Getting started is hard to do

Getting started is hard to do

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?


I generally try to find some motivation to do it, helping some one for instance.
Probably not so useful to people looking to tackle this at work 🙂
Great post.

After many years in engineering I have found that you need to be able to throw stuff away. Don’t spend too much time trying to get the first attempts perfect lest you have so much invested that you can’t bring yourself to scrap it and start over. Also, I feel that you need to spin your wheels for a while before beginning a complex task. I go over a problem in my mind for quite a while and maybe make a few scratches on paper to help me get a good picture of what I need to accomplish.

I too am a recovering perfectionist and I still have a procrastination issue. Like right now, where I’m procrastinating on EngineerBlogs rather than doing something more useful.

I have tried to raise my children with the goal that “done” is more important than “perfect” if one has to choose.

As an artist, I have had to come to terms with the fact that the only way to truly improve upon my art, is to be willing to produce junk. (I think NaNoWriMo is all about breaking through that kind of writer’s block.)

When I was a child, I loved math, because I could always know if I had done it exactly right.

Then silly me, I became a mental health professional. There is no such thing as perfect in this profession.

So what have I found out about how to not be a perfectionist? It is the irony that the only way to get past the “do it perfectly or don’t do it at all” problem, is to PRACTICE IMPERFECTION. Expanding my range of personal comfort when working at something I am not already at least excellent at, has come mostly from forcing myself to do get used to experiencing working on something I cannot immediately–or ever–be perfect at.

Ah! I just read your comment. I make some similar observations in my comment, which were highlighted to me by one of the professors at Uni.

God, this post is so me I can’t believe it! I could have written your first 3 paragraphs – word for word! How weird is it that I’m also a physics major turned electrical engineer finishing up her PhD (in engineering) in midlife?

My coping strategies are similar to yours. I get into a task by tackling something small and manageable first, because nine times out of ten, I get “wrapped up” in the project like this and then, once I get going, it’s incredibly easy for me to stay motivated.

My recovery from perfectionism has been aided by having the opportunity to work alongside a scientist that I really admired. Watching how productive he is because he makes intelligent choices about what to spend his time on has really inspired me to let the little things go and put my work out there a lot sooner than I would have before.

But how do you know when procrastination is about being lazy, not wanting to do it, or Perfectionism? I was label a Perfectionist in college when going for my BT in Network Administration. It mostly hit me in my writing assignments. The question relates to my guilt about being labeled a Perfectionist since my GPA ~2.7 might suggest otherwise.

I, too, have perfectionist tendencies. The best way I found to cure myself odf this problem was when I started doing Stained Glass work. You can not be a perfectionist here because you can do some serious damage to the piece you are working on or even your self. I’ve often suggested it to others as a way to learn no to be a perfectionist. And with your post I realized I need to start working on Stained Glass projects again. I’m starting to fall into some of my old habits.

I have always suffered from procrastination as well. And I have also since learned that I am a perfectionist, which is simultaneously an asset and a burden.

Back when I was at Uni, I was given an assignment by a digital electronics professor. I was *very* interested in the assignment, and I poured my heart and soul into it. I knew I wanted it to be my best work, and I agonised over it for weeks. At the end, when I handed it in, I was exhausted.

A few weeks later, we get our marks back and I am aghast.


70 percent!!! Why so low? What was wrong with it? Where did the thirty marks go?!

So I approached the lecturer with my discontent. He just stared at me with a confused look on his face.
“What’s wrong?”, he asked. “You got 70%. That equates to a distinction, the highest grade you can get. You did good, well done”.

“Yes,” said I, “but I want to know where my thirty marks went. I want you to take me through my assignment and point out all of its inadequacies, the sum of which total thirty lost marks.”

So, after some time arguing and debating, the lecturer finally turns to me and says:

“Look, kid. You’ll never get more than 70% in my class. No matter how well you do. 70% is a distinction and that’s the best grade you can get. Stop looking for perfection because you’ll never find it in this class. If you REALLY want perfection, and you want to get 100% in an assignment, then there’s only one thing you can do.”

Puzzled, I asked “what’s that?”

“Simple!” he laughs. “Quit Engineering. Go and study math.”

PS: The lecturer wasn’t trying to say that math is easy. Far from it. He was merely pointing out than in math there is no grey area. If you’re good enough at it, and you strive for perfection, then technically you can achieve a 100% grade. But in Engineering there is always grey area, and for that reason you will never ever achieve true perfection. If you’re a perfectionist, this fact will probably torment you for the rest of your life.

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