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the relationship between procrastination, perfectionism, and anxiety
December 8, 2011 3:40 PM   Subscribe

I think I procrastinate on projects as a dysfunctional way to manage my anxiety about them. Can you help me manage that anxiety more productively?

So recently I put together the following things: I am terrified of not doing a good enough job on most, if not all, projects (essays, applications, etc). I am a perfectionist, so I have a totally whacked-out sense of what counts as "good enough," because I never think anything I'm working on ever becomes good enough. Since I've never had any internal definitions of "good enough," I've used deadlines to create external definitions of it: if I procrastinate long enough that I have to work on something until 5 minutes before the project is due, then I tell myself I put everything I could into the project and that--therefore--counts as good enough.

I realized all of this because recently I've gotten organized enough that I've started finishing projects before the real deadline. Or rather, I finish 99% of a project before the deadline, but I can't convince my brain that it's okay to finish the last 1% of something and turn it in a week early. Working until the very last minute still feels like a sign that I worked as hard as I could on something, even though lately all that means is waiting until the last moment to fill out the appropriate forms rather than doing any more work on the substance of the project. And that's a problem because I end up burning time waiting for the deadline to approach when I could be using that time more productively to start on a new project, or spend more time with friends, etc.

I think part of the issue too is that the procrastinating gives me a convenient way to explain to myself why I get things wrong: I ran out of time. That is easier to swallow than: Sometimes I just make mistakes or don't think clearly enough about a problem.

So, how do I build an internal sense of what counts as good enough? How do I convince my brain that I have done everything I could on a particular project when I finish it before the actual deadline? How do I accept that I just get things wrong sometimes even when I'm not under time pressure?
posted by colfax to Work & Money (8 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
 
You might find The Now Habit worth reading. He touches on this a bit, if I recall correctly.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:12 PM on December 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


Lately I've been telling myself that the honorable thing to do is go down with the ship -- meaning, if I'm going to fail, I'm going to fail in the biggest, most humiliating way possible, and stay with the project 100% right up until the big humiliating failure occurs.

It sort of works, sometimes. It works better than other shit worked on this issue for me in the past. It takes "zomg run away" off the table, and it makes even small victories seem pretty pleasant by comparison, and sometimes that's enough for me to get shit done in a reasonable way.

Honestly, though, this is also coming after umpteen years of therapy and reading a whole fuckton of good books on depression and anxiety and so on and so on. So I don't know if this is The One True Winning Strategy or if it's just the strategy that I happened to try once I was in a good enough mental state in other ways. Probably you'll want to do the therapy thing or the really-good-self-help-book thing too.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:14 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I procrastinate too, sometimes out of fear of not doing something perfectly. I learned about this exercise, which is cool:

Think about something you are procrastinating about, and draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper to split it into two columns. On the left side, write down on a scale of 1-10 how hard you think the task/job will be. (If you are anxious or a perfectionist, the number will probably be irrationally high.) Then, commit to working on the task for just 10 minutes. After the 10 minutes are up, write down the number of how hard it actually was, on the same scale of 1-10.

Keep that sheet of paper, and use it for bigger and more important tasks over time. Eventually, you're supposed to see that most of the numbers on the left (perceived difficulty), are lower than the numbers on the right (actual difficulty).

Also, The Feeling Good Handbook may be helpful in identifying other unhelpful negative thoughts that might be behind your procrastination. For me, I was "discounting the positive" a lot of the time. When I started giving myself a pat on the back for what I did accomplish, I naturally wanted to procrastinate less because I gave myself credit even if things took longer than I thought or if I made some mistakes along the way.

Finally, I read the Make Magazine Handbook this summer, and it actually made me excited to make mistakes. Mistakes mean you are learning! Make mistakes and be awesome!
posted by shortyJBot at 5:17 PM on December 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


Once I was regaling my acupuncturist with tales of procrastination induced anxiety in the hopes that she would stick a few needles in the motivation zone and all would be solved, but instead she said, "You don't need acupuncture, you just need to start. How are you going to finish if you don't start?"

