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.

Addiction during the holidays: Recovered or not, it’s important to be prepared

by Adi Jaffe


The holidays are a stressful time for everyone. Between gift-giving, travel, and keeping up with all parts of the ever-complicated modern family unit, nearly anyone can find themselves driven towards the nearest coping mechanism, whatever that may be. However, for recovering addicts, or those still struggling with an active addiction, the holidays can be a particularly troubling season that can invite a destructive relapse. As with all mental and physical health issues, education and awareness are a powerful first line of defense. By going over some of the most frequently asked questions about addiction and the holidays, we can attempt to shed some light on these issues for addicts and their families to help combat them before, not after, they become bigger problems (like a relapse).

Why Are The Holidays So Difficult For Addicts?

Obviously, as just mentioned, the pressures of the holidays are difficult for everyone. But for addicts, these same issues of money, family and general stress are amplified, often because they are the same age-old issues that lie at the root of the addiction and the beginning of drug use and abuse in the first place. If the recovering addict has not had the opportunity to openly confront family issues in the past, either with the family itself or with a therapist or counselor, the potential for relapse can be great. A vast amount of research shows how stress can bring even long-dormant behavior back to the surface, which should serve as a warning to substance and behavioral addicts alike (like sex addicts or compulsive gamblers). On the other end of the spectrum, addicts without a stable family or group of friends are often left feeling alone and isolated during the holidays, another powerful source of the shame and boredom that can drive addictive behavior.

What Are Some Of  The Hidden Struggles That Can Intensify Addiction/Trigger A Relapse?

Most often, these struggles emerge from one of two likely scenarios. In the event of a still active addiction, attempts to hide the problem from friends and family and the resulting stress can, paradoxically, intensify the addictive behavior. And whether the addiction has been treated or not, gathering with family in a familiar place can frequently cause someone to face many of the underlying issues that can be the root causes of a drug addiction or compulsive behavior. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique way, and whether one’s particular family is overly judgmental, enabling, angry, or whatever else, it can serve to restart self-destructive patterns of behavior. For some recovering addicts, there may be a family-imposed secrecy around the recovery itself, which can be trying at a time when the whole family is gathering, ostensibly to celebrate one another. Even the house (including the room where an addict used to act out) and certain family members (like that cousin they used to smoke weed with) can be important cues that may re-trigger cravings and old behavioral patterns. Additionally and importantly, if there is a family history of any kind of past abuse, this can obviously serve as a particularly powerful and insidious trigger for addicts, whether recovering or not. In fact, recent research suggests that these old, root stimuli may be much more powerful for drug addicts than re-experiencing the drug itself.

What Are Some Strategies For Surviving The Holidays?

First and foremost, one must be prepared. Since most people at least know and are aware of the potential issues that might arise within their own families, it is crucial not to try to “wing it.” If you know that your family is going to be asking lots of uncomfortable questions, practice some appropriate answers and don’t feel obligated to discuss any aspect of your recovery that you’re not comfortable discussing. If your family is overly focused on achievement or likes to bring up stories from the past that are triggering or shameful, rehearse your reactions to them. If you have a friend or significant someone who can help, do a little role-play trying out different answers and see how they feel as you actually say them out loud. It will never be exactly the same as you practice, but being prepared can go a long way towards taming the body and brain’s natural stress responses. Just as importantly, if you know you’re liable to encounter events or people that formerly facilitated addictive behavior, role play those likely scenarios and know how you plan on turning down or avoiding those substances or behaviors. For instance, figure out how exactly you’re going to tell your cousin you aren’t going to smoke in the basement with him before you have to actually do it. It will sound a lot less forced and strange the second time around and you will have already experienced some of the associated anxiety. If you’re going to be alone, make distinct plans for your activities and do the best you can to find healthy situations to participate in, even if they seem new or slightly uncomfortable at first. For instance, go ahead and join that group of strangers for a Christmas eve dinner or Christmas day movie instead of spending those times along. After all, uncomfortable or not, a new, healthy experience will be vastly preferable to sliding back into the same old destructive patterns of the past.

Should I Use New Years To Confront My Addiction?

Most everyone is familiar with the New Year’s Resolution as a method of planning major life changes. Of course, most everyone is also familiar with the limited success rate of these resolutions, and of the effectiveness of “going cold turkey” in general. Depending on the addiction, there are certainly things that individuals can do to help themselves- for example, research suggests that when trying to quit smoking setting a quit date and beginning to use replacement patches or supplements in anticipation of that date (in other words, while still smoking) can help reduce the amount of smoking while approaching that quit date, making it easier when the day finally arrives. If you’re planning to quit a “harder” drug than nicotine, you may want to set a whole schedule for reducing drug use prior to the quit date itself. The important thing is to be completely realistic in order for the change to stick. If you’re drinking a bottle of vodka a day, attempting to go completely dry within a week can be extremely dangerous to your health, and will not likely result in a permanent change. Once again, education and preparation are key. Prepare for any sort of quitting by looking online on sites like AllAboutAddiction and WebMD, and identify the medical and psychological issues that are likely to accompany your attempt. Look to see if your problem is one that you can handle alone, or if it is recommended that a doctor help you with the process. Remember that your goal should be lifetime change, not a temporary one. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, if your holidays promise to be especially difficult or stressful, you may want to hold off on trying to quit during them and look at them as a time to lay the groundwork for your post New Year quit attempt rather than going for a full on cold turkey try. Such pragmatism may well help you achieve your true goal.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy – By Stopping Smoking

By RICK NAUERT PHD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on December 3, 2010


Although the detrimental medical effects of smoking are well known, experts often question whether smoking cessation will have a positive or negative effect on an individual’s mood.

