Perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure

O2 symmetry

Lately I’ve been wondering whether doing well academically at school and university was such a good thing in the long run.  I now suspect those early successes came at a price – the entrenchment of tendencies that possibly held me back from reaching my full potential: perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure.

I earned brownie points and felt better about myself if I got good marks. And I beat myself up if I didn’t do as well as I thought I should. I couldn’t just dash off a piece of work and hand it in early, because it had to be really good.  No pressure!  So I’d procrastinate, then spend a long time trying to make it perfect, and finally just about get it in by the deadline (and it never was perfect).

This became a pattern in my life.  The perfectionist in me just couldn’t let myself do a shoddy – or quick – job of anything.  Consequently if I didn’t feel confident of doing something really well, I put it off.  Perhaps because I’d never given myself the chance to fail at something that mattered to me, I was subconsciously afraid of doing anything badly.

At work this usually led to last minute marathons and a lot of angst – I constantly doubted my ability to do a good job while at the same time demanding this of myself.

It also held me back from taking risks, trying new things, because what if I failed?

With hindsight I can see how crazy and self-defeating this behaviour is. I can now see how these three traits  are intertwined, with perfectionism at the core.  This character trait leads to both fear of failure and procrastination (and why does it seem to be more common in women than men?).

I wish I’d understood this when I was working long hours and giving myself a hard time about producing the perfect piece of work.

But that’s what happens when you’re stressed and overwhelmed by work – you lose the ability to see things in perspective.

Maybe you’re  a perfectionist and you think perfectionism has stood you in good stead in your career and life in general?  I used to think that too.  But what about all the time you spend honing things that just don’t need to be perfect?  Or if you’re a procrastinating perfectionist like me, all the time wasted avoiding getting down to those things you’re afraid of doing badly?  This is all time that could be spent more productively (and I don’t mean doing more work!).

So how to break out of the cycle?

One big step in the right direction is to accept that “done is better than perfect”.  That almost always, good enough really is good enough.  These may be cliches but there’s a reason why they’ve been used so many times!

The time you put into a perfecting a report or other piece of work yields diminishing returns.  Is that extra couple of hours spent improving something really worth it?  In most cases probably not.

Another positive step is to forgive yourself if you “fail”.  If you get used to doing this then the fear of failing (or doing something less than optimally) diminishes and you’ll be more prepared to take risks or give yourself permission to do a good enough job.

At the end of our lives we won’t regret not having spent more time at the office polishing that long-forgotten report.  We will regret not spending more time with loved ones or following our passions and doing the things we dreamed of doing.




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  • I am not sure that a career in the Civil Service helps to encourage a ‘fit for purpose’ mentality! When I think of all those hours wasted over the perfect draft or the missing comma (although I must admit to being a bit of a stickler as far as apostrophes are concerned…) when we could actually have been doing something more useful. I finally came to the conclusion – after about 25 years – that the time spent on something should be proportionate to the amount of time the recipient spent looking at it.

    But more widely I have never quite managed to shake the conviction that if I was going to put effort into something I somehow had to be the best at it, otherwise it wasn’t worth the effort. I suspect though that that may have something more to do with being an only child than my school/university experience. But who knows what really makes us who we are?

    • I’m sure you are right about the Civil Service Lorraine – it certainly doesn’t encourage sloppiness! It is sad that it took us both so long to reach the sane conclusion that effort should be proportionate to the circumstances. I am also an only child and hadn’t thought about this having any influence on my perfectionist tendencies – an interesting hypothesis!

  • Thinking about what we WON’T regret at the end of our lives is the best way of putting things into perspective that I’ve found.

    • I agree with you Catherine. Putting our “busy work” etc into perspective in this way can hopefully help us prioritise the things that really do matter.

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