Perfectionism was drilled into me at an early age. In school, anything less than an “A” was unacceptable. True story: I once got a 96% on a math test, and my dad wanted to know what happened to the other 4%. Although this pressure to be a high-achiever gave me many advantages and opportunities, it also came with a hefty price tag: a belief that my parents’ approval (and that of society at large) was conditional on academic and career success; a fear of trying anything new lest I not be able to learn it quickly and therefore excel at it; and a life-long struggle with procrastination.
The dark underbelly of perfectionism is procrastination — I’m more inclined to put off or avoid tasks rather than risk not doing a good job at them. Of course, everyone’s definition of ‘perfect’ or ‘good job’ is relative. Just before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, when I was feeling particularly anxious about being able to run my venues to the high-standard I felt was expected, one of my colleagues who had worked many Olympic Games and other big events said something that really stuck with me: high-achievers and “type A” personalities like us will work ourselves the point of exhaustion to deliver 110%; but our clients and most other people won’t really notice or think anything’s amiss if we only deliver 90% of what we’re capable. It wasn’t about lowering our standards — this was the Olympics, after all — but simply realizing and accepting that sometimes our idea of “perfect” goes far beyond what others expect of us.
The self-help books say that procrastination is fueled not by laziness but by fear — either fear of failure or fear of success. Often the result is a form of paralysis: we end up becoming unable to take action or make progress towards our goals.
The “fear of failure” thing strikes a cord with me, and in my case perfectionism and procrastination manifest themselves as a prolonged planning process. As I alluded to in an earlier blog post, I’m toying with the idea of opening a bookstore. Since the Games ended, I’ve had just over two months with nothing but free time on my hands to really develop this idea and take action towards making it a reality. But if I take a serious, honest look at what I’ve really accomplished in that time, the answer is a frustrating “yeah, not so much.”
My “to do” list looks depressingly pretty much the same as it did back in April. Nope, still haven’t contacted the local Business Improvement Association to find out what programs or resources they might have. Still haven’t made an appointment with my bank to discuss small business loans. Still haven’t used the Small Business BC business plan review service to get feedback on my idea. So why not? Why do I spend my days reading up on retail best practices and looking for market research reports to support my plans and endlessly editing my business plan and brainstorming all of the fun and cool marketing ideas and displays and events I want my hypothetical store to have, instead of actually focusing my attention and efforts on the tasks that might make it a reality?
I’ll admit it: I’m afraid. I’m afraid everyone will tell me that my idea is stupid and that I’m ridiculously unqualified to open a retail store. I’m also afraid that they’ll like the plan, because then I might actually have to take the personal and financial risk of opening the store and having it not be 100% perfect from the get-go.
And so I keep procrastinating, planning, researching, reading, trying to know everything, instead of just jumping in and risking being anything less than perfect. Hell, even this blog post is a form of procrastination: rather than tackling my problem head-on, why not just write about it?
I’m trying to make my new mantra progress, not perfection but it continues to be a challenge.
What are your procrastination pitfalls, and how do you try to overcome them? Let me know in the comments.