreamer HQ, Best-Selling Author, Coach, Podcast Host & Entrepreneur

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Published on November 3, 2021

Why You Should Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks (And How to Do So)

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Why You Should Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks (And How to Do So)

Buzzzzz! Buzzzzz! My alarm clock begins shaking on the nightstand. It’s beckoning to me as loud as it can, and I’m not ready to answer. Maybe it is because it is 5 am Monday, the time and day I dread the most. Perhaps it’s because I know I need to get up, so I’m not late to my 5:30 am CrossFit class, or I’ll hear it from my coach. Plus… I’ll have to do five burpees for each minute I’m late, and I hate burpees! Can you tell I’m only one week into my CrossFit membership, and I’m regretting my decision to sign up already?

Clearly, this is a difficult task I am trying to avoid, and rather unsuccessfully at that. I know, I know, we should challenge ourselves to do difficult things. “Doing difficult things is what will make you stronger!” I can hear my coach saying as I struggle to lift a weight over my head that a pregnant woman next to me is having no problem. I can say that the embarrassment motivates me to continue on, no matter how uncomfortable I am.

As I set my bar down to eat some humble pie and look around at all the bad-assesses in class, I pause to ask myself. “Why should I stop avoiding difficult tasks? And How can I do so?”

That’s the question we’ll examine deeper with answers that not only helped me with CrossFit but can help you in whatever you find difficult in your life.

Why Should You Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks?

Let’s face it. We are all human beings and enjoy being comfortable, period. We love all of our daily creature comforts that have made life simple. Whether navigating to a new destination or cooking a meal, we are always looking for a shortcut. We want faster, easier, better, and definitely not difficult. These things are almost synonymous with the American dream by today’s standards. This often sought-after dream used to be about hard work and grit but is now about getting there before anyone else with the least amount of effort.

Despite all this, easier is not always better, and here’s why:

When we take the easy way, we program our brains to be lazy. It no longer has to use critical thinking or creativity to develop a solution but only needs to seek the shortcut. This training actually re-wires the neural pathways of our brains in less-than-optimal ways.

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According to Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D. author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, we need to work our brain if we want it to be healthy.

“Your brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more you can use it. Every time you learn something new, your brain makes a new connection. Learning enhances blood flow and activity in the brain. If you go for long periods without learning something new, you start to lose some of the connections in the brain, and you begin to struggle more with memory and learning.”

Furthermore, research from Anatomist Marian Diamond, Ph.D., from the University of California at Berkeley showed that rats who were allowed an easy life without any new challenges or learning had less brain weight than those who were challenged and forced to learn new information in order to be fed. New learning actually caused increased brain density and weight, meaning a healthier overall brain.[1]

Before you jump to conclusions about the differences between human and rat brains, you should understand the following research:[2]

“Even though the rat brain is smaller and less complex than the human brain, research has shown that the two are remarkably similar in structure and function. Both consist of a vast amount of highly connected neurons that are constantly talking to each other.”

The bottom line is that it’s simply healthier to exercise our brain, just like it is beneficial to exercise most other parts of our body. The more you take care of your brain, the more it will take care of you.

Here are 7 ways to take care of your brain, according to Dr. Amen.[3]

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  1. Protect Your Brain – protect your brain from injury, pollution, sleep deprivation, and stress.
  2. Feed Your Brain – go on a diet with brain boosting foods.
  3. Kill the ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) That Invade Your Brain stay happy, hopeful and positive.
  4. Work Your Brain – keep learning, learning is a brain workout.
  5. Make Love for Your Brain – regular sexual activity enhances overall brain activity and improves memory as it boosts estrogen levels.
  6. Develop a “Concert State” For Your Brain – only when you feel relaxed will you be able to concentrate easily, listening to music is a nice way to relax yourself while improving your concentration.
  7. Treat Brain Problems Early – mental health problems such as anxiety and depression need to be dealt with as early as possible.

