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By Mark Mifsud
About the Author
Mark Mifsud started studying Psychology, Hypnosis & The Mind at a very young age and although initially it was for a personal need, he immediately fell in love with the subject for life till he started helping others. He is the author of Ultimate Procrastination Cure , a self help book which is the result of an extensive study on the common habits and thinking patterns of over 20 highly successful people. He is currently authoring his second book with others planned after that. Meanwhile his discoveries have served him to be adopted as a motivational coach by a handful of individuals. Mark currently lives on the Mediterranean island of Malta and earns a living by working as a Currency Trader. In his spare time he enjoys following the video games industry and practicing martial arts. He is also known to have a sense of humour and to reward himself for jobs well done with small amounts of chocolate to keep his motivation at an all time high.
Is it possible that one of the causes of procrastination you need to resolve is perfectionism? The following article will help you to tackle this particular cause whether you are: 1) An individual struggling with procrastination 2) A motivational coach or therapist willing to help others 3) A member or leader of a team that is losing motivation 4) Living with a person who’s constant criticism is draining your energy and motivation I decided to write this because we often hear that perfectionism can cause procrastination but then we are given a very inaccurate reason why. Sometimes the advice given has nothing to do with perfectionism itself. When this happens on the internet or worse, in self-help material people have actually paid for; we the benevolent experts, are doing these people a disservice. Please, let us be sensitive and accurate. Here we have people who are searching for a solution to their procrastination, or who want to improve their performance in general. They find an article or a blog hoping that it will give them a new insight into their problem that will get them unstuck. Sometimes we get them to attend our seminars and buy our books and programs through some sales pitch. Eventually they read about perfectionism and this argument is vague and misleading so they end up wasting their time following the wrong advice. Why am I saying this?
Because some of our advice has been misleading. Here is a case in point: The experts tell us "Don't wait till everything is perfectly planned, or you'll never get started." Within the same paragraph, we will find this is mistakenly called perfectionism. This is misleading for three reasons. First reason is; the one above is not the definition of a perfectionist. That is the definition of one who plans ahead too much. Sure, I agree that some people spend so much time planning that they never get started, but that is not necessarily a sign of procrastination due to perfectionism. The person could be feeling some fear of failure or fear of success and that would be the reason for procrastination. It is the cause that should be treated. The over planning is the symptom; the person is over planning to avoid the failure or to avoid feeling guilty about delaying another day. Treating the symptom is the worse suggestion that can be given and that is what the above advice is telling us to do. The second reason is; over planners will know they are not perfectionists because they will know themselves usually better than the expert does. Over planners have no idea when it is too much! Dear expert, your knowledge is precious, but a mistake like that will have the person who mostly needs to follow that advice to lose credibility in you; you won't be able to help people with mistakes like these. If perfectionists are to be helped, they must first be made aware of what the term means because no real perfectionist considers him or herself a perfectionist. This leads us to the third reason why the above advice is misleading. It is because it leaves out the true perfectionist who is actually procrastinating because of his or her perfectionism. Here is another example. We recommend people to find someone to whom they can be accountable, as a solution for procrastination. Some people expect to be self accountable before they have learnt to be accountable to others. This is unrealistic, but not necessarily a sign of perfectionism. It could be that the person values independence, is a loner or an introvert but not necessarily a perfectionist. To some extent we all have some perfectionist traits. Some have less and some have more. You could be a non-perfectionist in some area of life, say your relationships but have the procrastination pattern of the perfectionist in another area. One in every nine persons is estimated to be a perfectionist, or at least that is my non scientific but educated guess. I have yet to see anyone talking about procrastination who actually knows what perfectionism is (most of them are business people non psychologists). So let's get that cleared up. The perfectionist is a person who is always insisting that things should be the best they can possibly be.
There are only a very few people who want things to be perfect all the time. These take the above definition to its extreme and we call them obsessive people but the majority of perfectionists are none like that. How do you know if you’re a perfectionist or not? If you label everything as either good or bad, black or white with no shade of grey in between, if you judge and weigh everything, if you feel anger very often you have the personality of a perfectionist. A better description follows. Perfectionists get angry very easily, are highly opinionated, criticise a lot and constantly criticise themselves. They are very conscious of how they appear and what they do because they believe others are as critical of them as they are. Their inner critic is obeyed as it were the voice of God Almighty Himself which shouts instructions at them constantly "sit properly, get your keys ready, move a bit to the right, yeah there, take a look around..." They usually admire Thomas Edison's quote that says "I cannot look at something without feeling the desire to improve it". That quote is the central element of the perfectionist mindset. The perfectionist thinks that there are standards to be met, and life revolves around achieving standards. So how do these people relate to procrastination? Many of them define themselves as hard working but one could be working hard at a task in order to avoid another, which is of course procrastination. Usually once they manage to get started on the right task they can carry on. That said, they have no problem finding energy since their anger provides it. They have no problem knowing what to do since the inner critic directs their actions. However their real problem is their perception of people and the world. They mistakenly believe that the other eight out of nine people are constantly criticising them with the same seriousness they criticise everything. Dear perfectionist, most people do not care less about most of what you do and say. They procrastinate in their interactions with people. They are especially afraid of asking questions about stuff they don't know because they have an image to maintain. Their greatest fear is humiliation. Usually when young you will find them procrastinating at things like studying for exams. The reason is pride but they call it self esteem. If they don't pass the exam they can say to themselves and others that it's because they didn't study, they appear cool in their peer's eyes. If they somehow pass the exams they can boast that they didn't even study! Anything goes, as long as humiliation is avoided first. They will get angry with themselves for failing, but not publicly, or they will be judged.
