Perfectionism and Procrastination: How They’re Connected and What to Do About It

Procrastination is a common issue, which occurs when people unnecessarily postpone decisions or actions, generally despite knowing that doing so is likely to cause them issues.

One reason why people procrastinate is perfectionism. For example, perfectionistic students might be so critical of themselves for making mistakes in school assignments, that they will postpone doing homework to avoid dealing with the associated negative emotions. Similarly, perfectionistic writers might be so worried about their book being criticized, that they will delay sending the book for feedback.

The relationship between perfectionism and procrastination can have serious implications, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about how perfectionism and procrastination are connected, and see what you can do about this in practice.


The relationship between perfectionism and procrastination

The relationship between perfectionism and procrastination is complex, and depends on the specific aspects of perfectionism that a person has:

  • Some aspects of perfectionism generally increase procrastination. These include, most notably, perfectionistic concerns, which are characterized primarily by critical and negative self-evaluations, excessive preoccupation with other people’s expectations, lack of satisfaction from successful performance, excessive worry over making mistakes, and doubts about one’s abilities and actions, often in irrational ways or to irrational degrees. Such concerns represent the more maladaptive side of perfectionism, since they generally lead people to experience negative outcomes, in terms of factors such as their performance and wellbeing. For example, these concerns can lead a student to unnecessarily delay submitting their assignments, because they’re excessively worried that they’ve made mistakes.
  • Some aspects of perfectionism generally decrease procrastination. These include, most notably, perfectionistic strivings, which are characterized primarily by setting and striving for excessively high personal standards, often with a focus on attaining flawlessness in one’s work. Such strivings represent the more adaptive side of perfectionism, since they generally lead people to experience positive outcomes, in terms of factors such as their performance and wellbeing. For example, these strivings can lead a student to submit all their assignments on time, because they want to get a perfect grade.

Furthermore, other characteristics of people’s perfectionism can also play a role in determining how their perfectionism influences their procrastination. For example, socially-prescribed perfectionism, which involves people having high standards set for them by others, is more likely to increase procrastination, whereas self-oriented perfectionism, which involves people setting high standards for themselves, is more likely to decrease procrastination.

In addition, various issues can influence people’s perfectionism, and the relationship between it and their procrastination. For example, when people receive parental criticism, this can exacerbate their perfectionistic concerns, which in turn can exacerbate their procrastination. Alternatively, when people have high self-efficacy, this can improve their ability to control any perfectionistic concerns that they have, which in turn can decrease their procrastination.

In summary, perfectionism can either increase or decrease procrastination, depending on various factors. These factors include the aspects of perfectionism involved (e.g., concerns vs. strivings), the types of perfectionism involved (e.g., self-oriented vs. socially-prescribed), and personality traits, such as self-efficacy. This means that while perfectionism can sometimes cause procrastination, not all perfectionists procrastinate.


Associated psychological mechanisms

There are various ways in which perfectionism can lead to procrastination. For example, it can increase the negative emotions that people experience when they make mistakes, which leads people to delay their work as a way to delay the associated negative emotions. Alternatively, perfectionism can substantially increase people’s expectations of themselves, which increases the discrepancy between people’s current situation and their desired situation so much that their goals feel unattainable, which causes them to give up.

These mechanisms can lead people to enter a perfectionism-procrastination cycle. For example, this can happen when someone’s perfectionism makes them afraid of negative feedback, which causes them to procrastinate, which leads them to perform poorly and get negative feedback, which makes them more afraid of getting negative feedback again in the future, and so on.


Other causes of procrastination

People can procrastinate for many reasons beyond perfectionism, such as anxiety, fear of failure, and depression. Accordingly, although perfectionism can sometimes lead to procrastination, not all procrastinators are perfectionists, and even those who are don’t necessarily procrastinate because of their perfectionism, or only because of it. Nevertheless, many other causes of procrastinationsuch as anxiety and fear of failure, are associated with perfectionism in various ways, for example by co-occurring with it, or by being involved in perfectionistic concerns.


