True confession: I started writing this article more than two months ago, and I am just finishing it now.
I had the best intentions, of course. I planned to bang it out that very first week, but I realized that I was going to be traveling for work, which meant that I really needed to spend time planning for packing, and then, of course, do the packing itself. So, I aimed for the following week when I came home, but I realized that I had follow-up emails from my work trip that needed to be sent out in a timely manner, whereas writing this article could surely wait.
Then I had a sick kid. And then I got sick. And then I had to take care of the work that I had fallen behind on while I was sick. So this article—now weeks behind schedule—just sat there, waiting to be written.
All of a sudden, I realized that I was channeling Charlie Brown from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in his song, "The Book Report":
If I start writing now when I'm not really rested
It could upset my thinking, which is no good at all.
I'll get a fresh start tomorrow, and it's not due till Wednesday,
So I'll have all of Tuesday — unless something should happen.
Chuck and I were both trying to convince ourselves that we were really, truly setting priorities about how and when to do our very best work. We were telling ourselves that we needed to put health (or mental health) first to ensure the quality of our final product. We were buying into the belief that a clean and clear schedule would guarantee our commitment to the task ahead. Unless, as Charlie Brown, noted, "something should happen."
Guess what? Something almost always happens. Have you noticed that too?
When it comes to getting things done, I admit that it is important to set priorities and stick to them. It is important to put our health and mental health at the top of our to-do list. And it is important to start fresh on important tasks. What becomes a problem is when we wait…and wait…and wait…for the perfect time to get started. Because while there are better times to get started and less than ideal times to get started, there’s no such thing as the perfect time. Yet, we wait for it anyway.
If you struggle with procrastinating on the start of projects or even the end of projects, you may also be grappling with perfectionism. Think about it: How often do you find yourself waiting for something to be perfect—or close to it—in order to get started or know when to stop?
Here are three reasons why many people procrastinate:
1. They are waiting for the perfect time to get started, aka "How can I start networking when I don't have my elevator pitch down?"
2. They are waiting for something to be perfect in order to call it finished, aka "How can I launch my new website when I still don't have all my keywords ready for SEO?"
3. They are waiting for themselves and their lives to be perfect, aka, "I can't _________________ until I lose 10 lbs/get my MBA/get married."
It does to Alistair Ostell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bradford Management Center in England, who has identified this mindset as absolutist thinking. This black-or-white approach can lead to emotional distress—often anger—when we can’t achieve perfection. And procrastination is only one of its side effects. In her Psychology Today article, "The Cost of Perfection," writer Amy Wilson describes how absolutist thinkers "get upset if things don't go their way, which impedes their problem-solving and coping skills…This may translate into health complications such as insomnia, heart palpitations, chronic fatigue, and high blood pressure." And if you’re a perfectionist, you absolutely can’t afford to get sick—because then you might have to delegate/downsize your expectations/settle for less than perfect—all of which could make you really sick, right?
Wrong. Replacing the entrenched belief that flawlessness is the goal with a new and healthier belief that good enough can be enough may be painful, difficult, and even stressful, but it won’t make you sick like striving for perfection can.
Because as you know, I know, and even Charlie Brown knows, something is probably going to happen anyway.
Voltaire wrote, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." The perfect is also the enemy of you. At a time when the ever-changing world requires us to be resilient and adaptable, our perfectionist-procrastination tendencies keep us stuck in place, locked into unrealistic expectations and counterproductive behavior.
Here are three strategies for getting more done by getting more comfortable with less than perfect conditions:
1. Just start anyway. You have likely given yourself a laundry list of requirements for how your day needs to look, what resources you need to have at your fingertips, or even how the world needs to be in order to get started on your project. But unless your endeavor is legitimately a high-risk undertaking (to more than just your ego), just get started. Nothing stops us more than the start. Once you’re in it, you’re more likely to keep going.
2. Tell yourself three stories to challenge your thinking. First, tell yourself the story of a time when you were "less than perfect" but still managed to successfully accomplish a goal; second, tell yourself the story of someone who you believe to be perfect (or pretty close to it), but fell short of achieving his or her objectives; and third, tell yourself the story of the "default future" you’re facing—in other words, how will your project, endeavor, or career turn out if you continue on this course of inaction?
3. Create artificial criteria for stopping. If you’re the kind of person who can’t finish a project until it is perfect (end-state procrastination), choose a different benchmark for finishing—and stick to it. You might decide to end your project at noon on Friday, or after 25 hours of working on it, or at 1,000 words written. A hidden bonus: For those of us who procrastinate the start because we can’t picture how or when this project or process will end, creating wrap-up criteria helps us have a compelling, appealing, and (hopefully) motivating image of what done looks like.
Whether it’s perfect or not, eight weeks later, this article is finally—FINALLY—finished.
What practical tips have helped you overcome procrastination? Tell us about it in the comments.
[Image: Flickr user John McStravick]