Perfectionism and procrastination: are they always bad?
Dictionary.com defines perfectionism as “a personal standard that demands perfection and rejects anything less”, and defines procrastination as “to put off until another day or time; to defer or to delay”. There are a lot of negative words in here: demand, reject, defer, delay. If you put all this together and add it to your workplace, then you have a very unproductive colleague, who hinders productivity and drags everyone down. Right?
Well, that’s the route I was going to go down with this blog. However, I know that I am guilty of both, and putting this blog together has made me have a bit of a re-think about whether being a procrastinating perfectionist is really always a bad thing.
I definitely procrastinate, and it certainly does sometimes slow me down and get in the way of just cracking on with things. I’m actually a week late finishing this blog, because I knew I would find it difficult to write and I put it off for as long as possible.
And – at times – I know I am too ‘perfectionisty’ (no, that’s not a word and if I was a die-hard perfectionist, I wouldn’t be using made-up words in a blog would I?). Of course, I know I’m not perfect, no one is, but I do sometimes have a tendency to aspire to perfection at work; I read, re-read, re-write, read again, double-check and amend far too much, and sometimes I over-think decisions, which can also hinder my productivity.
I remember when I was entering the world of full-time work aged 21 and I was being offered job advice left, right and centre, I was told by several people that if you are asked in a job interview what your biggest weakness is, you should say that you have “a tendency to be too much of a perfectionist”. I’m so glad that question never came up in any of my interviews, because if I think about giving that answer now, I cringe. Not only is it a cliché which would have made me sound very smug and self-satisfied, it’s also not true.
I think that actually perfectionism can be a strength and an asset, not a weakness. Like so many things, it’s a question of managing it well; it’s about recognising when striving for perfection with acute attention to detail is necessary, and equally knowing when ‘good enough’ is good enough.
Similarly, now that I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about it, I think that procrastination isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Again, it’s a quality that needs to be recognised and managed. If you have a tendency to put off tasks and delay things, that can of course be a hinderance, but it can also mean that you take time to think about things before making decisions, rather than acting impulsively. These qualities can be real strengths and can help ensure you make sound judgements, rather than reacting emotionally.
So, to a certain extent, if you know you procrastinate and spend too much time trying to achieve perfection, then embrace it all and be proud!
However, as I’ve already recognised if not managed well then procrastination and perfectionism can certainly slow you down and get in the way of your productivity.
I’ve found the best way to manage my own procrastination is to firstly try to analyse why I am putting something off (and it’s usually because I think it will either be dull, or will be difficult and awkward). I then write down everything I need to do, and then number everything in the order that I am going to do it; I have to force myself to put the tricky things that I am procrastinating about most at the top of my list, then throw in a few easier and enjoyable tasks to reward myself (yes, I realise I need to get out more).
If my reason for procrastinating is just that something is a bit dull, then at least I get it over with at the beginning of the day. If it’s something I’ve delayed because I know I will find it difficult (more likely), then I find that the key thing is to just do SOMETHING with it, just to get the ball rolling. Sometimes, it might just be an initial phone call, or a chat with a colleague about how to approach the task. But at least it’s a start. Then I usually find that the next part of the task flows a bit more easily, with a bit less procrastinating.
In my ordered list I also then highlight the things that need doing quickly, without over-thinking and perfecting, and I make sure I don’t spend too much time on these tasks.
I’m not saying I have perfected (ha ha) my approach, and I don’t manage to do this every day, but the days when I do this are definitely more productive. And it makes me feel as though I am turning my ‘negative’ tendencies into something a bit more positive.