Procrastination & Perfectionism: A Marriage of Opposites?


Definition and Etymology

Procrastination is often linked to Perfectionism so I thought I would start by defining both terms to understand why the two are affiliated:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Procrastination as:

“The action or habit of postponing or putting something off; delay, dilatoriness.”

The etymology is fairly straightforward since it’s origins in Latin procrastination has meant “to procrastinate or, to delay”. Therefore, in the absence of differentiation, I think it is safe to say that procrastination is a consistent and timeless, human affliction.

Perfectionism as:

“Refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”

No surprise, perfectionism has its roots in 19th-century religious doctrine:

” A system or doctrine based on the belief that moral, spiritual, social, or political perfection is attainable, or has been attained; the pursuit of such perfection as an ultimate goal.”

I don’t even want to touch this right now! So many things to say.

Sidenote: The more I study the founding of the “New World” the more I understand how we find ourselves in a culture of stress, anxiety, and depression. 


The Contradiction

Obviously postponing or delaying something is not the best way to achieve perfection. In fact, the behaviour so often associated with perfectionism is almost contradictory.

Since perfection is the highest ideal, we can only ever work toward it, and it is the impossible goal. However, intellectually we know that there are ways of working toward perfection and ensuring we have done everything to the best of our abilities: use time wisely and allow time for revision and review, parse out all the details and steps, and work methodically.  

Procrastination involves none of these things, and if it does, it’s a sped up version of the real thing and barely qualifies. Then…

How can Procrastinators be Perfectionists?  

Let’s suppose you know that you struggle with the following things:

  • time management
  • sorting through details and minutia
  • organization
  • working methodically
  • staying focused

We also know that these are the steps necessary for nearing perfection, and perfection is something we value very highly. How can we even begin a project when our minds cannot follow the steps to perfection?

The natural response to this conundrum is anxiety.

Studies linking procrastination to anxiety suggest that anxiety is a side effect of procrastination rather than a cause, but in the case of perfectionism, I would argue it is both!

If we know before we start a project that it will not be what we envision, and if we feel that there is too much of a deficit in the product versus the idea, then it can be difficult to get started!

Not starting leads to anxiety (the side effect) and here we go round in circles.

Procrastinations’s purpose is to delay the inevitable feeling of failure. If we know we have created a situation that is not ideal it becomes easier to accept the imperfections. 

Perhaps it is not perfectionism is not the root cause of procrastination, but rather our perspective on our abilities to work toward perfection.


Tim Urban TED Talk

His study on the difference between the brains of procrastinators and non-procrastinators.


Let’s pretend this is not the end because it was not perfect or complete and it can never be finished.

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