The world is perceived as filled with imperfections and the idea that plans will always find something to screw them up is always at the back of their mind, it has to be in order for them to complete their ongoing mission of improving everything in the world. Another source of their procrastination is their valuing of their inner critic. They may never start or continue a project before the authority of their inner critic is established within the team. They may be good at finding faults and suggest alternatives but they are a pain to work with and most people will find them demotivating at best and spirit breaking at worse. All in spite of their noble intentions. Perfectionists don’t only procrastinate when their image is at stake; they also cause others to procrastinate. Nobody likes to be constantly criticised. Constructive criticism is one thing, but perfectionist do it with an attitude that leaves more destruction than improvement. When perfectionists meet their own high standards they don’t reward themselves. One perfectionist once told me; “I promised myself that if I complete my term paper in a week I’d give myself a reward by going out to the cinema and watch two movies. I worked hard all week and when I finally completed my work I decided to just lie down and relax. After all my purpose for rewarding myself was to complete the paper so now that it was done I didn’t really need it”. This attitude that “one should be capable of motivating himself without any external rewards” is a causes of future procrastination. This guy was teaching his mind that promised rewards will never come, and now he was complaining because all of a sudden his burning passion for something he wished to do was dead. I had to retrain his mind to see his goals as motivating ones, but first I had him eliminate the belief that he had standards to meet. The only required standard was how happy he and those around him could be when he is following and reaching his positive goal. I also made sure that we had established a habit in his mind to reward himself. Associating pleasure to reaching goals again was a must. How do we beat procrastination and other negative effects of perfectionism? By neutralising the inner critic and this is done by exposing it for what it really is. It is an irrational, impractical and unnecessary thought that one adopts early in life when he or she doesn't know better. Then we provide alternative thoughts to guide the person; ones that work better in real life.
Here is what perfectionists need to do to neutralise the negative effects: 1) Realise that voice was adopted because you were criticised by an apparent authority figure when you were young. Your mind is mimicking someone else who may not be as bright as you used to believe back then. Why let it run your life? Find (or decide) your true self and let it run the show. 2) Realise that the world is not criticising you. If your hair is not well groomed barely anyone will care. Some won’t even care even if it is a real mess. Most people are not perfectionists, they don’t bother much. Those who are; probably have nothing special that makes their opinion count more. 3) Realise that wanting things to be the absolute best they can be is a vague and an illusory goal. There is always UNLIMITED room for improvement of anything, ask any music composer or paint artist. Such goals are also so unrealistic that they are out of practical reality. You don't have to be as perfect as possible, you have to be as practical as possible. 4) Realise that your inner critic is not always right. You are not really seeing the big picture. You are right only as far as you can perceive, but you are not really seeing everything. 5) Realise that the world is not made of extremes. Not everything is good or bad, nice or ugly, white or black, there are shades of grey. A healthy human eye can be trained to distinguish over 256 different shades of grey. Can you allow your mind to be open to different possibilities? Wouldn’t it be more honest and realistic to see the varieties which are not at the extreme? 6) Reward yourself for all good things you accomplish – you can’t learn to be motivated without a reward unless you first learn to be motivated with a reward. Condition your mind to associate reward with positive accomplishment. 7) Realise that when you ask questions to those who know more than you, these people will appreciate your interest and the fact you are valuing them. They are not seeing an ignorant person but a loving one who is wise enough to value their knowledge. What you learn for them will add value to you as well. 8) Realise that there are more disadvantages than benefits to your critical approach. You are destroying motivation in other people and that's very bad team management. People are not robots. They have feelings that more than anything else affect their performance. They are also free NOT to be under the slavery of your inner critic... like you are. They are free agents and you can do nothing about it! 9) Soften the voice of the inner critic, lower its volume, make it pleasant, make it say nice things. Agree with it to catch you and others doing something right and build on the positive rather than try to correct the negative. It will resist at first, but not that much. After all, you and the critical voice have a common goal which is bettering yourself and
the world. You are just deciding upon using another approach; one that has proven to be more constructive and effective throughout centuries. 10) Use the kind of positive thinking that works. Catching people doing something right will help the team to feel motivated, united and focused on doing things well, instead of avoiding what is bad. They will love your positive transformation and will want to do more good things to see you noticing them and get your encouragement. That is good team spirit. Use it, now that you know better. 11) Learn to improve serious imperfections the happy way. You may still notice and talk about things that can be improved. However, correction works much better when it is NOT done in a critical manner. From now on instead of saying "That's all wrong, they're going to fire us," you can try exclaiming "Hey guys I have come up with these amazing ideas, do you think we can somehow manage to implement them in time?" You’re essentially aiming for the same goal, but the approach is one that works much better. 12) Realise that “The means to an end are not equally good or effective”. The positive end does not justify any mean, it only justifies the benefits of the end! I used to be a perfectionist before I learned to program my mind at will, so I sympathise a lot with these people. Yet, I would never go back to being one because I now realise that perfectionism is not realism. The intentions are good, but the approach doesn’t work. Certainly, I miss the drive anger used to provide me with, but I have learnt to motivate myself with excitement instead, which feels better and is certainly much healthier for my mind, my body and the people close to me.
I hope the above hints will be helpful for us 'the experts of good will' who are out to help people to lead better lives, as well as anyone living with a perfectionist. Most especially if that perfectionist is in the same body you find yourself in!
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