Perfect procrastination

Perfectionism is often blamed for procrastination. John Perry explains:

Many procrastinators do not realize that they are perfectionists, for the simple reason that they have never done anything perfectly, or even nearly so… Perfectionism is a matter of fantasy, not reality. Here’s how it works in my case.  I am assigned some task, say, refereeing a manuscript for a publisher… Immediately my fantasy life kicks in. I imagine myself writing the most wonderful referees report. I imagine giving the manuscript an incredibly thorough read, and writing a report that helps the author to greatly improve their efforts.  I imagine the publisher getting my report and saying, “Wow, that is the best referee report I have ever read.” I imagine my report being completely accurate, completely fair, incredibly helpful to author and publisher.

At first Perry seems to suggest that the perfectionist tries to do the job too well and gets sidetracked on tangential stepping stones, which doesn’t sound accurate. Then he says:

Procrastinating was a way of giving myself permission to do a less than perfect job on a task that didn’t require a perfect job. As long as the deadline was a ways away, then, in theory, I had time to go the library, or set myself up for a long evening at home, and do a thorough, scholarly, perfect job refereeing this book. But when the deadline is near, or even a bit in the past, there is no longer time to do a perfect job. I have to just sit down and do an imperfect, but adequate job.

But why would you be so willing to give yourself permission to do something else unproductive for six weeks so you will have to do an imperfect job if you aren’t willing to permit an imperfect job straight off?  If you’re such a perfectionist, wouldn’t you want to get started straight away and do a perfect job?

Here’s an alternative theory. The link between procrastination and perfectionism has to do with construal level theory. When you picture getting started straight away the close temporal distance puts you in near mode, where you see all the detailed impediments to doing a perfect job. When you think of doing the task in the future some time, trade-offs and barriers vanish and the glorious final goal becomes more vivid. So it always seems like you will do a great job in the future, whereas right now progress is depressingly slow and complicated. This makes doing it in the future seem all the more of a good option if you are obsessed with perfection.

Relatedly, similar tasks designed to prompt far mode increase procrastination over those designed to prompt near mode (summarygated paper). Perhaps you mostly feel the contrast if you start in far mode, since to do the task you must eventually edge closer near mode? If you start in near mode you can stay there. The kind of trade-off-free perfectionistic fantasizing Perry describes sounds like introducing all tasks to oneself in far mode. I have no time to think about it further; I must return to turning pages and making squiggles with my inky purple pen.

12 responses to “Perfect procrastination

  1. This is a truly excellent idea. So good that I think it might even help me.

  2. Aha! So this is why I only have trouble getting started, but once I begin am unstoppable.

  3. Most people feel like @sark above, once you start rolling, stuff keeps getting out. I have been a perfectionist for a long while… Now, I try to be only a perfectionist when I’m using continuous improvement, i.e. I work a little on that very imperfect task polishing it slowly until it is almost perfect.

    And when I need to get rolling, I use timeboxing to plan my day and kick some tasks (trying not to allocate more than 2 or 3 hours of completely focused work!)



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  7. >But why would you be so willing to give yourself permission to do something else unproductive for six weeks so you will have to do an imperfect job if you aren’t willing to permit an imperfect job straight off?

    Because the plan to do something else unproductive, executed over a six-week time-course, involves far-mode thinking; whereas, permitting an imperfect job straight off involves near-mode thinking. A construal-level-theory analysis answers your question–if you factor in the findings that values and goals are far mode. You think all would be well if we stayed in near mode and just faced off against the obstacles. Good luck with that! I hope you report the results of that experiment.

    The reason we go to far mode is that’s where our goal- and value-based thinking gains traction. What it comes up with are solutions implemented in the future, because that’s the kind of function far mode serves. Described in near mode, fine grain, these solutions are termed procrastination. In far mode, they are good example of solutions implemented in the future at which far mode excels. To the extent we rely on our goals and values, we have few degrees of freedom with respect to the construal level at which we approach them. Procrastination is the price of the unregimented life, since habit, routine, and occasional acts of will power are the only near alternatives.

  8. Out at last! The Last Word on Procrastination: An Integration of construal-level theory, ego-depletion theory, and the irreversibility-of-writing approach

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  10. Great is the enemy of good. Those with a bias towards far mode thinking over near mode create an emotional attachement to the vision in their heads, which never survives contact with the real world. It is emotional satisfying for such people to put resources into refining such a vision instead of working towards real implementations which carry with them the risks of diverging considerably from their more comforting mental models.

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