3 Ways Perfectionism is the Ultimate Procrastination

I’ve come across several people in my life who have stopped themselves from finishing a project, or even getting started in the first place, because they believed in some perfectionist ideal on how the process should be—instead of simply letting the process be what it is.

The process of creativity is often a long, messy, and emotionally enduring endeavour. It is almost never a straightforward process, rather a bumpy road with lots of twists and turns. Although the inherent challenges that come with creativity can make you anxious about the road ahead, it is actually within this struggle where our greatest work resides.

Resistance is a natural part of the process, and often times, the more resistance you have toward something, the more important it actually is. Resistance is your ego’s way of trying to preserve itself by bringing your self-esteem down, and it is your duty as a creator to squash your ego in its wake and get to work anyway.

As a life long procrastinator, I am no stranger to this process, and am still a victim to it when I’m not mentally prepared enough for it, but nonetheless I hope you find what I share today to be helpful in your own journey.

So without further adieu, here are the 3 Ways Perfectionism is the Ultimate Procrastination:

  1. Not feeling competent enough.
  2. Not feeling original enough.
  3. Not feeling motivated enough.

Practice Makes Progress

If you don’t feel confident to get started on a project, it might mean that you’re lacking a few fundamental skills of the trade to even put a dent into that said project. But do not fret because there is a lot of joy and meaning to be found in learning and practicing new skills. As you learn new things, you will naturally feel excited to employ these new skills and techniques to whatever you’re working on.

I know in my experience, whenever I’ve learned a new guitar or piano chord, a writing concept, or a new music production technique, I’ve always felt the need to experiment with that new skill in my latest project in any given field. It didn’t matter whether I employed the new skill in small doses, in excess, or scrapped it from the final project entirely. What mattered was that I gave myself the freedom to experiment with something new and broaden my skillset.

A lot of people feel like they’re not good enough to start on anything because of this lack of self confidence. And since we often equate competence with confidence, that lack of competence holds us back. I’ve heard the same excuse a thousand times by now:

“I can’t write a song/write a book/make a painting, I’m not creative enough.”

It’s like saying, “I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible enough.”

Well, here’s the kicker: you become flexible by doing yoga. Likewise with anything creative, you stretch out your creativity at a certain artform the more you engage it. Who cares if you don’t know how song or plot structures work or how to mix colours properly?

You learn by experimenting and actively choosing things to learn either through a class on or offline, a teacher or mentor, and/or by observing the works of art that inspire you and comparing your work to theirs in a reasonable and non-self-esteem-crushing kind of way. The only important thing to note is that you don’t keep yourself stuck in training mode because you’re too afraid to actually create something. Study your techniques all you want, but actually put them to use at some point or that can become another side of this same coin of lacking competence.

Nothing and Everything is Original

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again; do not be overly concerned with being original. It’s a huge waste of time and energy, and a surefire way of crushing your own morale. This is another thing a lot of potential creators often contend with. They want to be above the crowd by way of originality because they have it in their heads that they must be this wonderfully unique snowflake, or there is no point of creating anything because they’ll just be making more of the same to put into the stratosphere.

Stop this kind of thinking NOW!

Think about this instead:

There are only 7 plots in fiction.

There are only 7 notes in a scale.

There are only 7 colours in a rainbow.

Nothing you create will ever be entirely original because you’re already using established artforms such as fiction, music, or art. Just because there are only seven plots in fiction, doesn’t mean you can’t write the story your way. Just because there are only seven notes in a scale, doesn’t mean you can’t rearrange those notes your way. Just because there are only 7 colours in a rainbow, doesn’t mean you can’t mix and match those colours your way.

Most of us want to think outside of the box, but we need to know what’s in that box in order to know what we’re straying away from in the first place, and to do so with moderation that serves our work. Otherwise it can come across as, or actually become, trying too hard to stand out instead of genuinely trying to expressing ourselves.