Any one of these recommendations alone can help you out when it comes to not avoiding difficult tasks. Remember, whether it’s accomplishing difficult things or a related area, your life can only improve with an optimized brain, so put these into action today. You can learn more about each one here.

Even if none of this so-called “brain talk” is convincing you, then let’s look at the situation from a different vantage point, growth and confidence.

If you’re reading this article, then you are interested in learning in some capacity. Whether it’s basic curiosity, strict personal development, or anywhere in between, you are seeking knowledge in some way. The search for knowledge is a search for growth as an individual. Growth, by definition, is the opposite of stagnation. So, by this rationale, anyone who is growing is undergoing change.

To indeed undergo change and growth, we need to step outside of our comfort zone into the area of uncomfortability. This is where all the magic happens. This is where we do the difficult tasks that we don’t always want to do. As we do difficult things more and more, they become easier and more manageable.

Anything most worthwhile learning in life takes some difficulty and time to become proficient.

Take a moment to think back to when you were a young child. When you first learned to ride a bike, did you just hop on and take off down the road? My guess is no. It probably took many tries before you could become proficient and start riding all over the neighborhood. Did you try a couple times and then give up because it was too difficult? No. You continued on again and again until you figured it out. You probably did the same thing for any sport or hobby you enjoyed. I’ll bet that many of them you kept practicing until you became pretty good. This is part of our drive as human beings and is embedded in our DNA.

We have always done difficult things as individuals and as the human race. World history is littered with examples of people doing difficult tasks and choosing the hard path. This mentality is embodied in JFK’s famous NASA speech from 1962:

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“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Meaning, to accomplish greatness, you must do difficult tasks.To achieve the things you never have, you have to do the things you have never done.

How to Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks

How great do you want to be?

If this question makes you uncomfortable, then your desire for growth may not be intrinsically motivating enough. You may need to build some confidence in your abilities to do the difficult tasks in the first place.

If you are going to build confidence, you first need to acknowledge the fear that is holding you back. Often, avoidance of a difficult task is related to fear. This could be related to the fear of getting started, fear of inability to complete the task, or simply a fear of a lack of knowledge around the task. In all cases, fear leads to inaction, which leads to a further lack of confidence.

According to Jen Gottlieb, Co-Founder and Chief Mindset Officer of Super Connector Media,

“Confidence comes from feeling the fear and doing it anyway consistently.…because every single time you do something difficult or scary, and still do it, you get to the other side. You then realize that you didn’t die, and nothing terrible happened, so you get a win and celebrate that win. With each win, you put another coin in the confidence bank and become a little bit more confident. If you do that consistently and trust yourself to be able to do those scary things, you’ll grow to where it will be less and less scary and become easy.”

Sounds like a recipe for success to me. The key is not to focus on the totality of the difficult task but only one small step at a time. This makes any task far more attainable. As the old saying goes, How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

With this theory in mind, here are 3 tips to help you stop avoiding difficult tasks

  1. Break it up – Dividing the task into smaller, feasible parts makes it seem easier while allowing you to celebrate the small wins.
  2. Manage limiting beliefs – Focus on what you can accomplish and avoid any negative self-talk. By staying positive, you will increase your likelihood of sticking with it.
  3. Seek Support – When others hold us accountable, we increase our chances of success by two-thirds.

Whether it’s brain health, growth, or confidence, the good news is that there is hope for you and me when it comes to completing difficult tasks.

I ended up sticking with the difficult CrossFit class I was enrolled in. That first week was over ten years ago, and even though it was challenging at the time, I’m glad I didn’t give up. I’ve been coaching others in CrossFit for six years now and have learned to do many, many difficult tasks along the way. Those successes rank near the top of my list when it comes to CrossFit. I’ll save the top spot for the fact that I’m now the one who gets to hand out the burpee penalties.

Featured photo credit: Daria Nepriakhina via unsplash.com

Reference

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