Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Procrastinating 101: The Perfect Cure for Perfectionism

Last week, I wrote about the six types of procrastination posited by Dr. Linda Sapadin in her book, It's About Time:  The 6 Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them.  (Who knew procrastination could be "stylish?")   I was hardly surprised when the book's self-assessments identified perfectionism as among the major pillars of my problem with procrastinating.  Although I sometimes have trouble recognizing this tendency of mine--what with all the imperfection so obviously in view in my life and environs--I have repeatedly had this trait pointed out to me by friends and loved ones, co-workers, casual acquaintances, door-to-door salespeople, and people standing in line behind me at the supermarket.

A quick trip through cyberspace reveals that perfectionism has become something of an industry.  Just "googling" the word brings up "about 926,000" results.  And none of them are exactly endorsements.  In browsing, we learn that perfectionism is akin to, or can lead to, or may result from the dreaded OCD, or eating disorders, or anxiety, or depression, or "other mental health problems."  It has a "pathological form," "10 telltale traits,"  and "pitfalls."  We are offered guidance in "escaping," "coping with," "overcoming," and "freeing our families" from this scourge.  One source warns us ominously about "perfecting ourselves to death."  Endless quizzes and inventories are available to "help" us determine our risk levels and severity of affliction.

But what does it have to do with procrastination--other than providing diversions such as the pursuit of the "perfectly documented" blog paragraph on the subject?

According to Dr. Sapadin, we perfectionists tend to respond to tasks and projects in one of two ways:  either we "overwork" in a futile attempt to achieve perfection in the finished product, completing something minutes before the deadline or actually late, despite having begun work early and given continuous and strenuous effort; or we are so intimidated by the impossible standards we have set that we can't get started at all.  The latter approach leads to shoddy last-minute efforts, or to outright failure to complete work.  (Hmmm. . . sounds familiar.)

In my own case, I have long been aware of the contribution of perfectionism to my failure to complete my dissertation.  My response was of the first type, with years spent in preparing perfectly to write the perfect questions which when put perfectly to my perfectly selected "subjects" would lead to perfect understanding which would then be communicated perfectly; years spent writing and rewriting, punctuated by years spent anxiously putting off writing.  A painful cycle that has colored subsequent work patterns and dented my self-esteem. 

Perfectionism lies behind the trepidation I feel in the face of to-do lists.  Fortunately, for me anyway, it does not seem to be hampering my production of this blog.  I have been churning out these imperfect essays regularly for over a month now, and am at peace with their warts.  I have come to the place where I want to finish things more than I want them to be perfect.  So having completed this morning's halfway-decent post, I will go into my less-than-pristine kitchen and enjoy the coffee made for me by the mutiply-flawed love of my life--and try not to mention the grounds.

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