When faced with a challenging project or daunting task, perfectionists want to envision an unobstructed path towards certain victory. You want to imagine every step of the plan, anticipate every possible challenge and how to overcome it, and clearly see a “perfect” outcome before you start taking any action.
This can lead to a common perfectionist habit: procrastination. You put off getting started on that important project, because we haven’t completely thought it through yet. You have it on your to-do list to get started this afternoon, but then your inner perfectionist says, “Do a little more research first,” or that part might anxiously wonder, “What are you gonna do if X happens?” And then you’re back to the planning and preparing, putting off getting started for another day. Or week. Or year.
The problem of course is that we can never imagine and prepare for every possible issue, challenge, obstacle, outcome. There are no guarantees of success or perfection in life. If you’re waiting to feel 100% confident that nothing will go wrong, you’ll never get started. Or, you’ll rush through at the last possible minute, creating a built-in excuse if things don’t go well (I didn’t have enough time to do it right!).
There’s another problem. The desire for everything has to be perfect and predictable is rooted in a belief that you are not capable of thinking on your feet, solving problems creatively… a belief that you are not resilient. Resilience is the ability to look adversity or challenges in the face, feel the stress and move through anyway. Resilience is solving a problem on the fly, without advance preparation, or recovering from a setback without collapsing or giving up. Resilience is bouncing back.
When perfectionists procrastinate, it’s often rooted in a lack of trust in your own resilience. A lack of belief that you’ll be able to tolerate the stress, solve an unforeseen problem, or bounce back. But take a moment and think about all you’ve accomplished so far in your life. How many problems have you solved, tasks accomplished, goals achieved? Have you ever failed so spectacularly that you ended up penniless and alone?
Try this exercise:
Think of a recent accomplishment, big or small, but something that involved some bumps in the road. Set a timer for 30 seconds and really soak in a felt sense of your capabilities and strengths. Let yourself feel proud, excited, relieved—whatever positive feelings come up. Even exaggerate them if you can! Notice how your body felt, what emotions came up, and what thoughts you had as you sat with your positive emotions. If your inner perfectionist argues or raises objections (“but you only succeeded because you got help,” or another “yeah, but…”), acknowledge the thought and say “not now.” See if you can table those thoughts and objections until the 30 seconds is up.
Perfectionists spend so much time noticing what’s wrong or could be improved, all the ways you are not “good enough” yet… This exercise helps add another drop to the “already good enough” bucket. Filling this bucket can have a profound impact on your ability to trust yourself, believe in your strength and resilience, take action and stop procrastinating.
Next time you feel the urge to procrastinate because you need to “do more research” or plan for more possible problems, see if you can connect to this feeling of “good enough-ness.” Maybe even take three minutes to repeat this exercise to help anchor in that trust in your own resilience. You don’t have to have the whole journey mapped out ahead of time. You have the ability to navigate on the fly, and even to tolerate the stress of feeling lost for a minute. Trust yourself — you already are good enough!