Maybe your novel can have a mix of more than just one of those 7 plots in fiction. Maybe your song can include a chromatic note or two that isn’t in the 7 notes of its original scale. Maybe your painting can blend those 7 colours in a varying degrees to achieve different hues of colours you didn’t think possible. But the most important thing is to use these lucky 7 things to your advantage, rather than something you actively work against.

Originality, then, isn’t about coming up with something entirely new, rather taking pre-existing matter and mixing and matching different elements into something new by design of how you’ve personally conveyed it. If your goal is to be original, you risk trying too hard to be eccentric and esoteric to the point of drawing too much attention to how weird and different your artwork is instead of actually having something useful to say with it.

“Originality comes from genuine self expression, not concerted effort.” – Marlon from Your Write to Live

Motivation is Random, Discipline is Free Will Power

As someone with ADHD, I have often fallen under the seductive spell of hyper-focus whenever I’ve come up with a new idea or discovered a new hobby. I go at it full force, basking in its novelty with absolute certainty that I will do this forever, until I stop dead in my tracks because I’ve burnt myself out from going too hard at something instead of pacing myself accordingly.

Then I spend weeks, sometimes months, wondering if I’ll ever have the motivation to start writing another song or editing a new video, writing a novel etc.

A lot of people say that they will only create something when they feel motivated and will not force themselves to do it otherwise, and for people who have created some great volumes of work that have only come from allowing their muse to motivate them by her own accord, that’s all well and good.

But for those who haven’t even completed or started a project, this kind of thinking is detrimental to creativity and can often be an excuse for never creating to begin with.

It pains me to talk with people who contend with all of these ways in which procrastination manifests as perfectionism, but when it comes to motivation I probably relate to it the most because it’s the one and only demon on this list that I’ve yet to conquer. But basically you really don’t want to be waiting around for those times you feel motivated enough to create because you’ll either be waiting for a long time—which will then result in small bursts of creativity for a short amount of time before you spend another several weeks, months, maybe even years wondering if it’ll ever happen again—or you’ll be waiting forever.

The decision to create needs to come from you and you alone.

You cannot rely on random happenstance to get you there. If you start feeling bad for not having worked on your creativity for a long time, that anxiety around it is actually unspent energy that could easily be going into your project as opposed to crushing your own self-esteem with the self imposed guilt trip. What you want to do is create healthy habits that prime you to start working, even on your most resistant days, all to the point of turning your routine into a ritual.

You want to get to the point where you can’t not create something on most, if not all days. It’s something you need to get done or the day does not feel complete otherwise. Even if you don’t turn out your best work for several days straight, at least you’ve gotten the crappy ideas out of the way so that when you get back into the swing of things, you’re at least glad that you’ve committed to your practice. That is how you know you’ve turned a habit into a ritual.

While there is the danger of turning your ritual into a superstition where you think, “I gotta have my large coffee and cookie every morning or I can’t create anything!” Having some kind of routine in place to at least increase your chances of getting something is better than having low to no chance in hell that you create anything at all.

We’ll get into overwork and burnout in a future post, but for now, let’s simmer in the idea that maybe we aren’t working enough to ensure we get our creative needs met. And I don’t know about you, but I get pretty depressed if I’m not creating at least one or two things on nearly daily basis, and I’m starting to realize just how much of that depression is a lot of emotionality that is being left unexpressed that can be transmuted into writing fiction, producing music, or even the simple act of journaling.

It’s actually through journaling before almost every writing session where I tackle my demons and empty out my mind to make space for creative ideas. I need to check in with myself and see how I’m feeling about my life and the work laid out ahead of me, otherwise these unchecked doubts will creep up in any given writing session. Only then I’ll feel like I’m strong and smart enough to get on with the project.

Feeling and Being Enough

That’s what this entire post comes down to in a nutshell: feeling enough.

Creative people are notorious for not feeling or being enough and that’s why a lot of us over or under perform where we can be finding a happy and healthy medium between the two. Just notice that whenever you encounter any self doubt, imposter syndrome, or resistance, it’s all pent up energy that is being left unexpressed, and you need an outlet for it.

