Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
December 9, 2023

The Paradox of Procrastination and Perfectionism: Breaking the Cycle

Have you ever found yourself procrastinating to start a task, work toward a goal, or complete a project? If so, you’re probably familiar with the attitude of confusion, discomfort, or shame that can accompany procrastination. You might find yourself berating yourself and wondering why you can’t just do the thing already. After all, you know you’d feel better if only you could just get started. So what gives?

People who chronically procrastinate are often perfectionists. Perfectionism is the drive to achieve impossibly high standards all the time – and it’s fueled by anxiety. This can include anxiety about failing, about not being good enough, or about what not achieving something means about you as a person. Perfectionism and anxiety make the stakes to do anything really high. As a result, you procrastinate in order to avoid falling below your perfect standards. But as you know, procrastination makes you stressed, tired, and burned out.

If this cycle sounds familiar, you’re not alone. I’m a therapist for anxious millennials, and many of my clients come to me wanting help breaking free from the procrastination-perfectionism loop. Here’s what you need to know to understand the links between procrastination, perfectionism, and anxiety, and what it takes to break out of the vicious cycle. 

Perfectionism and procrastination

The Link Between Procrastination and Perfectionism

Procrastination and perfectionism are intrinsically linked. If you’re a perfectionist, you probably put a lot of pressure on yourself to do things a certain way. You likely have a very black-and-white viewpoint around something either being perfect or being a failure.

Signs of a perfectionist include:

  • Wanting to do things the “right” way
  • Wanting to always be “good enough”
  • Having higher standards for yourself than for others
  • Fear of making mistakes
  • Frequent or intrusive thoughts about failure
  • Spending a lot of time getting the details of tasks or projects just right
  • Anxiety at work
  • Working long hours
  • Avoiding situations where you risk being bad at something

As a perfectionist, you know how hard it is to actually attain perfection. Achieving your own high standards feels impossible, but you believe that not achieving the marks you set for yourself means you’re a failure. You’re terrified of what might happen if you fail.

These high stakes mean you end up procrastinating in order to avoid the discomfort of inferiority or failure. But the more you procrastinate on something, the more you reinforce the idea that you have to produce perfection in order to be worthwhile. So when you procrastinate, you’re unknowingly strengthening your own tendency toward perfectionism. 

Anxiety, Procrastination, and Perfectionism

Procrastination isn’t always correlated with perfectionism. Sometimes other factors, like exhaustion or burnout, can play a role. If you have no energy to do anything, you’re more likely to procrastinate on tasks that require mental or physical effort. If you’re struggling to do anything, and feel lethargic or irritable most of the time, you may be dealing with burnout. 

However, procrastination is usually about something other than burnout. I worked with a client recently who procrastinated on job applications for her dream job, even though her current career was making  her miserable. When we dug into why, we discovered she’s terrified of two things: change and her own success. In particular, she believed that she didn’t really deserve to be happy or successful. 

Self-limiting beliefs like this can cause procrastination and other forms of avoidance. If you believe something about yourself, whether it’s negative or positive, it will impact the course of your life. Additionally, fear of the unknown is common. It’s especially common when you’re worried you won’t be able to handle whatever happens.

The unifying factor between procrastination, perfectionism, and this client’s fears is anxiety. Perfectionism, at its core, is anxiety about what will happen to you if you fail or aren’t “good enough.” Will you be called a fraud? Laughed at? Rejected by colleagues or loved ones? Fired? And if you’re afraid of change, that usually means you’re afraid you won’t be able to cope with the new situations brought on by that change. 

All of these fears can lead to procrastination in order to push away the discomfort of anxiety. In order to break the cycle of perfectionism and procrastination, you have to understand what you’re afraid of in the first place, and then face your anxieties directly. 

Procrastination at work

Procrastination at Work

Procrastination can impact lots of areas of your life. My clients struggle with procrastinating on things from buying gifts for loved ones to avoiding important work deadlines. Putting things off in the workplace tends to cause the most distress among my clients. This is largely due to how important jobs are in our culture. They’re a metric of success and are where many of us receive validation of our worthiness. Furthermore, they provide us with things like financial stability and healthcare, which we need in order to survive.

Unfortunately, workplace procrastination can cause problems with your boss or coworkers, decrease job satisfaction, put you at risk for losing your job or receiving lower pay, and impair your mental health. Here are some ways procrastination at work can show up:

  • Spending time doing unimportant or trivial activities (such as scrolling on your phone or answering emails) while avoiding important projects
  • Staying “busy” but not on tasks that require the most effort or attention
  • Taking excessive or extra-long breaks
  • Making to-do lists and being unable to complete the most important things on the list

Many people think they have weak self-control or discipline if they procrastinate, but this is not the case. A strong sense of self-discipline can only take you so far if you’re struggling with underlying perfectionism, anxiety, fatigue, or burnout. These underlying factors have to be addressed in order to stop the cycle of procrastination for good. 

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Address the Cycle of Perfectionism and Procrastination

If you’re tired of the neverending loop of perfectionism, procrastination, and anxiety, I'm here to help. Together we can address the underlying issues below your procrastination so you can break free from the cycle. 

Through our work, we’ll figure out what’s causing your procrastination. I’ll help you face your unique anxieties and perfectionism head-on. I’ll support you in reframing your thoughts, fears, and beliefs. We’ll make sure your work environment is setting you up for success. And we’ll get you the support and care you need in order to end the procrastination and perfectionism cycle for good.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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