Better Late Than Never? Procrastination and Perfection
Did you know that February was Time Management Awareness Month? I did. I wanted to write a blog about it. Now it’s almost the end of March. Where did the time go??
So. It’s true. I’ll confess it here: I sometimes struggle with procrastination. My spouse calls it “time optimism.” I’m generally a person who meets deadlines, but usually with no time left to spare. Is it ironic or an epic fail that I didn’t manage to write a blog on time management during Time Management Awareness Month?
I could tell you a million good reasons this blog did not get done last month. But avoiding the topic of time management so I don’t have to be embarrassed about NOT doing something on time won’t help us learn anything. So, ironic or not, this seems like a good opportunity to stop and unpack some internal things that can give rise to procrastination. The topic is pretty hefty, so just consider this an introduction.
I heard a quote by Nelson Mandela once that stopped me in my tracks. “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” If we let go of our fears of failure, the first barrier to overcoming procrastination falls. Of course, this doesn’t mean people never make mistakes or have disappointing outcomes. To the contrary, this idea of “winning or learning” shows that those mistakes, disappointments, and so-called failures are great opportunities to learn something.
START WITH HONEST OBSERVATION
Growing as a person requires first and foremost a willingness to observe yourself with honesty.
Becoming an observer of yourself means paying attention to what you do (behavior), what you say, what you feel, and what you think. Observe both the good (which you can appreciate and celebrate) and the disappointing (which you can learn from). For example:
Observation: I am not a work-ahead person. I am a “meet the deadline” person.
I’ve never been the type that makes lists, gets organized, does outlines, writes a first draft two weeks before something is due, and then gets the final draft done before it’s due. That’s not me. I spent a lot of years of my life wishing I were that person, but I’m not.
Observation: When I get behind, I get overwhelmed, then I shut down, and avoid what I have to do, and then get further behind.
This is the ultimate conundrum! I’m not a work-ahead person. So, when there is a lot to do, I start to feel behind. When I feel behind, I feel overwhelmed. When I feel overwhelmed, I shut down. When I shut down, I avoid what I have to do. When I avoid what I have to do, I get further behind. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Does this ring any bells for you?
GET CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR HABITS
Curiosity turns out to be a very helpful approach to growth. (Pro tip: Judgement, shame, and guilt are less productive responses to our disappointing patterns and habits.) What is this about for me? Well, we may not have enough time to unpack all that. So, let me start with one of the most obvious time management obstacles.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of good”? This aphorism is often attributed to Voltaire (who took it from a Italian philosophy). This idea suggests that since perfection isn’t possible for humans to achieve, the effort it takes to try and achieve it will eventually result in diminishing returns.
Robert Watson Watt, a proponent of the “cult of imperfection,” advocated for the “third best,” because the “second best arrives too late” and “the perfect never arrives.” This view shares something with the Confucian and Aristotelian views of the virtue of the “golden mean,” which counsels against being guided by extremes.
So, ask yourself: do you get stuck trying to make something perfect? We may believe that if something isn’t perfect, it isn’t good enough. (Which is kind of ridiculous, since what human has achieved perfection?) I could argue that there are sunsets that are perfect, but sunset perfection is out of my control. So, to follow the logic: if perfect is the only “good enough” standard, but perfect isn’t possible, what does that mean? It means we’re stuck, and something has to shift.
Which part of that logical stalemate can you shift? Can you rethink whether perfection is the only “good enough” standard, OR can you make perfection somehow possible? As much as we may keep trying to make perfect happen, it is likely to keep us stuck and frustrated.
So, get curious: if we let go of perfection as a guide, how do we know what is good enough?
When I was writing my dissertation I had to come face to face with my tendency to not work ahead, with getting overwhelmed by how much I had to do, my perfectionism, and eventually figure out what would be “good enough.” I realized that I would be far more disappointed NOT TO FINISH than to finish something that could’ve been better if…
We must each ask ourselves: what effort will be satisfying and good enough? At what point are my expectations, standards and fears derailing me altogether? My advisor regularly reminded me, “A done dissertation is better than a perfect dissertation.”
Why can’t we let it go, then? I think there are a couple of different reasons. Perfection, it turns out, is tied to other things that can trip us up.
PERFECTION AND BELONGING
Humans need only a few things to survive:
- Food, water, and air;
- Love and belonging.
For much of human history, human survival depended on being part of a group. Groups worked cooperatively to secure food and stay safe, so belonging to the group quite literally meant the difference between life and death. Human bodies are wired to be social, and seek out human connection. Babies thrive when provided with touch, connection, and belonging and they fail to thrive if they are isolated without interaction and connection.
Anything that jeopardizes belonging, then, is experienced by our brain as a threat to survival. We feel like we might die! That is one of the reasons that social embarrassment (and shame) can be so devastating. We try to be perfect to avoid failure–so we can avoid rejection.
It would relieve a lot of stress if we could all collectively realize that acceptance and belonging don’t depend on being perfect. I mean, IS ANYONE PERFECT? Still, a lot of us develop a protective belief that the only way we can absolutely, certainly assure our value (so we can belong) is to be perfect–obviously!
In the case of perfection and belonging, our desire for perfection masks our fear that failure (to be perfect) will lead to rejection. There are several thinking errors here to overcome. It’s helpful to remember:
1. No one is perfect
2. People still connect and “belong.”
3. Therefore, failing to be perfect doesn’t always lead to rejection.
The hardest thing to confront is the most painful: we may still feel rejected sometimes. It isn’t because we weren’t perfect. It’s because 1. someone else may have done something better than we did (good for them!) OR 2. people don’t all always get along.
Can we survive that? Feeling rejected is awful, but it won’t kill us. Contrary to our brain’s fear, it is survivable. A new piece of information for our brains! Everyone needs to find a way to belong, but there isn’t just one person or one place we can belong. So, instead of aiming for an impossible standard (perfection) to avoid something we inevitably will experience (rejection), we need to teach our brains to tolerate both imperfection and rejection. Then we can focus on the real task of building relationships where we are valued for who we are, not for a false perfection.
If we let go of trying to make things perfect (because it isn’t achievable), how do we figure out what’s good enough? What does your best effort look like if you let go of trying to make it perfect?
A NEW GOAL
If we take Robert Watson Watt’s guide of the third best, and Mandela’s guide of learning not failing, can we forge a new way to think about our work and our efforts? Can we trade perfection for a new standard of “good enough”? I suggest we start with asking ourselves new questions:
- Have I learned something through my efforts?
- What can I finish in the time I actually have?
- Have I done my best for now?
Part of the tyranny of procrastination is that I’m left feeling like I haven’t done my best. Too much of my time feels wasted with worry and paralysis. Helping our brains shift out of “my survival is in jeopardy if I can’t do this perfectly” into a new mode of, “can I do my best and let that be enough” is hard. But, it’s worth doing some experimenting and trying out. It probably won’t kill you. Who knows? We may find that we procrastinate a little less. If we let go of perfection (which never arrives), and maybe even what’s second best (it arrives too late), we learn that third best is just fine. Then, once that imperfect but good enough work is done, go find yourself a perfect sunset to watch and enjoy being alive.