When it comes to tackling tasks, do you sometimes feel paralysed and distracted? If so, here’s how to stop procrastinating and start getting things done…
Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection’ - Mark Twain
As we saw in ‘Perfectionism and procrastination — are they secretly the same thing?’, both are two sides of the same coin and can both be understood as coping responses we use to protect against feelings of anxiety or shame.
According to bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: ‘Underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”’
Whether you are dealing with perfectionism, procrastination or both, they are in essence both rooted in fear. Specifically, fear of not being good enough. Fear of being ‘found out’ as an imposter or a pretender. And perhaps most importantly, fear of the shame that you will feel if you fail. And it’s this fear of shame, failure and judgement from others that lies at the heart of ‘task paralysis’. This could include everything from obsessively checking every tiny detail of a report (even though you are running out of time to complete it), to not being able to get started on the report in the first place.
As explained by Professor Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, having difficulty with starting and finishing tasks is ‘…not a time-management problem; it is an emotion-management problem.’
Procrastination and perfectionism can both be understood as attempts to manage unpleasant emotions, such as fear or shame. These coping strategies might have formed early in your life and may not be best serving you now in adulthood. With this in mind, let’s look at some ways that you can start to manage perfectionism and procrastination in different ways.
Breaking free of perfectionism and procrastination isn’t a case of finding one ‘quick fix’ but rather, building up a toolbox of strategies to manage these ongoing patterns.
With this in mind, here are seven approaches that you can take:
1. Acknowledge your fears
If you find yourself feeling frozen when faced with beginning a task — or getting bogged down in tiny details when trying to complete it on time — then acknowledge that this is how you are feeling. Take a moment to acknowledge that the perfectionistic or procrastinating side of you is taking over and check in with yourself to see if there are any difficult feelings being masked.
Next, write down any specific fears you have, for instance, ‘I’m scared I’ll look stupid in front of my colleagues’ or ‘I’m scared I won’t do well in this assignment’ or ‘I’m scared that if I release this album, no one will listen to it.’
Putting your fears down on paper might not make them magically vanish, but it can take some of the heat out of them and help you to start rationalising them. You could also follow this up by reminding yourself of all the times when you have succeeded in similar tasks. Or if you are trying something new, make a list of the skills, knowledge and personal qualities that will allow you to do this. You might even find it helpful to make it a regular practice to process your fears on paper before starting any significant task.
In this way, you validate the part of you that doesn't want to do the activity, instead of ignoring them or trying to force them into submission. And once you have acknowledged your feelings about it, be gentle but firm with yourself about why it is still important. Remind yourself that there are long term benefits beyond any short term discomfort.
By reframing the task as beneficial, it can give it more meaning and also help you build a greater connection to it. And by speaking kindly to the part of yourself that feels resistant to it — or even scared of it — you will be bringing them on board too (and reducing the chance of self-sabotage).
2. Take your expectations down a notch
You don’t have to do every single thing absolutely perfectly.
Does that statement make you flinch a little? If so, take some time to consider whether it could be true anyway. Because the fact is that trying to perform every task at full throttle is the road to stress, burnout and even physical and/or mental ill health. Not only that, but it might seriously impinge upon your happiness and life satisfaction, as well as your relationships.
So why not test out the idea that everything doesn’t have to be flawless? For instance, you could experiment with choosing one lower stakes task this week, then completing it to a ‘good’, ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable’ level. Observe how you feel when you are doing this, both before, during and after. What emotions came up for you? Did you experience any sense of liberation or relief? Did you feel guilty? How did the people around you react, if at all? Did the world fall apart?
Remember, trying to let go of perfectionism doesn’t mean that you will suddenly slip into being lazy or slapdash, or lose your high standards (although it is understandable if you fear this). Instead, it is just about giving yourself a chance to see that you don’t have to do every single thing impeccably. Sometimes, performing a task at a 70%, 80% or 90% level is just fine. Sometimes, ‘good enough’ is, well, good enough.
3. Break big goals down into granular tasks
Most of us will agree that ‘write a thriller novel’, ‘launch a graphic design business’ or ‘redecorate the house’ are all pretty daunting goals. And if you think of a big goal in terms of its final outcome, it is very easy for the perfectionist part of you to become freaked out and frozen in fear. Suddenly, colour coding your teacups could seem like a much more crucial task than, say, writing that first chapter of a book.
So why not aim to go granular instead? For instance, setting goals like ‘Today I’ll write 100 words of my novel’, or ‘Today I’ll research small business grants’ or ‘Today I’ll go to the paint shop and collect some samples’. By breaking down bigger goals into smaller chunks, they become a lot less intimidating and a lot more manageable. They might even become fun.
