How to Overcome Perfectionism and Procrastination
Fear of failure limits careers.
Procrastination stalls success.
Often, the curse of perfectionism underlies both.
We become obsessed with perfect performance, and this drives the fear of failure. Thus, people won’t step up to take on challenging projects, leave their comfort zone, or take any risks that could potentially lead to great rewards.
While procrastination is sometimes associated with unpleasant tasks (e.g., putting off doing your taxes), it is often driven by perfectionistic concerns too. We can’t complete an important project because it is never “good enough.” We delay sending a critical application because we fear that it isn’t perfect.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t care about your desire for perfection. Your competition won’t wait for you to get it “just right.” Your delays eventually sabotage your chances of success.
The early bird may get the worm. But, the late bird gets passed over for a promotion.
Perfectionism isn’t healthy
Some may argue that there is nothing wrong with striving for perfection. They will claim that it leads to large ambitions and significant achievements.
But, at what price?
Psychologists Paul Hewitt, Ph.D., and Gordon Flett, Ph.D., have found that perfectionism correlates with several mental health issues and physical health problems. Some examples of the outcomes related to the problems associated with perfectionism include:
- Unipolar depression
- Suicide behavior
- Eating disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Personality disorders
- Stress reactions
- Chronic headaches
- Sleep problems
- Somatic anxiety
- Early death
Achievement problems, which relate directly to the career-limiting concerns that I mentioned earlier:
- Fear of failure
- Writing problems
“I don’t think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive.” — Paul Hewitt
As you would expect, failure has significant consequences for people who set unreasonably high standards for themselves. It generates considerable stress and anxiety.
But, it can also lead to damaging coping mechanisms when someone tries to cover up their failures (e.g., avoidance of social situations, lying to friends and family, fake self-presentation on social media).
You may be familiar with this additional phenomenon — or have witnessed it in others who are perfectionists — achieving stellar outcomes doesn’t curb the negative emotional responses that come with perfectionism.
- “Yes, I got an A+ on the test. But, if I were really smart, I wouldn’t have to study so hard!”
- “I succeeded this time, but I’m sure I’ll fail next time.”
- “Everyone says they like my book, but I know that it’s terrible. They’re probably just being nice to me.”
Perfectionism does not guarantee success
Of course, you want the work that you do to be as good as it possibly can be. Your creations feel like a representation of your talent, intelligence, skills, and work ethic.
This can include big projects like a work of art, a book, software, a website, your portfolio, or an event you are launching. But, perfectionism also leaks into your smaller tasks and daily activities like writing an email, updating your resume, and connecting with someone in your network.
However, success often depends on many factors that are beyond your control. Your talent and skills may not be enough. You could spend the rest of your life working on something and never see it succeed.
That is a bitter pill to swallow. Believe me.
I’ve had several of my most cherished creations fail. Big projects at work failed. My startup failed.
Here’s the surprising truth. Your push for perfect doesn’t necessarily correlate with your chances of success.
For example, I’ve spent days — sometimes weeks — writing articles that never received a single like. Not one.
However, I’ve also cranked out articles in less than an hour that people seemed to love and received lots of attention. I can’t always predict what will resonate with an audience.
You can’t control all of the other factors that determine success:
- Timing and luck
- How people are feeling
- Events happening in the world
- What the competition is doing
- How hard your colleagues feel like working
- Your boss has a bad day
- And numerous other unforeseen factors…
I’m sure you’ve heard, “perfect is the enemy of good enough.” Not only can you not control all of the factors that contribute to success, but a quest for perfection will also sabotage one that does have a significant impact; timing.
Perfectionism makes you miss windows of opportunity
There were so many times in my professional life that perfectionism resulted in procrastination and caused me to miss an opportunity. Timing matters and deadlines are real.
Timing has always been an essential factor in success, of course. But, it seems like our windows of opportunity have become more narrow in our modern world.
Things are moving faster than ever before. Competition is fiercer than ever before.
You don’t think so? Well, when I was younger, competition for an open position consisted primarily of other professionals who lived in the same city. Occasionally, people were willing to relocate and threw their hats in the ring. But, the candidate pool wasn’t that large.
Now, especially with this shift to remote work, you are competing with people all over the world. Thousands of ambitious candidates apply for a few open positions. Do you think that all of them wait until their resumes, cover letters, and portfolios are absolutely perfect?
When you demand perfection of yourself and what you create, you are slower than others who have accepted that “good enough” will suffice. They know that timing matters, and they don’t want to miss an opportunity.
For example, I know people who were interested in what seemed like a cool job with an up-and-coming company. The position was publicly announced, and anyone could begin applying.
However, they wanted to update their portfolios and tune their resumes first. Everything had to be “perfect.” When they finally got around to applying for the job, the employer had already interviewed candidates and hired someone. The position was closed.
Of course, you should never rush so much that you blast sloppy work into the world. But, you need to balance quality with timing. Otherwise, you miss too many opportunities because you never even had a chance of being considered.
Commit and evolve
There are a few times in life that you do get one chance. For example:
- Mailing in a college application.
- Making a first impression.
- Voting for a presidential candidate.
You can’t take it back and try again. Of course, in those cases, you want to give something your full effort, creat great work, and give yourself the best chance of success that you can.
However, even in those situations, perfectionism won’t help you. All that it does is keep you from even trying or finishing the task.
Prepare, rehearse, and perform as well as you can in the moment But, then you must commit and move on. It will be what it will be.
In most situations, though, things are never final. You will have a chance to continue to improve upon what you have done (e.g., your next job interview, the next version of your product, the next edition of your book, giving your talk to a new audience).
The best outcome combines quality with velocity.
The fastest doesn’t always win. We all know of products that were rushed to market to be first but were later destroyed by competition that created a better product. Friendster was the first major social network but lost its audience to MySpace and then Facebook, which came much later.
The best doesn’t always win either. We also know of products that were distinctly better than the competition but didn’t launch fast enough to gain significant market share. HD-DVD was a technically superior product to the Blu-ray format, but it was too slow to build enough market share and acquire a competitive amount of content.
I speak as a long-struggling perfectionist who let procrastination ruin many opportunities in my life. I’ve finally made peace with a personal philosophy that is similar to the Lean Startup methodology:
Commit and Evolve
I want to create something good enough so that I’m not too ashamed of the quality, but also knowing that I will continue to improve upon it over time. I’ve adopted this new approach with everything that I create now; my newsletter, a podcast, my articles, products, courses, etc.
I know that it is better to quickly get things in people’s hands, hear their feedback, and use that information to make everything better and more valuable continually. I work hard, commit to getting things out into the world, and evolve everything forever.
“If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.” ― Reid Hoffman
Your career will thrive when you strike the right balance between quality and speed of execution. You will get ahead when you are willing to take risks, seize opportunities, and step up to take on more responsibility even when you know that you don’t have all of the answers yet.
Get your ideas out into the world so that everyone can see how you think and what you are capable of doing.
Say “Yes” more often, even when you know you’ll have to figure out how to do it later.
Don’t let perfectionism ruin your chances for a wildly successful career and amazing life.
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, and a rabbit. He shares advice that helps you become an opportunity magnet for the best things in life! You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.