Perfectionism and Procrastination
There are people who want to make everything perfect. They “never” finish. At least not “in time”. Because the result can never be perfect. Salvador Dalí is credited with having said: “Don’t be afraid of perfection – you’ll never reach it”. Do you know the Sagrada Familia – the wonderful cathedral in Barcelona that has been under construction since 1882? A guided tour of the construction site reveals the boldness and beauty of this design. This building, too, is built according to a “perfect” plan by Gaudí – for 136 years and there is no end in sight.
I used to be so perfectionist. I had great plans and worked on them forever. Even without being Dalí or Gaudí. There was a cartoon stuck to our fridge, which my then wife had hung up there with a pretty fridge magnet at my eye level. On it a picture was to be seen, on which a proud confectioner presented his complex cake to a customer. Several floors, a lot of decoration. All first-class cream. The work of art of cake was crowned by a bright red cherry. The confectioner’s face was marked with pride. The customer, on the other hand, looked dissatisfied. The speech bubble above: “Well, the cherry could at least sing.” That was our running gag for a long time, because I was able to annoy my environment with dissatisfaction and perfectionism.
My former wife is long gone now. In the meantime I have worked hard on myself and as you can see, I can now finish blog post for t2informatik.
What does this have to do with procrastination, the “postponement illness”? You can’t finish that either. Because you have to postpone an annoying, unpleasant task until you have to do it under pressure. I have come across an impressive parable about this: Imagine you had a 20m long beam lying on the ground and you were supposed to balance over it. Actually a simple task, isn’t it? With procrastination, it is now as if you drag this beam onto a skyscraper, bridge the gap to another skyscraper and then light the house on which you stand. Then you have to cross over. Under time pressure and with the danger and fear of falling down. Crazy, right?
And what do these two experiences have in common? They are self-made stress, even self-sabotage, but with different causes. If you look at it with common sense, you will wonder why people do this to themselves. In fact, many people suffer from perfectionism and procrastination. Even wives. Or husbands. In some people, they lead to burnout or anxiety disorders. The insight in the therapy that this suffering is self-made or learned gives the afflicted people a possibility to take a new, better way without suffering.
Differences between perfectionism and procrastination
Procrastination is lived dislike. The unpleasant or annoying task: the tax return, cleaning up the apartment, there are many things that people do not enjoy. Let me take these two banal examples. At some point, however, the tax office contacts you and threatens you with interest on arrears. Or a visit is announced, possibly by the mother-in-law. And then the apartment has to be clean and tidy quickly, or the tax return has to be completed. It’s no fun, it’s rather stressful. The solution is a strategic one. I can ask myself how I eat an elephant (piece by piece) or what the smallest possible step can look like that I can easily take care of. Starting is incredibly important for the brain and always better than doing nothing at all. Often the reward system of the brain is sufficient. But you can also treat yourself to small rewards for the successful accomplishment of a step.
It becomes risky if you answer one or more of the following questions with “Yes” in addition to the first one. Then you should better seek professional help:
- Do you have the impression that you are suffering from procrastination?
- Do you often feel very listless, diminished drive, sad, out of tune or have you lost the desire and joy of certain activities?
- Do you postpone visits to your doctor or dentist?
- Do you suffer from sleep problems or other health problems because you do not complete tasks?
- Are you trying to numb your negative feelings with alcohol, medication or drugs?
- Do you have more than occasional attention or concentration problems?
What aids are there against procrastination?
For the “easy”, the rather annoying procrastination there is, for example, the procedure “GTD – Getting Things Done”1 by David Allen, which works very structured with lists and rules. Like the “2-minute rule” according to which I have to process everything immediately if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete. Although GTD was received quite enthusiastically, critics lack a scientific proof of the effectiveness of this method.
This is different with the “Zurich Resource Model ZRM”2 by Maja Storch and Frank Krause. It was developed at the University of Zurich and extensively scientifically tested. I have had good experience with ZRM and even use it to support psychotherapy. Imagine you want to do more sports. To get fitter or to lose weight. The task is much easier for you if you say: “I do good for myself, allow myself exercise” than if you believe “I have to run 5 km twice a week to become fitter”. It is important that I “take” my gut feeling with me to introduce a new habit. I then notice how I can overcome my unwillingness by anticipating early on how pleasant and easy I feel with the fitter body or how it is to live in the tidy apartment. In addition, ZRM helps when it comes to easily achieving big goals in small steps, e.g. quitting smoking. The trick is to change the inner resistance via body signals (the so-called somatic markers) and to master the task step by step with ease.