4. Prioritise weekly and daily tasks
Next, try making it a practice to assign priorities to tasks, identifying which ones you want to give your absolute all too (and which you can go a little easier on). Once you have done this, you can decide which order to perform each task in. This way, you are less likely to deplete and exhaust yourself, meaning that you can save your energy for the things that you most want to excel at.
Some handy tips include:
— Do the worst task first to get it out of the way.
— Or alternatively, do the most enjoyable task first to ease yourself in and build momentum.
— Plan to work on each task for only a short block of time, say five minutes. Then set a timer, stop after the five minutes and go onto something else for another mini time block.
Of course, when you do this, you might find that you want to stay on the same task for another five minutes, as it wasn’t as daunting as you thought — if so, keep going. An hour might have passed before you know it.
5. Learn to quieten the inner critic
We’ve talked a little bit about the inner critic and its role in perfectionism and procrastination. One thing that’s worth noting is that when it comes to this issue, your critical voice can hit you hard from both sides.
So for instance, if you have a marketing plan to write then it might tell you that you must do it perfectly or you will be exposed as a ‘fraud’ to your boss. Then, when you find yourself freaked out about starting the task, it will berate you for being ‘lazy’, ‘disorganised’ or a ‘failure’. Beware of this two-pronged approach by the inner critic, which might keep you sandwiched between perfectionism and procrastination indefinitely while the deadline ticks down.
So what can you actually do when the inner critic is off on one of its mean-spirited monologues?
One way is to create boundaries with it, in exactly the same way as you would do with a person who was being rude to you. For instance, if your inner voice tells you that you have to create an absolutely perfect marketing plan or people will judge you as ‘useless’, ask yourself these two questions:
If the answer is ‘no’ to either, then why should you have to put up with it yourself?
So next time your inner critic is inflamed, simply try pausing and telling it to stop (saying this out loud could help). Then start replacing its barbs with more compassionate, self-affirming thoughts instead. It takes time, commitment and practice but eventually, you might find that you develop a more compassionate inner voice to counteract the critic. Our post on setting yourself free from self-criticism has other useful tips in this area.
6. Practice self-compassion
Related to the above point, it is worth knowing that self-compassion has actually been found to be a greater motivating force than self-criticism.
In fact, research has shown that when you act kindly towards yourself and practice self-soothing activities (such as taking a relaxing bath or going for a walk in nature), the feelgood chemical oxytocin is produced. Not only does oxytocin boost your sense of wellbeing but it is actually great at enhancing your focus. This means that you can complete tasks with a greater sense of clarity and drive. Alternatively, as we have explored, when you are feeling self-critical this can trigger your Fight/Flight response system, causing you to hide away from tasks.
So make sure that you take time out to be kind to yourself throughout the day, both before, during and in between tasks. And also, once you have checked something off your to-do list, don’t be afraid to give yourself a little reward. For when you start becoming willing to reward yourself, you might find that you have less inner resistance towards difficult activities in the future.
Finally, research by Schutte and Bolger published in The Journal of Positive Psychology shows that mindfulness can also reduce procrastination. So why not cultivate daily self-care practices related to this such as meditation, breathwork and journaling?
In short, introducing self-soothing, self-care and rewards into your day isn’t self-indulgent or a luxury. Rather, it is an essential practice that can reduce procrastination and help you to achieve more in life. And if you’re looking for more tips on how to do this, Dr. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself has some excellent pointers.
7. Get support from a therapist
The issue of procrastination (and its secret twin, perfectionism) can run very deep. And as we’ve explored, the roots can often be in childhood and might be related to anything from critical parents to chaotic home environments to not having essential needs met.
That is why seeing a therapist can help, as it is an opportunity to explore some of the reasons why these issues are playing a role in your life. By working with a therapist, you can examine the causes of any self-sabotaging behaviours and start getting unblocked.
Various different types of therapy can help with task paralysis patterns. These include Schema Therapy, which explores how difficult childhood experiences can cause us to develop unhelpful coping strategies (such as perfectionism and procrastination). Similarly, Psychodynamic Therapy can also help you to explore how current behaviours might be rooted in earlier experiences — for example, how procrastination might be your way of enacting an unconscious rebellion against demanding parents. Also, if your perfectionism might be rooted in adverse childhood experiences or trauma, then both EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help you to process these experiences safely.
And if you are looking to change your mindset, beliefs and general habits around performing tasks, then CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) or CFT (Compassion Focused Therapy) could also be really helpful. Or is there one specific area of your life that seems to be triggering perfectionism or procrastination? For instance, completing your university dissertation or applying for a job? If so, then a Single-Session Therapy appointment could help you get to the bottom of this in a dynamic, focused way.
And remember, managing perfectionism and procrastination doesn’t mean that you will suddenly stop having high standards. In fact, you will probably always be the kind of person who wants to do things well — and that is a good thing. But by getting on top of perfectionist behaviours, you will be able to have a better, healthier relationship with your desire to excel.
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