Procrastination and the Perfectionism Myth

by Dr. Piers Steel

Do you have high standards? Do you expect a lot from yourself, day-in and day-out? Do you love it when life is organized and orderly? Do you try to do your best at everything you do? There is a word for people like you: perfectionists. You worry over life’s details, anxious to make every event just so. And you might like to know that some believe that your perfectionism is the root cause of procrastination.

But does perfectionism really cause procrastination? Lots of people think so. It’s a neat theory you’ll often hear repeated around the water cooler. There’s just one problem with it: it’s wrong. Research shows that perfectionists actually procrastinate less than other people, not more.

According to the myth, procrastination is caused by anxiety in one of its myriad forms. Sigmund Freud, for example, thought it was due to death anxiety-we delay because we live in fear of life’s ultimate deadline. In particular, the anxiety produced by perfectionists supposedly induces procrastination. We delay because of our fear of failure, anxious about living up to sky-high standards. Shame on your aspirations to do better!

So how did anxiety and procrastination get all mixed up together? There is a relationship, just not the one you hear about. Most people are indeed apprehensive as the deadline looms, especially if they haven’t left themselves enough time. People can almost become paralyzed over the work they left themselves for tomorrow, knowing that they should act but remaining immobile with anxiety. But this is an expression of having procrastinated, not a cause of procrastination. For anxiety to cause procrastination the two have to be connected, that is, anxiety-prone people have to put things off more than others. But according to analysis of about a hundred studies involving tens of thousands of participants, anxiety produces a negligible amount of procrastination at best-and even that tiny amount disappears completely after you take into account other personality characteristics, especially impulsiveness.

As best as we can figure, task anxiety will just as likely get you to start early as to start late. That is, worrying about a deadline will make you procrastinate more if you are impulsive, the sort of person to whom avoiding a dreaded task or blocking it from your awareness makes perfect sense from a short-term perspective. If you aren’t impulsive, anxiety is a cue that you should get cracking-and, as a result, you actually start earlier. The real culprit is impulsiveness, not anxiety. (But you can’t be expected to discern this effect through personal reflection; relying only on your own experiences, you will never know that anxiety decreases procrastination for many others.)

The myth that perfectionism creates procrastination makes even less sense. What traits do you associate with procrastination? A) Being messy and disorganized or B) Being neat and orderly? If you choose option A, good for you; you are right. Perfectionists best fit description B, being neat and orderly, and unsurprisingly, they don’t tend to procrastinate. The research-from Robert Slaney, who developed the Almost Perfect Scale to measure perfectionism, to my own meta-analytical research article, The Nature of Procrastination– shows this clearly.

For example, there is a recent article by Dr. Caplan from Anadolu University entitled: “Relationship among Perfectionism, Academic Procrastination and Life Satisfaction of University Students.” Dr. Caplan takes a fine-grained approach to studying perfectionism, breaking perfectionists down into three strains: other-oriented, socially prescribed, and self-oriented. Only the last of these, self-oriented perfectionism, includes the features we typically associate with perfectionism, i.e., having high personal standards and being rather critical if you don’t meet them.

Dr. Caplan reconfirmed what has been found many times before, that “Other-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism traits did not predict academic procrastination” and “self-oriented perfectionism and academic procrastination are negatively correlated,” that is, an increase in one is associated with a reduction in the other. In short, perfectionists tend to procrastinate the same or less than other people, not more. Of course, there are still some people who are both procrastinators and perfectionists, but not as many as there are procrastinators who are non-perfectionists (or perhaps, imperfectionists?). Odds are, you don’t even believe that perfectionism causes dilly-dallying yourself. Across several surveys, only 7 percent of procrastinators blamed their sloppy habits on perfectionism.

So how did this myth come about? Why did we ever think the two traits were connected? The December 24th issue of the Globe & Mail provides a relevant excerpt from my book, The Procrastination Equation. Here’s a summary.

The confusion comes from an unexpected source. As noted above, procrastinators themselves do not blame their delaying on perfectionism; instead, this misinformation comes from clinicians and counselors. Perfectionists who procrastinate are more likely to seek help from such professionals, creating a self-selection phenomenon that gives the illusion that the two traits are linked. Clinicians tend to see a lot of perfectionist procrastinators because non-perfectionist procrastinators (and, for that matter, non-procrastinating perfectionists) are less likely to seek professional help. You see, perfectionists are more motivated to do something about their dilly-dallying because, by their very nature, they are more likely to feel worse about putting things off. Consequently, it is not perfectionism per se that is the problem but the discrepancy between high standards and less-than-stellar performance.

Since diagnosis typically precedes treatment, understanding the real reasons behind procrastination is critical to stopping it. If we feel certain that perfectionism causes procrastination, then our cures will confidently head off in the wrong direction. This isn’t to say perfectionism and fear of failure aren’t important in their own right-each has the potential to become crippling. It is just that they aren’t important here, with regards to procrastination. But we do know what is.

The research shows that there are three major, empirically confirmed, causes of procrastination: expectancy, value and impulsiveness. I will tackle each one individually in the upcoming weeks. During the meanwhile, I want to hear from the perfectionists out there and how much you procrastinate. You can take this short quiz on Facebook to measure your level of procrastination. Are you a garden variety dilly-dallier or do you have “tomorrow” tattooed across your back? I’m interested to know which group is the most vocal-the perfectionists who procrastinate or the ones that don’t procrastinate much at all.

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Will Savage

Quantum Units Continuing Education provides online CEU training's to licensed professional mental health therapists, counselors, social workers and nurses. Our blog provides updates in the field of news and research related to mental health and substance abuse treatment.