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Procrastination and Perfectionism

I agreed to do this blog over a month ago, more than agreed – volunteered – said I wanted to, and that I like writing and would like to do more of it. And I did feel exactly that. I want to. So why has it taken me all this time to sit down, with my deadline now upon me, to begin to write about this topic of my choosing? You guessed it… see title above!

I have been a procrastinator most of my life, to the irritation of my parents, my teachers, my ex-husband (no, that’s not why we are no longer together); and for most of my adult life, especially to myself. There are endless things written about procrastination both online and in print – what causes it, how it manifests, psychological states associated with it (higher rates of anxiety, low-self esteem, depression), the detriments, and even some benefits of it, and how to overcome it. And there are many, many quotes, some amusing, some pithy, and many designed to expel procrastination and to inspire action in its place. One that struck a chord for me is from Alyce P. Coryn-Selby: “Procrastination is, hands down, our favorite form of self-sabotage.” and this one from William James also hit home: “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task”.

My awareness of this attribute is long-standing, and I’ve been managing it for years, one might say successfully enough since I have achieved many of the important things I’ve set out to do. But when I look back at how long it took me to do some of those things and how much time I wasted avoiding action, well, that’s another story. These days I don’t dwell on that terribly much – the judgments of my past procrastination choices don’t serve any current actions I wish to take, but reflecting on them might impart some useful information. The reason it’s more on my mind these days is because of how it has been manifesting for me during our recent and still on-going circumstances of self-quarantine.

When we first went into ‘stay at home’ mode, I was anticipating and imagining all the time I would have to get into my more ‘meaty’, involved, time-consuming and neglected projects, and how quickly I would accomplish them. The 2 most important of these projects to me were art-making – particularly watercolor painting, and sifting through some belongings for which I have some deep emotional attachments. But as one week led into the next, I noticed I wasn’t doing those things, I was doing the less important, short-term, easier to complete tasks, the easier to feel satisfied tasks, the ones that didn’t challenge me emotionally or remind me of my lack of skill or abilities. And what I noticed was subtle but it got my attention.

I noticed that I did feel just satisfied enough with those easier tasks completed to ignore the bigger tasks, but only for so long and that there was a niggling feeling of incompletion in my day and a feeling that I was, somehow, selling myself short. So then I planned that the next day I would paint and several days went by with that scenario… not painting, doing little easier things, feeling just satisfied enough until the end of the day when I said once again “why didn’t I paint today?”, and then I would once again decide…. tomorrow for sure! This process was not new to me, but I believe the lack of external and social activities and distractions made it so much harder to ignore. Clearly, being too busy was no longer the reason I could blame for not getting to it!

Once I saw this pattern in operation, I felt I was left with no choice but to confront it. My desire to paint and to sift through those belongings were beginning now to demand my attention and I knew I had to make a change in my approach and in my understanding. It wasn’t just simply ‘doing it’, as much as I would like to tell you that it was that easy. If it were, I would have followed through all those days I had planned to. I knew there was something powerful operating below my consciousness that was subverting me because after all, we are talking about something I was really wanting to do, not an onerous task that it would make sense I might like to put off.

So, I began to do some processes to help elucidate it and make it conscious. I went to my journal first, and after imagining myself painting and how it felt, and what transpired when I did, I then began just writing whatever came to me, about the act of painting and my experience of it. And what became abundantly clear was my discomfort with being a beginner, and the frustration that often came with my attempts that ‘failed’. My perfectionist streak, that trait that has no business participating in any creative endeavor, was motivating my avoidance. It’s the perfectionist who labels my attempts as ‘failures’, the perfectionist who becomes so easily frustrated, the perfectionist who needs to be an instant master.

With this knowledge, I was able to plan an art-making session that allowed for managing the perfectionist inner dialogue and to pre-empt frustration. I planned to do some art-making that was not product-oriented, in other words, I decided that I would simply ‘mess around’ with materials, in this case, watercolor paints, with no goal in mind, no specific image I would make – I would simply play and experiment -with brush strokes, with colors, and see what happened. The purpose of this was to make it almost impossible for the perfectionist to have a leg to stand on because by nature she must have some ideal to compare to. If I were not making anything specific or ‘important’, there would be nothing to compare or judge. This session was successful, in that it reminded me of the pleasures I receive from painting, and it was enough to quiet the perfectionist judge and thankfully to get me started again. But it’s been a very conscious practice – reminding myself each time I enter the creative space that I am here for pleasure, not product, and that judgments about my ‘progress’ or ‘abilities’ are not welcome. But the joy from simply engaging in it is!

I will close with my friend Donna Starr’s quote to me as I think she sums it up beautifully: “Perfectionism based procrastination is about thinking there is only one way – the right way and a wrong – built on faulty perceptions of self-worth. Whereas passion-driven endeavors are based on the process, not the outcome, and self-worth is based on engaging with exploration and experience.”

As for writing this blog, the perfectionist also does not belong here. Yes, I want to do the best job I can, but truly, more than doing this perfectly, I want to share something of myself and my experience, as I believe it may be useful to others, may open a door to another possibility.

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Debra Vivi Steinfeld, MS, ATR, LMHC-QS, I am an artist, registered art psychotherapist, licensed mental health counselor, and qualified supervisor in the state of Florida. I specialize in navigating all the facets of life stage changes and both chosen and unexpected life transitions.

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