Perfectionism and Procrastination

Written by Michelle

Nearly everyone has probably had some experience with procrastination. Maybe it was waiting until the night before a paper was due to start writing or putting off a work project until right before the deadline. When thinking about why people procrastinate, there is a tendency to attribute the procrastination to some pretty negative personal characteristics: laziness, poor self-control, inability to delay gratification, etc. However, research has shown that there is another reason why people might procrastinate: perfectionism.

This doesn’t seem to make sense. Procrastination often causes missed deadlines and shoddy work, both of which don’t seem like something a perfectionist would tolerate. However, research has found is that procrastination is often found in certain types of perfectionists. There are three main categories of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionists tend to set impossibly high standards for themselves, other-oriented perfectionists hold others to unrealistic standards, and socially prescribed perfectionists believe that others hold them to high standards and are constantly evaluating them.

It’s the socially prescribed perfectionists that tend to be procrastinators due to their fear of failure and negative evaluation (Onwuegbuzie, 2000). For these people, procrastination serves as a means of self-protection. First, procrastination can serve as a self-handicap and an excuse for failure. If it so happens that a perfectionist receives a negative evaluation, the perfectionist can then attribute the reason for failure to the procrastination rather than a personal characteristic like low intelligence or inadequacy. Second, the fear of being negatively evaluated and the worry about ability to do a good enough job to meet others’ standards makes doing a task highly aversive. By avoiding the task until absolutely necessary, a perfectionist can put off the anxiety and unpleasantness, and delay the future evaluation.

Other research agrees with this, finding that socially prescribed perfectionists, especially ones who were prone to feeling ashamed, were more likely to procrastinate (Fee & Tangey, 2000). It appears that these perfectionists are not only motivated to protect themselves from failure and negative evaluations, they also want to avoid the accompanying feelings of shame.   Furthermore, this study suggests that perfectionists are primarily motivated to avoid that anticipated feeling of shame that would accompany failure rather than the actual behavioral consequence itself (e.g. getting an F on a paper, getting kicked out of grad school, etc.)

Perfectionism isn’t something people usually associate with procrastination, but it’s something to be considered. People who procrastinate because they dislike the project they are working on are going to require different strategies to overcome procrastinating tendencies than people who procrastinate due to perfectionism. So, it’s good to think about why you procrastinate and tailor a strategy to overcome this tendency specifically for you. If you realize that perfectionism is at the root of your procrastination, you can focus on reducing your anxiety of evaluation.

Lee, R.L., & Tangney, J.P. (2000). Procrastination: A means of avoiding shame of guilt? Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5), 103-109.

Onwuegbuzie, A.J. (2000). Academic procrastinators and perfectionistic tendencies among graduate students. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5), 103-109. 

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