Perfectionists Procrastinate — The Myth


Zena Aghajanian

There is a fallacy in our society that perfectionists (since they are known for going to extreme measures to ensure their work is satisfactory or “perfect”) procrastinate as a way to cope with mounting anxiety and put off their work till a later date. Part of this idea stems from Sigmund Freud’s theory that perfectionists procrastinate due to a fear that the task could pose a threat to their ego. In his 1953 theory, Freud claims that we procrastinate when the ego recognizes a threat presented by a particular task, so we push it off or avoid it as a way to protect ourselves.
However, while Freud was a pioneer in psychoanalysis and developed some of the first theories in psychology, his work is dated. We are at a point in history where we have the tools to do more in-depth testing; technologically and in terms of human studies. Now, Freud’s theory is not actually incorrect. What the issue here is the link between procrastination and perfectionism, or in this case, the lack thereof. Perhaps the average person may procrastinate their work due to a subconscious fear of their ego being damaged somehow. However, this doesn’t speak for the vast majority of perfectionists.

Procrastination itself results in anxiety that tells us we need to start working. So when you experience stress, it’s due to the drop of a hormone called cortisol. Your brain releases this hormone to let you know to begin working on that project or that deadline you had to meet after you may have been pushing it off for a while. The opposite is true of perfectionists. Perfectionists tend to struggle with anxiety, especially when it comes to meeting specific requirements or doing something they consider to be of importance. However, that anxiety is something that sets in prior to the actual situation.

For those who aren’t naturally prone to anxiety, it may be hard to conclude from this observation. Essentially, the placement of anxiety is what is crucial in the relationship between procrastination and perfectionism. People who are perfectionists have anxiety about doing something just right. That anxiety pushes them into panic mode, forcing them to get working immediately. In contrast, a procrastinator will not usually start their responsibilities until towards the end of the time allotted to them. This is due to the lag in terms of when their cortisol levels drop, leading to anxiety at the prospect of doing poorly and thus working double time to reach their goal.

Also, when you envision how your peers with perfectionistic qualities behave (or perhaps you yourself), it’s associated with being neat, orderly, and consistently prepared. Those who procrastinate tend to be impulsive and believe that procrastinating their work is the best choice in the short term. There has been quite a bit of research conducted on the relationship between procrastinators. One of which was a study conducted by a Dr. Caplan, who said that “Other-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism traits did not predict academic procrastination” and “self-oriented perfectionism and academic procrastination are negatively correlated,” which means an increase in one is associated with a reduction in the other. So perfectionists are therefore either less likely or equally as likely to procrastinate as the average person.

Now, this doesn’t account for the small percentage who are both perfectionists and procrastinators. Although across an array of surveys, only 7% of procrastinators claimed they did so due to perfectionism. So, this begs the question: How did we come to believe perfectionists procrastinate? Well, the answer is simple. Perfectionists who have issues with procrastination are typically the ones who seek help from counselors, psychologists, and doctors. The result of this is, as Dr. Piers Steel puts it, “a self-selection phenomenon that gives the illusion that the two traits are linked.” This is due to that fact that neither pure perfectionists nor pure procrastinators find a reason to seek help.

Both perfectionism and procrastination alike are hazardous characteristics to have because they are opposites. Being on the far end of the spectrum, no matter what side, is worrisome because it signifies there is a lack of balance. So whether you attempt to do things “perfectly” (there is no such thing as perfect), or you procrastinate your work, you still experience that same drastic change of hormones and chemicals. That constant shifting can be crippling for the body, causing overall fatigue and, in some cases, mental health disorders such as depression or chronic anxiety disorder.

There is a way to break the cycle though! Everything in life is about having balance. For procrastinators: organize your time as strictly as possible. Give yourself multiple responsibilities to push yourself to organize your time wisely and avoid that last-minute all-nighter or emotional breakdown. As for perfectionists: give yourself space and permission to not be at the top all the time. If you find yourself falling into old habits, stop, take a breath, and mentally tell yourself to let go. As someone who has experienced both of these issues, I know firsthand how emotionally draining it can be to be jumping from one end of the scale to another. I urge you to reflect on why it may be that you are engaging in these kinds of behaviors. Everything we do, whether or not we realize it, is interconnected to a deeper psychological situation. Take some time to think about what that may be for you.