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Why overachievers procrastinate — and how to break the cycle

You’re not lazy, you’re probably a perfectionist.

If you’re reading this article right now — congrats, you’re an overachiever.

How do we know? Well, we’re guessing you found this one of 3 ways:

  1. You subscribe to a weekly newsletter on improv thinking.

And, being the overachiever that you are, we know something else: Right now, at this very moment, you’re procrastinating something. And chances are, this isn’t the first time you’ve done it.

Hey, no judgment, we’re right there with you. See, much as society would like to paint us procrastinators as lazy and irresponsible, or thrill-seeking deadline junkies, they’re dead wrong. We’re just misunderstood perfectionists. (Take that, college professors).

Not sure if you’re a perfectionist? Here’s a quick diagnostic:

You might be a perfectionist if…

  • You’re hyper results-driven: You tend to “focus on the product to the exclusion of the process.”
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  • You’re a hare, not a tortoise: You tend to do things in sprints, pulling all-nighters, or long hours, channeling seemingly superhuman dedication, only to burn out.

This sound like you (and every 20–30-something you know living in a major city)? Thought so.

The link between procrastination and “perfection”

It seems counterintuitive — but high-achievers often fall victim to procrastination because of their high expectations. And the more they care about something, the harder it is to start.

Psychology Today writes that procrastination isn’t laziness, but rather a “misguided sense of activity” based on a low tolerance for failure. The higher the stakes, the greater the fear of failure or criticism — and the more perfectionists procrastinate.

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Studies show that we also tend to overestimate tasks that require creativity or abstract thinking: In one study, researchers offered students money for answering a “concrete” survey question (“How do you open a bank account?”) or a more “abstract” one (“Why would someone want to open a bank account?”) within a 3-week timeframe.

They found that students were far more likely to procrastinate answering the abstract questioneven though each question took respondents about the same time on average to complete.

So, how do we shrink these mountains back into molehills?

How to break the procrastination cycle

  1. Don’t give it 110%. Or, at least tell yourself you won’t. Give yourself license to do a “worst draft.” The more terrible it is, the better. It’ll lower the barrier to just starting. And, chances are, even your “worst draft” will end up pretty good.
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3. Try an “action-anxiety rubric.” Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. In the first column, list the tasks that you’re putting off. In the second column, write down all the concerns you have about doing that task. Actions and anxieties are “fractal in nature” — your goal is to end up with at least one task small enough that you can get on with it, and at least one problem that is small enough to be solved.

4. Give yourself time to be unproductive. When you overpack our day with tasks, you set yourself up for failure. And, when those wandering thoughts inevitably creep into you scheduled “productive” time, you feel guilty. Being unproductive is allowed; giving your brain a little time every day to wander guilt-free is a healthy way to refuel your creative tank.

The Point: Perfection is the enemy of progress; no time like the present.

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