Personally for me, creating a slew of work doesn’t mean I will guarantee a sense of meaning and contentedness in my life, but it sure as hell increases the probability for them, provided that I am coming at it from a place of stillness. A place where I’m not using my creativity to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about my life, rather taking them head on with confidence that I will get through it all no matter how difficult it all is.

It’s a tough balancing act.

You want to create because you have something in you to express, and you have to fight your ego every step of the way as to not do it for the wrong reasons like fame, fortune, or fear. Like the fear of not feeling or being enough. Feeling and being enough starts with you right here, right now in making the decision to take your creativity into your own hands, not the whims of fate. And definitely in not submitting to the whims of our egos that hold us back in making us believe we are not good or original enough. That’s not what’s important.

What’s important is giving ourselves the permission to express ourselves as that is Your Write to Live.

Productive Procrastination

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head and just couldn’t remember the title of it even if it was at the tip of your tongue? Then went on about your day like normal and just when you thought you’ve forgotten all about it, then suddenly you remember the song title?

This is the power of the subconscious mind. When you try to engage it consciously it often does not yield any benefit because that’s not how this sneaky mental ninja works. It’s actually best to set an intention for something you want, let it wonder in the back of your mind, and allow for your subconscious to work on it in the background.

This is why a lot of creative people come up with their greatest ideas in the shower, while they’re driving, and doing anything else that can be as far removed from the intended activity as possible. And this is also why you might not have to feel too guilty about procrastinating on any creative endeavour, so long as you actually sit down and chip away at it at some point in a reasonable timeframe.

Binging Netflix

When I used to party a lot in my twenties, a common thing people would express guilt about was the amount of Netflix they were watching. Someone would ask, “what have you been up to?” And the response would be, “binging Netflix,” through chuckles that would be an attempt to hide their shame for not looking for a job or enrolling in some kind of post secondary education.

They had this preconception that being an adult meant always being busy and tired, and it actually made me feel kind of sad for them that they did appreciate this mental health break habit a little more than they could have.

The way I saw it was, based on the kinds of shows and movies they were watching, they were passively submitting an avatar of themselves to project onto the screen in the form of the show or movie’s protagonist who would overcome insurmountable obstacles. It’s not that these people were being lazy and doing absolutely nothing, per se, rather they were doing a whole lot while not doing a whole lot at the same time.

They were productively procrastinating.

When we watch our favourite characters contend with the conflict of the plot and other characters in a story, we are seeing ourselves in them and expanding our capacity to see the possibilities in tough situations we may encounter ourselves. To watch our characters grow and evolve, especially when their struggles hit home for us, we are inadvertently learning how to process our own struggles and develop the strength and courage act thereafter.

The thing that would often happen with these people I would run into at parties is that a few months down the line I’d hear that they started going to school or gotten jobs, or if they were already employed and/or educated, they took up new hobbies and interests that enriched their lives.

It was as if they needed those couple of months to decompress and binge watch their favourite shows, much to the dismay of their parents and other people in their lives, including themselves, who were expecting a little more out of them than lazing around “doing nothing.”

As far as I can tell, that Netflix binging period of their lives served as time to buffer while they reoriented themselves physically and mentally, and maybe even emotionally, to reengage with the world when they felt safe and confident to do so again.

The Self Help Junkie

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “how can self help be considered procrastination?”

A lot of people assume that pursuing personal development means personal perfection. That they cannot engage with the world and form relationships until they are absolutely perfect in knowing themselves, and only then will they be able to go out into the world and show that true self that’s been locked away from years of pain and anguish.

This was me for a very long time. I would read every self help book I can and watch all these motivational videos, all the while not really doing much in the real world in terms of seeking employment or even forming relationships with people. Sometimes the feeling of reassurance from the motivational talks and the rush of discovering all these insights about myself was enough to make me feel good about myself and then not do much else with it.

