If you tend to procrastinate, why do you think you get stuck in this cycle? Here’s a hint: it’s not just a time management problem and it doesn’t mean you’re lazy. 

Procrastination is often related to perfectionism, low self-esteem, fear of failure or criticism, and a low tolerance for discomfort. Let’s talk about how all of these characteristics are intricately linked in order to better understand the cycle of procrastination. 

The burden of perfectionism

First, let’s talk about how perfectionism relates to procrastination. Isn’t that counterintuitive? Aren’t perfectionists high achievers? Doesn’t their desire to do well motivate them toward their goals? 

Actually, not quite. Perfectionists tend to be preoccupied with appearing perfect to ward off criticism or feelings of inadequacy in an effort to protect against low self-esteem and a fear of failure. Instead of being motivating, perfectionism tends to be paralyzing. 

With a focus on perfection, it can feel a lot more daunting to get started on a task. Thoughts of getting started may bring up anxiety and fear of bumping up against discomfort or confronting aspects of yourself that feel unacceptable. What if I’m bad at it? What if it’s too hard? What if I’m not good enough? 

Perfectionists tend to have what psychologists call a fixed mindset, or the belief that personal virtues are fixed and unchangeable. So for example, struggling with a math problem would be evidence to a perfectionist that they are just not good at math. The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset, or the belief that we can improve with effort and practice and that mistakes are an inherent part of learning.

Unsurprisingly, perfectionism is often related to “imposter syndrome”, or feelings of self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. The perfectionist’s fixed mindset and fear of failure leads them to avoid trying and instead seek out distractions that will bring relief from the distress related to their fears. In turn, that feeling of relief reinforces the behavior of avoidance, and on and on the cycle goes. Soon enough, procrastination becomes habitual and the person becomes stuck in a vicious cycle of avoidance and anxiety. 

How to stop procrastinating

Expect a bit of a struggle on challenging tasks

We just discussed how a low tolerance for discomfort perpetuates procrastination. Perfectionists tend to avoid tasks that are novel or that they don’t have a clear understanding of how to master. The process of learning through making mistakes can be difficult to tolerate, especially for people grappling with a fear of inadequacy. 

Expect to struggle a bit through new or challenging tasks. It’s not evidence that you’re inadequate, it’s evidence that you’re learning. You’re not supposed to be perfect at everything. We all learn by trial and error. 

Limit distractions and practice mindfulness

Once you get rolling on the task, it’s best to limit any potential distractions that will impede your ability to focus. This might mean leaving your devices in another room, or if the task requires a device, turning off your notifications. 

Limiting distractions may also mean practicing mindfulness when distracting thoughts pop up. For example, you may be working on a task when you have the thought, I need to do the dishes. The mindfulness strategy of acknowledging thoughts without attaching to them can be helpful to keep you focused on the task at hand. For example, you might note, “there’s the thought that I should do something easier”. This allows you to reframe the thought as a predictable mental event that you can acknowledge without mindlessly obeying.

Be curious about the origins of your perfectionism

Finally, it may be helpful to dive deeper into your perfectionistic tendencies to help interrupt the cycle of procrastination at its source. Where might your fear of failure originate from? How are you using perfectionism to protect yourself? How is perfectionism holding you back? 

You may come to understand more about yourself by journaling these prompts on your own. Alternatively, talking to a mental health professional can be an effective way to understand your patterns and make lasting changes to your habits.

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