In perfectionism, the causes are deeper and sometimes even related to fear. The (often unconscious) fear that something bad might happen if I’m not perfect or if I don’t deliver. Then, when perfectionism causes real suffering and is not just a bad habit, there is often a belief like “I’m not good enough” or “I have to do something to be loved”. These beliefs were almost always shaped in (early) childhood – through disrespect, withdrawal of love, “bad” praise, or beating.
“Bad” praise is the evaluation of the person, not their actions: “You are super” instead of “You did super”. There are even opinions that praise is unfavorable at all.3 The fatal thing is that children make their self-esteem dependent either on the use of sanction or on praise. I use similar methods in my coaching and psychotherapy to deal with the beliefs I have acquired in this way. The foundations for this are active relaxation and pattern interruption. And finally the questioning of the dysfunctional (not helpful) beliefs, which leads to a replacement by more helpful ones. For example: “Good enough is very often good enough” or “I am loved the way I am”.
The third “P” – Pareto
Do you know the effect of the Pareto principle? Known to many as the 80-20 rule and after perfectionism and procrastination the third “P” in my list. Math professionals may be able to start something with logistical growth as a descriptive process. In short: In order to achieve 80% of the results, it takes 20% of the time in many cases. Can you think of any examples yourself? If you write an article, the rough plot is quickly clear, the scaffolding is built, equipped with content. But then comes the tedious fine-tuning. Or like the wedding cake. The few shelves of biscuit are quickly baked and supplied with cream and filling. But then comes the elaborate decoration. And the cherry.
Engineers and softworkers know the Pareto principle well enough. How nice is it to present a really nice piece of code, a fully tested user interface or a superbly designed building? Or an electronic circuit or a building that loosely meets all specifications “first time right” under all conditions? And then comes controlling with cost pressure, quality assurance with safety margins, the customer with constantly changing wishes, an unexpected complication during construction or a new legal regulation. Children of the 1970s may still remember the battle of video recording systems.4 It was said that the technically superior Video 2000 system did not prevail because VHS was good and cheap enough. Allegedly mainly to show pornography. Seriously. Legend has it that the powerful, high earning porn film industry flooded the market with VHS cassettes. Bitter for the Grundig and Philips engineers involved in Video 2000, who had been on the market first.
I know quite a few engineers who have lost interest in their job because of all these adversities. Happened to me back then, too. Meanwhile I know that it is a question of attitude, of perspective on the world, whether I suffer under these circumstances, which I can hardly change. This has nothing to do with giving up but with self-care.
What really helps? Remember: I can only eat an elephant in bite-sized pieces and good enough is quite often and quite certainly good enough. The Pareto principle can give me air when I am under stress. I can also bring such a prototype into the world to test an idea. It should not be understood as an invitation to sloppiness. In addition, active relaxation, pattern interruption and questioning help. Ultimately, the healthy, untroubled common sense that tells me what I can influence well and easily, possibly renegotiate. And that the cherry doesn’t have to sing at all, that it will be totally satisfying to just tidy up a small corner now or to look for tax receipts for a month. And then to treat yourself to a little reward.
The same applies here, as it’s all about retraining: the path is no short and not an easy one. Just like fitness training or muscle building. There is no shortcut. The people who have gone it, however, report again and again how worthwhile it was to take the new path. Good luck with that!
 GTD – Getting Things Done: http://www.43folders.com/2006/03/21/gtd-2
 ZRM – Zürcher Ressourcenmodell (in German): https://zrm.ch/forschung/
 Praise: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/praise
 Videotape format war: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Videotape_format_war
Mario Hauff has published more articles here in the t2informatik Blog:
Dipl.-Ing. Mario Hauff is the Angslotse. He guides individuals and organisations through difficult phases aggravated by fear and uncovers their potential with them. Like a nautical pilot he goes "on board" until "safe waters" are reached again and imparts self-efficacy and self-empowerment. After 20 years as an electrical engineer for microelectronics in an American company, he now offers individual and group coaching sessions, workshops and keynote lectures on growth in safety with state-of-the-art, scientifically sound findings.
"Why it works without fear": You may stand at a canyon or in front of the photo wallpaper of a canyon.