I'm not sure if this advice would have been as effective if it weren't for my positive racial stereotype toward Chinese acupuncturists, but it has gotten me over some nasty procrastination humps. I'll force myself to get started on something I've been avoiding. No straightening up first, no to-do lists, no googling some relevant topics, just diving right into the meat and pounding out a piece. I don't focus on the quality of the work, because A: I can either change it later, or B, the more likely scenario: later will never come because I'll have moved forward in my life which wouldn't have happened if I didn't start in the first place.


I'm not even going to proof-read this post to see if it makes any sense.
posted by defreckled at 5:53 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I realized all of this because recently I've gotten organized enough that I've started finishing projects before the real deadline. Or rather, I finish 99% of a project before the deadline, but I can't convince my brain that it's okay to finish the last 1% of something and turn it in a week early. Working until the very last minute still feels like a sign that I worked as hard as I could on something, even though lately all that means is waiting until the last moment to fill out the appropriate forms rather than doing any more work on the substance of the project.

Are these projects which you could submit early and then hope to get turnaround with feedback so you can improve what you've done already?

That might be a way to help motivate you to getting the work you've completed done, because you'd still be working on the project, only you'd be waiting for (and getting) the necessary information to make it even better.
posted by hippybear at 6:47 PM on December 8, 2011


Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. It sounds like, among other things, I need to cultivate the part of my brain that occasionally says, "Oh, fuck it. Why not," and stop feeding that part that says, "But but but--"
posted by colfax at 3:58 PM on December 9, 2011


Hooo boy, you sound like me. Definite "procrastinate to avoid projects and their anxiety" type here.

First, I like The Now Habit. It's a perennial AskMe favorite for a reason - it's pretty good. The first few chapters were especially helpful in forgiving myself for not doing "my best" (i.e., an unrealistic expectation) 100% of the time, and instead turning in whatever I've done, which usually is more than enough. The book is useful for beginning to unravel some of the issues around procrastination. On the flip side, I had to go to Amazon to remind myself whether I'd ever actually read it, so I guess that means it didn't have a huge impact. But it's a good start.

Anyway, here's my solution. This may or may not work for you. I started churning out what to me is "absolute shit." Seriously, I turn in some stuff that I feel really sucks, but at least it's done. What I eventually realized is: how I feel about my work - the demands for personal perfection, the anxiety and assumptions that the task will be really hard - is a subjective statement on that work, not an objective evaluation of it. And every time that I've turned in "absolute shit," that work has been good enough for the purpose, whether that purpose was getting my masters or working on a program that ultimately benefited 30,000 people (no exaggeration, I have the numbers).

It's pretty easy for me to start on a task when I tell myself that I won't let it overwhelm me, I'll just produce some absolute shit. Once I've actually finished that absolute shit, I usually find that a) it was a lot easier than I expected and b) it's either good enough, or it will be with some minor, simple revisions.

The final thing that has helped is giving myself enough time. I used to say "how have I spent 8 hours on this and I'm still not done?" I don't say that anymore. If the project takes me 16 hours, then that’s just how long it takes, even if it’s a 1-page document. I used to feel silly for taking so long and berate myself for not working faster, but that took up time and mental energy that could have been used just doing the 16 hours of work it’s going to take. Not sure if that’s something you deal with as well, but just allowing myself to take as much time as I needed (barring deadlines, of course) and not feeling guilty about it was another thing that helped me stop procrastinating as much.
posted by Tehhund at 1:04 PM on December 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


A note for future readers perhaps: I've been thinking a lot about this, and I think my actual problem is different than the one I posed. I think that I have, in fact, developed an internal sense of what is good enough. That has come mostly from working hard on a research project on my own for the last two years. At some point in that process you've got to just give in and trust your instincts, or give up on the whole project entirely. I guess I started to trust my instincts. Hence the feeling of being done a week before the grad school application deadlines. But I wasn't used to having my own internal sense of quality, and so that was very disorienting--just like it can be disorienting to feel healthy again after being sick for a long time. Plus, applications are scary. Those two things added to my trouble with just biting the bullet and submitting stuff. But the underlying problem wasn't: 'Do I think this is good enough?' It was: 'What if they disagree and don't think it's good enough? What then?' I still haven't figured out the answer to that question.
posted by colfax at 5:34 AM on January 9, 2012


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