I have a confession to make: I’m a recovering perfectionist.
In high school, I was able to breeze through most of my classes. I could procrastinate and still manage to do really good work, even if I didn’t manage to start my homework until the morning it was due. I started taking university classes in high school, and this was only marginally more difficult…I could often get by with starting things the night before. And then I went to a big name college, and found out that I couldn’t procrastinate at all. My perfectionism became a problem in college. Deadlines became terrifying…and still are.
It turns out that procrastination is a sign of perfectionism, along with several other signs. People don’t like to start things that they are afraid they can’t do, well, perfectly. I didn’t know I was a perfectionist, however, until I had kids and found out that they were perfectionists. It is, apparently, genetic. I knew I had some procrastination issues, but didn’t realize that they were a sign of perfectionism until I started trying to find ways to deal with my kids’ perfectionism (and, very often procrastination).
I found in college that I could no longer wait until the night before the deadline and still turn in a perfect paper. In fact, I couldn’t turn in a perfect paper at all. This caused me to think I was a failure and started hopping majors. Later, I did find one or two areas where I really excelled…but then returned to physics because I discovered there wasn’t much challenge in doing something perfectly. I guess there’s a lot more thrill in doing something hard and getting it mostly right than in doing something easy and getting it all right.
In order to get through my MS, I had to face my perfectionism head on. I had to find ways to overcome this inertia of not doing things because I knew I couldn’t do them perfectly. I have a few tactics for dealing with this.
First, I make a list of all the tasks I need to accomplish. It always seems too long and very daunting, but I start with the small, quick, and easy stuff. I try to do some of those first. I find that once I have accomplished a few things, I feel more confident and mentally willing to tackle something larger.
Second, I force myself to do things for just fifteen minutes. “I can write on this topic for fifteen minutes.” I try to do this at the beginning of a long span of time so that, if I really get into it, I can continue. Once I’m into it, I will often realize that I had nothing to be worried about and am enjoying what I’m doing…so then I’ll keep going. It doesn’t always work. There are days when I obviously don’t have the focus or another project has me more anxious than the one I’m working on, so I know I need to shift gears. Sometimes I have to just be happy with fifteen minutes, but this is usually not the case.
Third, I break down big projects. Way down. Down to minutia. Find something, no matter how small it is, that can be accomplished in a small amount of time. “Read a paper.” If I do that and try not to worry about what I’m going to do with the information, it’s a lot less daunting.
Finally, I set deadlines. Or rather, I get other people to set deadlines for me. This one is very stressful, so I try not to do it too much. I find that I like to do things thoroughly (again, probably because I want it perfect), so I try to make the deadlines so that they are reasonable and I don’t feel like I’m giving the person a piece of trash. (Of course, I tend to always feel that way, so it’s hard to find the right balance.)
Do you have a hard time starting things? How do you deal with it?