The concern (or perception) is that many people smoke to relieve anxiety and depression.

In a new study, researchers tracked the symptoms of depression in people who were trying to quit and found that they were never happier than when they were being successful abstaining from smoking, for however long that was.

Based on their results, the authors of the article, published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research , recommend that smokers embrace quitting as a step toward improving mental as well as physical health.

In fact, according to corresponding author Christopher Kahler, Ph.D., quitting is not, as some smokers may fear, a grim psychological sacrifice to be made for the sake of longevity.

“The assumption has often been that people might smoke because it has antidepressant properties and that if they quit it might unmask a depressive episode,” said Kahler.

“What’s surprising is that at the time when you measure smokers’ mood, even if they’ve only succeeded for a little while, they are already reporting less symptoms of depression.”

Kahler and colleagues from Brown, The Miriam Hospital, and the University of Southern California studied a group of 236 men and women seeking to quit smoking, who also happened to be heavy social drinkers.

They received nicotine patches and counseling on quitting and then agreed to a quit date; some also were given specific advice to reduce drinking.

Participants took a standardized test of symptoms of depression a week before the quit date and then two, eight, 16, and 28 weeks after that date.

All but 29 participants exhibited one of four different quitting behaviors: 99 subjects never abstained; 44 were only abstinent at the two-week assessment; 33 managed to remain smoke-free at the two- and eight-week checkups; 33 managed to stay off cigarettes for the entire study length.

The most illustrative — and somewhat tragic — subjects were the ones who only quit temporarily. Their moods were clearly brightest at the checkups when they were abstinent. After going back to smoking, their mood darkened, in some cases to higher levels of sadness than before.

The strong correlation in time between increased happiness and abstinence is a tell-tale sign that the two go hand-in-hand, said Kahler, of Brown’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies (CAAS).

Subjects who never quit remained the unhappiest of all throughout the study. The ones who quit and stuck with abstinence were the happiest to begin with and remained at the same strong level of happiness throughout.

Kahler said he is confident the results can be generalized to most people, even though the smokers in this study also drank at relatively high levels. One reason is that the results correlate well with a study he did in 2002 of smokers who all had had past episodes of depression but who did not necessarily drink. Another is that the changes in happiness measured in this study did not correlate in time with a reduction in drinking, only with a reduction — and resumption — of smoking.

Looking at the data, Kahler said, it is difficult to believe that smoking serves as an effective way to medicate negative feelings and depression, even if some people report using tobacco for that reason. In fact, he said, the opposite seems more likely — that quitting smoking eases depressive symptoms.

“If they quit smoking their depressive symptoms go down and if they relapse, their mood goes back to where they were,” he said. “An effective antidepressant should look like that.”

Source: Brown University

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Mindfulness Meditation Increases Well-Being In Adolescent Boys

Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation

‘Mindfulness’, the process of learning to become more aware of our ongoing experiences, increases well-being in adolescent boys, a new study reports. Researchers from the University of Cambridge analyzed 155 boys from two independent UK schools, Tonbridge and Hampton, before and after a four-week crash course in mindfulness.

After the trial period, the 14 and 15 year-old boys were found to have increased well-being, defined as the combination of feeling good (including positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, interest and affection) and functioning well.

Professor Felicia Huppert of the Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge said: “More and more we are realizing the importance of supporting the overall mental health of children. Our study demonstrates that this type of training improves well-being in adolescents and that the more they practice, the greater the benefits. Importantly, many of the students genuinely enjoyed the exercises and said they intended to continue them – a good sign that many children would be receptive to this type of intervention.

“Another significant aspect of this study is that adolescents who suffered from higher levels of anxiety were the ones who benefited most from the training.”

For the experiment, students in six classes were trained in mindful awareness – mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention. It means consciously bringing awareness to our experience, in the present moment, without making judgments about it*. Students in the five control classes attended their normal religious studies lessons.

The training consisted of four 40 minute classes, one per week, which presented the principles and practice of mindfulness. The classes covered the concepts of awareness and acceptance, and taught the schoolboys such things as how to practice bodily awareness by noticing where they were in contact with their chairs or the floor, paying attention to their breathing, and noticing all the sensations involved in walking.

The students were also asked to practice outside the classroom and were encouraged to listen to a CD or mp3 file for eight minutes a day. These exercises are intended to improve concentration and reduce stress.

All participants completed a short series of online questionnaires before and after the mindfulness project. The questionnaires measured the effect of the training on changes in mindful awareness, resilience (the ability to modify responses to changing situations) and psychological well-being.

The researchers found that although it was a short program, the students who participated in the mindfulness training had increased levels of well-being which were proportional to the amount of time the students spent practicing their new skills.

Professor Huppert continued: “We believe that the effects of mindfulness training can enhance well-being in a number of ways. If you practice being in the present, you can increase positive feelings by savoring pleasurable on-going experiences. Additionally, calming the mind and observing experiences with curiosity and acceptance not only reduces stress but helps with attention control and emotion regulation – skills which are valuable both inside and outside the classroom.”

The success of this initial study has recently led to the creation of an exciting 8 week mindfulness curriculum for schools in both the state and private sectors. This new curriculum, which includes games and video clips, should have even greater benefits.

Material adapted from University of Cambridge.
*As described in the Mental Health Foundation Report ‘Be Mindful’ 2010.
Originally Posted by: The Behavioral Medicine Report at:  http://www.bmedreport.com/archives/16844