I once had a friend who asked me, “what if all this self knowledge stuff is what’s preventing you from finding a partner?” And at the time my ego came up with the defensive retort, “maybe you lacking in self knowledge is why you always end up in crappy relationships. I want to avoid that by becoming the best me possible so my future girlfriend and I don’t have to suffer through the dysfunctions you guys are experiencing.”

Looking back now, I can see just how extreme and black and white I was in my thinking. I can’t say for sure if what I said about my friend was correct, it’s not my place to really say since only he knows the details of his personal journey as intimately as he does. Anything coming from me would just be a bunch of baseless and defensive assumptions.

But one thing I can say for sure was that he was right about me. For a long time I invested in personal development and thought I knew myself to a T, but you only really get to know how well you’ve developed as a person when you engage with other people and see how this new and improved you actually manages in relationships.

So alas, my arrogance was often squelched by my own set of weird and dysfunctional relationships that gave me a very rude awakening: I really didn’t know myself as much as I thought I did. It only felt like that because I had consumed countless of books and videos about personal development that made me feel good about myself, but without proper application and guidance by a mentor and/or therapist, you can never really know if what you’re learning is even valid.

Which is why as a side note, I highly suggest you hire a life coach and/or a therapist to help guide you through your personal development. No one should have to do it alone, we’re all in this together. And you can have some of the most empathic friends and family who listen to you well, ask you all the right questions, and give you all the reassurance you need.

But the value of a mentor via therapy or life coaching is that this person can have emotional objectivity about you since they don’t have a personal connection to you beyond hired professional and paying client. They’ll be able to see you from an even higher bird’s eye view than your friends and family. A therapist especially, since they know how the human mind works, can really help you understand yourself a whole lot better based on neuroscience and psychology.

Last thing I’ll say on self help is that engaging in personal development assumes you’re flawed in some way, hence your desire to develop personally. But that shouldn’t come at the cost of your self esteem because it’s easy to fall under the trap of perfectionism with it.

Never be too afraid to apply what you learn from self help books, videos, and programs to see if what you’re being taught is valuable. There is no one size fits all solution to personal growth so you’ll have to take and discard principles from varying sources that work particularly for you. And if you also experience a period where you become a self help junkie yourself, see that as a time for you to incubate before you’re ready to hatch and get out into the world.

Mindlessly Browsing the Internet

Even mindlessly browsing the internet can be a source of productive procrastination regardless of the content you’re consuming. Best case scenario is that you are watching things relevant to your goals and learning things, but even if you are just watching cat videos and stupid dance videos on TikTok, there’s always gonna be that voice in the back of your mind that is constantly reminding you of the things you know you should be doing.

Listen to that voice, especially when it begins to get louder and louder over time. It’s crucial. If you try and ignore it, it will definitely be upset with you, but at the same time it will take your intended goals into your subconscious and work it out for you before you engage in the activity you know you could be doing.

If you are consuming content that does educate you on your interests and profession, then great, just make sure not to let it all slip out of your mind without proper application down the line. If you’re watching pointless cat and meme videos, just recognize that our brains don’t always have to be all go, go, go! at all times. Speaking as someone who has ADHD, there is a ton of value in some passive brain activity. We all need the mental break from time to time.

Even as you read this article, maybe there is something nagging at the back of your mind that you should be doing so I don’t want to keep you any longer than I need to. I appreciate your time and attention to read this and hope that you can eventually pick up your socks and do the things you know you “should” be doing.

Final Thoughts

You should still carve out some time to do the thing you know you should be doing. Maybe it’s writing a novel, recording a song, or other responsibilities in life like chores around the house Whatever it is that you’re putting off, just know that as you put it off, your subconscious mind is priming yourself to kick ass at it once you get down to it, assuming you let yourself engage in it in the first place.

But hey, don’t get too down on yourself when you’re procrastinating. Because maybe it’s just the buffer time you need to before you feel ready and competent enough to engage with the world at large.

What are you currently procrastinating on?

Is there a productive outcome from this procrastination?

Let me know in the comments below!