How to Stop Procrastinating and Kick Perfectionism to the Curb

“Procrastination is opportunity’s assassin” - Victor Kiam

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When I was 9 years old, my best friend, Diana, and I were deep in the throes of a year-long school project. We were required to write a biography of an elderly gentleman who lived at the local nursing home.

It was a nightmare.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I was a nightmare.

While Diana plugged away like the perfect worker bee, I spent most of our sessions “planning.”

I planned our book outline and then adjusted the plan ad nauseam. I planned which tools we were going to use. I planned how we were going to spend our time. I spent so much time planning I never got anything done.

Diana may have been just a teensy bit irritated with me. (And who can blame her?!)

I remember this story because I’ve been reminded so many times (mostly by my mother… Thanks, Mom!) of just how relentlessly unproductive I was at that age.

I am not a doer.

I am a thinker, a planner, an organizer of ideas.

I like to hypothesize, strategize, and theorize until everyone around me is thoroughly sick of my endless abstractions.

In a word, I am a procrastinator.

...Or at least I was.

It took me a while, but I finally realized a few important things:

  1. Procrastination is just a defensive strategy I use to cope with my perfectionism.

  2. Perfectionism is destructive and exhausting.

  3. I don’t want to be a perfectionist.

What is perfectionism?

Before we go any further, I feel it would be helpful to define perfectionism. How do you know if you’re a perfectionist? To answer that question, take a look at this list of statements. Do any of them apply to you?

  • I harshly berate myself when I make even the smallest mistake.

  • I feel like a failure in life or business because I’m not #1.

  • I feel like a fraud even though I have a solid understanding of what I do/teach/write about.

  • If I’m not the best at it, it’s not worth doing.

  • I’m hesitant to start a new project or business because I’m afraid I’ll fall on my face.

  • I don’t tell my friends and family about any new business or project until it’s successful because I’m afraid of what they’ll think if it doesn’t work out.

Here’s what perfectionism is not:

  • Having healthily high expectations of yourself and others.

  • Striving for quality in your life and work.

  • Being disappointed in yourself when you screw up in a big way.

  • Keeping your project or business away from your friends and family because they discourage you and give you a lot of grief about it.

  • Occasionally feeling inferior when you compare yourself to others in your field.

Perfectionism is a normal desire for excellence taken to an unhealthy extreme.

What causes perfectionism?

For most people, perfectionism begins in childhood.

As children, we’re bombarded with so many harmful messages from our parents, environment, and culture. It’s impossible not to internalize at least some of them.

Maybe you internalized some of these messages when you were a kid:

  • Your value is determined by what you achieve.

  • Your best is not good enough.

  • You’re exceptionally good at everything you do. (Hard to live up to.)

  • The world is out of control. (So control what you can.)

  • You have to be twice as good as everyone else to prove you’re equal. (A common one for girls!)

I internalized all of these messages to varying degrees.

Identifying and challenging the messages driving your perfectionism is key.

But how do you challenge them?

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

Perfectionism is a drug we take so we don’t have to live with a bad feeling.

Worthlessness. Abandonment. Powerlessness.

Nobody wants to feel those things. I sure as hell don’t. But overcompensating for them isn’t going to solve anything. It’ll just make you anxious, unhappy, and unhealthy.

Ultimately, perfectionism is a choice. Or rather, a series of choices that add up to a whole mindset and way of engaging with life’s problems.

Our default programming is to choose perfectionism. And most of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re making that choice.

And that’s the problem.

In order to make a better choice, we have to be aware that we have a choice to begin with. And we have to be aware in the moments when it counts…

At the crossroads between forging ahead with a new idea and surrendering to the fear that someone’s already done it better than you ever could…

When your path forks and you have to choose the way of self-criticism or self-love…

When you’re tempted to tear down everything you’ve built to rebuild it bigger and better even though you know now is not the right time for that…

Mindfulness meditation is the perfect tool (sorry, couldn’t help myself 😉) to help challenge those harmful childhood messages, raise your awareness, and move toward a healthier and more productive work ethic.

Breethe is a great app that offers guided meditations on a whole bunch of topics including productivity, self-esteem, and acceptance–all relevant to overcoming the perfectionist mindset.

Something else you can do is write affirmations and reminders to yourself on Post-It Notes and stick them around your workspace. Even something as simple as, “Try not to listen to your inner critic today!” can be really powerful.

And one other thing: Don’t fall into the trap of being a perfectionist about not being a perfectionist. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t beat yourself up if you skip out on meditation for a few days or waste a day moaning about how inadequate you feel.

Change takes time. It’s okay to mess up. Just keep climbing back on that horse whenever you fall off.

It’s been a few years since I really started to work on silencing my inner critic and you know what? I still feel like a failure sometimes. I still mentally kick myself over stupid little mistakes. But it doesn’t happen nearly as often. Small steps lead to big changes over time.

Say Goodbye to Procrastination

Dealing with my perfectionism has helped me shift my focus from planning to doing.

I still love floating ideas and theories around as much as I ever have. Abstract thinking is one of my gifts and sometimes I take a day just to brainstorm, synthesize information, and experiment with new tools.

But I also get things done. And most importantly, I put my stuff out there.

I launch the website. I publish the blog post. I promote myself online.

Of course, perfectionism isn’t the only cause of procrastination. There’s good old-fashioned laziness and the million little things that can distract you during the day. I have an arsenal of tools and productivity hacks to help me stay focused.

But none of those things would work if I hadn’t first dealt with the deeper stuff.

Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

How do you overcome procrastination and perfectionism? Tell me about it in the comments below!