Procrastination and its Links to Perfectionism

Procrastination and its Links to Perfectionism…Plus 7 Simple Steps You Can Take to Banish Procrastination for Good (feat. guest Roseanne Connolly)

Is procrastination just another word for a lack of willpower or getting your priorities right? Or is it the result of high standards and perfectionism?

On the surface, procrastination may seem to be an action compelled by apathy. However, once we look deeper, it’s clear that this issue is more complex than it seems.

We’ll be taking a look at the psychology behind the issue, as well as advice for how to overcome procrastination, with insights from Roseanne Connolly, Chartered Company Secretary & Governance Professional, and the current APAI Executive Committee Chair.


The Psychology of Procrastination


Perfectionism is often suggested as the root cause of procrastination. The idea is that the perfectionist fears being anything less-than perfect, and therefore will often put off this task to which they’ve attached an impossibly high standard.

Studies into the link between perfectionism and procrastination have had varied results. For example, this article purports that the link between perfectionism and procrastination is a myth. However, there are a number of studies that refute this notion: for example, this study (albeit related to academic students), highlights the positive correlation between procrastination and perfectionism.

Another study also contains findings that argue for the procrastination-perfectionism relationship, detailing the ‘discrepancies’ between how a person views themselves, and how they think they should be. The researchers’ findings indicate that individuals with wider ‘discrepancies’ tend to procrastinate more, as they assume they will not achieve the standards they have set out for themselves: ‘The perception of falling short of one’s own standards does not bolster task-approach; rather, it triggers procrastination.’ It’s a sort of all or nothing mindset: if I can’t do it perfectly, what’s the point?

In Roseanne’s experience, there is a definite link between the two. ‘I can only speak for myself but have met others with similar behaviours. I try to design/imagine the most perfect, effective, efficient outcome and then I re-design and improve. This all happens in my mind though. The task/event is then procrastinated because of 1) the pursuit of perfection and b) being a procrastinator!’

What’s more, we know that putting off a task often involves completing another less urgent task in its place. While this is purely anecdotal evidence, it supports the idea that apathy isn’t necessarily what’s really going on here.

Present Self vs. Future Self and Immediate Gratification

The disconnect we feel between our present selves and our future selves is one of the biggest hurdles in reaching our goals. A classic example of this is the infamous marshmallow test, in which children were given one marshmallow, and told that if they refrained from eating it, they would get a second one after fifteen minutes. As expected, many of the children (2 out of 3) couldn’t resist the temptation, and gave in to the immediate gratification of eating their one and only marshmallow. Here we see a clear example of people prioritising their present selves and sabotaging future goals and long-term benefits.

Reassuringly it’s a human tendency to seek immediate gratification and to struggle with self-control, so we needn’t feel ashamed of our procrastinating ways. If we’re looking to change our habits, however, understanding the ‘why’ behind our behaviour is the first step.

Once we do this, we can reconcile our future selves with our present selves and begin to break the habit.

The Pros and Cons

There are some positives we can glean from procrastination. For example, many of us thrive under pressure, and if procrastination is good for anything – it’s for turning up the heat.

While Roseanne can find some benefits to procrastination, ultimately she deems it as less than effective: ‘The only positive aspect I can think of is that the delay sometimes allows more information to come to light which can be helpful. Overall, I would recommend not procrastinating.’

It’s a safe bet to say that most of us would agree with Roseanne. Let’s face it: procrastination usually makes us feel bad. Even though we’re obtaining the instant gratification of not having to do the task at hand, putting off an important task only worsens the feelings of anxiety, as we now must feel anxious about not getting it done in time. Another shortcoming of putting things off is that you may not leave sufficient time to deal with unexpected roadblocks that may crop up closer to the deadline. As event and project managers we know this all too well and it’s always a good idea to allow for contingencies should things not go to plan.

Simple Steps to Overcome Procrastination

Understanding the cause of procrastination, and recognising the drawbacks will set you on the right path to breaking this habit. Here are 7 simple steps you can take to change your ways:

  • Increase the chance for immediate rewards and/or immediate consequences. For example, a long-term benefit of exercising might be to lose weight, whereas a short-term ‘reward’ of exercising is better sleep. Conversely, an immediate consequence here might be that choosing not to exercise today will mean you won’t sleep as soundly tonight. Another approach is to incorporate something you enjoy into the task that you’re dreading, for example listening to your favourite podcast while you clean the kitchen.
  • Obtain a deeper understanding of how your decisions in the present will affect you in the future.
  • Recognise that the cons of procrastination outweigh the pros, as detailed above.

The biggest hurdle for many people, and especially for procrastinators, is getting started. This tends to happen as we build up a task in our heads, making it out to be more tedious or time-consuming than it will be in reality. How many times have you started something and thought, ‘this isn’t as bad as I thought it would be’?

You can mitigate this by carrying out any or all of the following steps:

  • Make starting easier, e.g. having an easily accessible and tidy workspace, ensure you have the necessary software installed, etc.
  • Obtain a deeper understanding of how your decisions in the present will affect you in the future.
  • Make your ‘start’ as effective as possible. This will be different for everyone. Some will prefer to start with the easiest task, some will prefer the hardest – there are pros and cons to each. [Check out Brian Tracy’s Eat that Frog book for more on that].  Starting with the most straightforward of tasks eases you into your workload, and allows you to shorten your to-do list easily, leaving the remainder of the work seem less intimidating.  However, this does mean that you have all the difficult tasks to ‘look forward’ to afterwards. Kicking things off with the hardest task can be draining, leaving you demotivated to continue with the rest of your workload enthusiastically. However, it gets the worst of it out of the way quickly…the most important thing here is to find what works for you, what causes the least amount of anxiety and ultimately gets you to your end goal faster

Just as procrastination becomes a habit, avoiding procrastination is also a habit that you need to develop. Taking small steps and applying the guidelines mentioned in this article to your daily working routine is a good strategy to begin to form more efficient habits that will last a lifetime.

Roseanne Connolly will be speaking at the Executive PA Forum 2020. Read more about the details of her talk, as well as info on the rest of the speaker line-up here:

References: – Procrastination and the perfectionism myth

Study – Perfectionism and academic procrastination

Study – Clarifying the perfectionism-procrastination relationship using a 7-day, 14-occasion daily diary study