by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The beginning of January brings with it the desire for self-improvement. New Year’s resolutions are as ubiquitous as Christmas presents. One of the most common resolutions is often presented thus:

Procrastination is my sin
It brings me endless sorrow
I really must stop doing it
In fact, I’ll start tomorrow

Who among us cannot see our own selves in that ancient doggerel? One of the most common subjects for jokes about individual human behavior is our urge to delay beginning a task, performing an obligation, or implementing a plan.  Humor being what it is – the expression of hostility in a more-or-less socially acceptable way – this allows us to verbalize our dissatisfaction with our own behavior, but without actually addressing it.

Over my lifetime, I have known only a handful of people who were not inveterate procrastinators, whether or not they were cognizant of it (and most of them have been). We all acknowledge it, we all deplore it, but we all keep doing it. Few of us, though, ever analyze it to try to unravel the tangled skein of emotions, ambitions, and disappointments that make procrastination one of our biggest challenges, perhaps our biggest.

What is it that keeps us from taking up a task and seeing it through to its completion? Some years ago, when I was teaching in a private high school, I asked one of my best students what it was that kept him from completing assignments until there was no way he could put them off any longer.  The only answer he could come up with was, “Laziness?”  I replied that any student who could read the entire textbook for an Honors Modern European History class by the middle of October (which he had done) was not someone I would describe as “lazy.”

The salient point, I thought, was that the completion of a year’s worth of reading in less than two months showed interest and initiative as well as industriousness, but it was not a requirement. That is, it was not something that would be demonstrated and subjected to evaluation by the instructor. Writing assignments, however, must be turned in and be given a grade.

What’s the difference? The difference is that, if it’s voluntary and personal, you can do it any way you want to. If it’s required and academic, most diligent students want to present the best work they can. In other words, they want to hand in something of excellence, preferably something perfect.

And there it is! Procrastination is not the bad habit. It is the result of the bad habit. The bad habit is Perfectionism, and procrastination is one of its most ill-behaved offspring. The perfectionist – or one with perfectionist tendencies – knows that s/he will never write the perfect essay or create the perfectly-engineered device. Those forms exist only in Plato’s conceptualizations. There will always be a flaw or an inadequacy in the product of a human mind.

If perfection eludes us, we are going to have to produce the result of our efforts in an imperfect manifestation. Serious perfectionists – consciously or unconsciously – find it so anxiety-promoting to demonstrate something in which they (or someone else) can find mistakes, that it is often more comfortable to avoid even confronting the issue. “It’s going to be so painful to exhibit something that I will know I could have done better, that it’s easier not to even start it than it is to let go of the final product.”

Thus Perfectionism leads to procrastination, which in turn leads to paralysis. We can’t begin, we can’t continue, we can’t finish. The resulting anxiety diminishes us and our work.

Procrastination is not the only enfant terrible visited upon us by Perfectionism. It also destroys the concept of excellence – or even sufficiency. A man I know once told me that he worked to do his best on every single thing he did. I asked him if he applied that when taking a walk. Of course, he replied. The perfect walk might be there, ready for him to take it, and he had to be ready. I told him that I thought it quite all right to take an average, everyday walk. An ordinary walk of no outstanding features. He was appalled. He eventually lost his job because of his failure to meet deadlines. He was so consumed with the need to do his absolute best, on absolutely every project, absolutely every time, that he was unable to recognize the primary purpose of what he was doing. He was not focused on doing what was necessary to get the job done well enough to satisfy the needs of customers, but on what was necessary to do the job perfectly.

Perfectionism is the mother of one of my own most damaging bad habits.  My desk is a mound of books, papers, references, odds and ends collected on trips, clippings from magazines, scribbled (and often now meaningless) notes and web addresses, office supplies, and other clutter. I’ve always been a packrat, and I keep a notebook with me to write down ideas as they occur, the names of people and events I hear on the radio. If I am without my notebook, the back of an envelope will do.

I have some old family “heirlooms” around the house that I never use. I keep them not because they are important to me, but because they were once important to someone else – perhaps even someone who died before I was born.

What is it that restrains me from getting rid of these objects for which I have no use? The answer, alas, is Perfectionism. I keep them because I am afraid to dispose of them. I fear that in doing so I might make – (gasp!) – an irrevocable mistake. What if I might find this object valuable someday in the future, and the urgency with which I need it is proportional to the finality with which I got rid of it?

I must sit down and ask myself, “What is the worst thing that can happen if I dispose of this?” and then analyze the answer to determine if I can live with that result. Invariably, the answer is yes.

So, Perfectionism, we meet again at the beginning of another year. With a deep breath, I pick of the first pile of desk clutter for the first separation of wheat from chaff.