Here is a list of things I have done rather than start this blog post, which was the one thing I really wanted to do this evening:
- Applied some unnecessary lotions and potions to my face
- Edited some photos
- Left what can only be described as ‘fuckloads’ of comments on you lovely people’s Instagram photos
- Replied to Instagram comments
- Started a long and involved whatsapp discussion that I don’t have time for
- Facebook messaged a friend
- Scheduled tweets
- Replied to emails
- Tidied some things in the spare room
- Cooked and eaten an entirely unnecessary Tuesday night roast
- Started a much simpler blog post than this one
I know lots of people will be familiar with procrastination, but I haven’t been putting this off because I don’t feel like it, or I don’t know what I want to say, or I’m not in a writing mood, or I’d rather watch Stranger Things in my pants while eating an iced bun. I’m putting it off because of my good old friend perfectionism and its uncanny ability to render me incapacitated for any task that I want (need, is probably more apt) to do a perfect job on.
I’ve spoken about recognising my perfectionism before, so I hope you don’t mind another blog post on this topic, but I wanted to elaborate on one of the main ways it manifests itself in me personally; procrastination. Not lazy procrastination, or ‘I’ll do it later’ procrastination, because I actually spend nearly all my time working, but a complete inability to get started on the tasks that mean something to me for fear of the end result.
Take this blog post for example, which, at 10pm, I have just begun writing. I’ve had plenty of time this evening to do it, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say. It was running through my head and has been all day, and yet because it’s personal and significant to me I am so worried about the probability that what flows from my mind, down my arms, into my fingers and onto this page being rubbish, that I’ve felt stuck and hopeless and incapable of getting started.
And this perfectionist’s procrastination actually just results in mediocrity in every way. That’s the problem, you see; I have impossibly high standards that I could never actually meet, but neither can I get anywhere near to good if I don’t just bloody start the thing I’m trying to do. People often think that perfectionism means you do everything to a very high standard, but ironically I find that people who aim for the best they can do in the given circumstances, rather than a standard that doesn’t actually exist, consistently outperform me. They get started, they put ample effort it, they appreciate that working on something is part of the process, and they are rewarded (and rightly so) with great results.
Instead of doing similarly, I sit silently worrying about the task at hand, wait until there’s barely any time left to complete it, dash off something in the remaining time and then wallow in my own mediocrity. If I’d just got going I’d have given myself time to edit, work on, and – funnily enough – perfect the work.
This makes big projects that happen over a long time period, particularly without clear cut deadlines, my nemesis. It makes any project at work that is important to me my nemesis. In a way, it makes blogging my nemesis, or at least writing the blog posts that I really want to be writing.
I put off beginning the work that is the most important to me, because it is the work that failing would be the most devastating for. Thinking about that possibility panics me more than I can say, so I distract myself with something else. I still choose to work in some way, it’s just that I choose a task that I can’t disappoint myself with. I can’t really fail at scheduling tweets, after all, but I can fail to perfectly articulate a point for a post about perfectionism. I can’t fail at booking ad space for our latest campaign at work, but I can fail at writing a fantastic piece of marketing copy for a new launch. Unfortunately the tasks that lead me to do this tend to be some of the most important, the things upon which many other aspects hang, and this is why perfectionism is far from conducive to productivity; to the contrary, it is it’s greatest enemy.
I’m realising more and more that this desire to be ‘the best’ means that actually, I’m always going to let myself down; the reality, that it’s unlikely that the work I produce is going to be fantastic, is enough to scare me off starting it at all. I’ve read recently that this is known as the three Ps; perfectionism, procrastination and paralysis. Sounds extreme, but if you’ve experienced perfectionist’s procrastination in all it’s glory, paralysis is exactly what it feels like;
In the moment that I have the idea, or agree to the piece of work, I feel like I understand exactly what I need to do, and I feel for a moment that I can do well, even excited, because I’m passionate about it. That changes very quickly; I want what I deliver to be out of this world, better than anything that anyone who sees it has ever seen, and naturally, because that’s impossible, it starts to feel very daunting.
Before too long, the feeling turns to something rather like dread. ‘I just need to do some more research’ or ‘I just need to get a nice long chunk of time to be able to start it properly’, I think. I put it off until the next day. And the next day. And the next day. Not because I don’t want to do it, because I genuinely can’t get started. The fact that I’m procrastinating begins to fuel feelings of anxiety. The deadline, self-imposed or otherwise, gets closer. Suddenly there’s barely enough time to do whatever it is, let alone do it well. I do the piece of work, or write the post, in a stressed, negative frame of mind, while kicking myself for being so lazy, useless and incompetent.
When it’s done, I look at it with my classic all or nothing approach; if it’s not perfect, which it isn’t, it’s terrible, and there is no in between (seriously, when I was at school, if I didn’t get the highest grade, it was the end of the world. I’m still disappointed about a B I got at GCSE).
You might have noticed recently that I’m sharing less ‘musings’ and more ‘here is a tangible thing and what I think of it’. Honestly? I like those kinds of posts, but my favourite to read from others and what I want more than anything to be writing is the more think piece/musings/personal stuff. The problem is that I’ve been struggling so much with perfectionist’s procrastination recently that I can’t seem to get them out. All of the subjects I most want to write about are really important to me, and therefore it’s really important to me to do a good job of them.
On the plus side, this very post was very important to me too, and although of course there’s no time to perfect it (if I didn’t set myself deadlines and make myself post, I’d never post anything, because nothing would ever be good enough) I seem to have just about cobbled something together. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
Photography: Rob Poor