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

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Procrastinating 101--The Imperfect Perfectionist

 In Chapter 5 of his book Still Procrastinating?  The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done, Dr. Joseph Ferrari writes of "perfectionist procrastinators."  He tells us that "trying to maintain a sense of perfectionism causes procrastinators to delay or not finish a task. . . "

That description resonates with my many years of experience with both behaviors.

Ferrari goes on to cite his own research as support for his contention that procrastinator perfectionists differ from nonprocrastinator perfectionists in what motivates their respective perfectionisms.  And here, again, Dr. Ferrari does not present a very sympathetic view of procrastinators.

According to Ferrari, procrastinators
. . . perfectionist tendencies are a result of trying to present themselves as hard-working individuals.  To ingratiate themselves to others, procrastinators claim that they delay completing projects because they are motivated by perfectionism.  [emphasis mine]
And their perfectionism
is motivated by a desire to belong and be liked by others; they justify their procrastination by saying that delays will result in a better outcome.
For nonprocrastinators, Ferrari says,
perfectionism is motivated by a desire "to get ahead," to produce the best possible product, regardless of what others may think.  There is no strong need to please others and be known as a hard worker.
Is it just me, or is he saying that only nonprocrastinators are truly striving for perfection?
Ferrari has researched nearly every aspect of procrastination, as he theorizes it, in his twenty plus years of studying the subject.  He goes on, in this chapter, to report on a study in which he asked procrastinators and nonprocrastinators to judge a hypothetical worker who never turns work in on time.  Regardless of whether this nonexistent person labeled himself a perfectionist or a procrastinator, or did not label himself at all in discussing his late work products, both groups reacted negatively, and many in both groups said he should be fired.  Ferrari concludes that
no one likes procrastinators--so why be one?
So, to sum up:
  • Perfection is a fiction.
  • Procrastinators claim to be perfectionists so that others will like them.
  • Others judge procrastinators harshly, whether or not they call themselves perfectionists.
  • Nobody likes procrastinators anyway.
I am ready to concede the first point.  Perhaps the third.  But the other two seem to require leaps I am not prepared to make.

However, just when I was giving up on getting something useful from this chapter, Ferrari's last three paragraphs saved him, beginning with this one:
Perfectionism causes you to miss deadlines, be too picky, have difficulty making decisions, avoid commitments, lose opportunities, feel dissatisfied with life, be guarded in relationships, and constantly worry and ruminate.  You need to accept that life has time constraints, and it's reasonable to be "good enough," given the deadline and your other commitments.
Again, something that fits with my experience.  Though it doesn't necessarily fit with the framework of his chapter.  Unless, of course, the "you" in this paragraph refers only to us procrastinators, while other perfectionists--the good, nonprocrastinating perfectionists--are exempted.

I don't think I would be likely to consult Dr. Ferrari to help overcome my perfectionism, which I insist on maintaining is genuine.   But he does offer these valuable admonitions:
  • Aim to achieve 80% of your goals.
  • Do the best you can, "using the signature strengths you possess."
  • See the positives.
  • Remember, "We all will encounter failure in our lives, but we must nevertheless do what we can to improve the lives of others."

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