Perfectionistic procrastinators

There’s no universal definition for what constitutes a perfectionistic procrastinator. Nevertheless, this term generally refers to people who suffer from substantial procrastination that’s caused primarily by their perfectionism. For example, an artist can be considered a perfectionistic procrastinator if they unnecessarily delay publishing their work for a long time, because they worry the public won’t think it’s perfect.

In addition, the term “perfectionistic procrastinator” can be when perfectionism is only one of the key causes of a person’s procrastination, in conjunction with other key causes as descriptors. For example, if someone procrastinates due to a combination of perfectionism and depression, then they may be referred to as a perfectionistic and depressed procrastinator.


Dealing with perfectionistic procrastination

If you realize that your perfectionism is causing you to procrastinate, there are several key things that you can do about it:

  • Set reasonable goals and standards. This doesn’t mean that you should aim low, but rather that you should assess the situation, to determine what performance will be good enough for you to achieve what you want and need to achieve.
  • Focus on yourself, rather than on others. Many of the issues associated with perfectionism come from caring too much about what others expect of you, or about what others will say or think. If this is a problem for you, then you should instead focus on goals and standards that you set for yourself, and minimize the degree to which you care about other people’s opinions.
  • Question and address your fears. For example, if you realize that you’re afraid of someone criticizing you for not having perfect work, you can ask yourself things such as “how likely is it that they will actually care if I make some small mistakes” or “so what if this person criticizes my work?”. When doing this, it could help to use self-distancing techniques, for example by asking yourself “why should you care so about making small mistakes?” or by considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation.
  • Consider the negative impact of your perfectionism. For example, you might consider how your perfectionism-driven procrastination means that you’re not getting any feedback on your work, which is preventing you from making progress.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re writing a paper, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft. Essentially, you should avoid an all-or-nothing approach, both when it comes to your work, and when it comes to your attempts to reduce procrastination (i.e., don’t let perfect become the enemy of good enough).
  • Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
  • Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassionself-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner. There are many techniques for doing this, including some that are particularly relevant in the case of perfectionism, such as changing your critical self-talk to make it more positive and compassionate.
  • Get support and encouragement from others. For example, you can talk with a professional therapist about your perfectionistic concerns, or you can ask a friend to be by your side and motivate you when it’s time to act. If you’re reluctant to ask for help because of your perfectionism, remind yourself that it’s perfectly fine and normal to ask for help, and that doing so can help you achieve better outcomes and feel better in the long term.

Before choosing which of these techniques to use, you should assess your perfectionism and procrastination, to understand how they’re connected. This can help you figure out which specific aspects of your perfectionism you should address and how you should address them.

In addition, there are many other anti-procrastination techniques that you might benefit from using to reduce your perfectionism-driven procrastination. These include the following:

  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, such as writing a research paper, you can break it down into a series of small steps, such as creating an outline, finding relevant resources, and writing the introduction.
  • Start with a tiny step. For example, commit to writing only a single sentence or exercising for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
  • Switch between tasks. For example, if you’re stuck on a task and can’t make progress, switch to a different task until you’re ready to go back to the first one.
  • Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your study goals for a week in a row.
  • Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
  • Improve your work environment. For example, if your current work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
  • Get enough rest. For example, if you need to work hard on tasks that require deep concentration, make sure to take enough breaks that you don’t get burnt out. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest can reduce your productivity in the short term, it will often be much better for you in the long term, both in terms of your productivity and in terms of your wellbeing.
  • Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have postponed this task in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just get this done”.

Before using these techniques, you should figure out why you procrastinate, especially if there are other reasons for your procrastination beyond perfectionism, as well as when and how you procrastinate. This will then help you find the best anti-procrastination techniques to use in your particular situation, and will also figure out how to use these techniques as effectively as possible.