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2011/03/21

Procrastination and Perfectionism

Copyright 1995-2008 John Perry

Many procrastinators do not realize that they are perfectionists, for the simple reason that they have never done anything perfectly, or even nearly so. They have never been told that something they did was perfect. They have never themselves felt that anything they did was perfect. They think, quite mistakenly, that being a perfectionist implies often, or sometimes, or at least once, having completed some task to perfection. But this is a misunderstanding of the basic dynamic of perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a matter of fantasy, not reality. Here's how it works in my case. I am assigned some task, say, refereeing a manuscript for a publisher. I accept the task, probably because the publisher offers to pay me with a number of free books, which I wrongly suppose that if I owned I would get around to reading. But for whatever reason, I accept the task.

Immediately my fantasy life kicks in. I imagine myself writing the most wonderful referees report. I imagine giving the manuscript an incredibly thorough read, and writing a report that helps the author to greatly improve their efforts. I imagine the publisher getting my report and saying, “Wow, that is the best referee report I have ever read.” I imagine my report being completely accurate, completely fair, incredibly helpful to author and publisher.

Why do I have such fantasies? God knows. Or maybe my shrink. Perhaps my father did not praise me enough as a child. Or perhaps he heaped praise on me when once, accidentally no doubt, I accomplished some task extremely well. Perhaps it is genetic. But this is just a practical three-step program, not an attempt at psychotherapy. (The first step is to read the essay “Structured Procrastination”. This is the second step. I haven’t figured out the third step.) So we won't worry about why I, or you, have such fantasies. The point is that if you are a procrastinator, of the garden variety sort, something like this probably goes through your mind.

This is perfectionism in the relevant sense. It's not a matter of really ever doing anything that is perfect or even comes close. It is a matter of using tasks you accept to feed your fantasy of doing things perfectly, or at any rate extremely well.

How does the fantasy of perfection feed procrastination? Well, it's not so easy to do things perfectly. At least I assume that it is not. Perhaps some day I'll do something perfectly, and then I'll know for sure. But I assume that it is not. One needs time. And the proper setting. Clearly to referee this manuscript, I'll need to read it carefully. That will take time. I will no doubt want to go beyond the manuscript itself, and read some of the material that the author cites, to make sure the author is accurate and fair in what she says about it. I've read book reviews by philosophers I admire, and they obviously have done this. It's very impressive. But I'll need to be over in the library to do that properly. Well, in today's world, one doesn't need to be in the library. One can find a lot of this stuff on the web, if one knows how. Well, I don't know how. I know that there is this thing called “J-store” that allows one to access lots of philosophy journals online. If you are working at Stanford you can access it through the library. But it would be nice to be able to access it at home. I may want to work late into the night on this referee job. To access J-store at home you need to set up something called a proxy-server. I'd better figure out how to do that.

Well, seven or eight hours later I am done setting up the proxy server. Maybe I am done because I have managed to do it. More likely I have given up because every time I think I have done it, it doesn't work, or my screen goes blank. But one thing I won't have done is start on the referee job. I will have invested enough time to give the book a quick read and form an opinion of it, but I won't have actually done this, or even gotten started. I feel like a schmuck, and of course I am.

Then what happens? I go on to other things. Most likely, the manuscript slowly disappears under subsequent memos, mail, half-eaten sandwiches, piles of files, and other things. (See the essay on “Horizontal Organization”.) I put it on my to do list, but I never look at my to do list. Then, in about six weeks, I get an email from the publisher, asking when she can expect the referee report. Maybe, if she has dealt with me before, this email arrives a bit before I promised the report. Maybe if she hasn't, it arrives a few days after the deadline.

At this point, finally, I snap into action. My fantasy structure changes. I no longer fantasize writing the world's best referee job ever. I fantasize letting down some woman back in the New York office of Oxford University Press. I imagine her going to the editorial meeting, where she promised to have a report on the manuscript, empty-handed. “I'm sorry,” she says to her boss, “I counted on this fellow from Stanford, but he let me down.” “That's it,” her boss says, “You're fired .” “But I've got three small children, my husband is in the hospital, and the mortgage is overdue,” she says. “I'm sorry,” he replies, “I've got a business to run.” I imagine meeting this woman; she gives me a withering stare. “You cost me my job,” she says.

And then there is the author. Maybe her tenure depends on getting this book accepted. It's probably a great book, a masterpiece that has been sitting on my desk unread while the tenure decision lies in the balance. Perhaps some day the whole world of philosophy will know that this deserving person lost tenure because John Perry sat on her manuscript -- like the editors at the physics journals who turned down Einstein's early manuscripts. (I'm not sure that ever happened -- I meant to look it up, but haven't gotten around to it.)

At this point, I dig through the files, sandwiches, unopened correspondence, and, after a bit of panic (Have I lost the manuscript? Will I have to ask the publisher for another copy? Should I lie, and say that I thought I mailed the manuscript back with the review, but in must have been in that briefcase that the mugger took from me?) I find it. I take a couple of hours, read it, write a perfectly adequate report, and send it off.

Now let's analyze what happened. First of all, let's note that because I am a structured procrastinator, I have used the referee report as a way of doing a lot of other things. For example, I set up that proxy-server. My colleague says plaintively at some point, “I'd like to access J-store from home, but I don't have the proxy-server set up,” “Oh,” I say jauntily, “I set mine up a couple of weeks ago. Works great.” “How do you ever find the time,” he says admiringly. I don't reply, but look smug.

And, second, things turned out OK. I did finish the report, it wasn't too late, the publisher kept her job, the book was accepted or not, the author received tenure or not. True, the report wasn't perfect, but it was perfectly good enough. So structured procrastination seems to be working. But can't we do better? Can't we avoid the emotional turmoil, the waste of everyone's time, that these perfectionist fantasies lead to?

Well, I think we can, but it does require a little self-discipline. Not a lot. What one needs to do, in order to bring one's perfectionist fantasies under control, is what I call Task Quality Triage.

Procrastinating was a way of giving myself permission to do a less than perfect job on a task that didn't require a perfect job. As long as the deadline was a ways away, then, in theory, I had time to go the library, or set myself up for a long evening at home, and do a thorough, scholarly, perfect job refereeing this book. But when the deadline is near, or even a bit in the past, there is no longer time to do a perfect job. I have to just sit down and do an imperfect, but adequate job. The fantasies of perfection of replaced by the fantasies of utter failure. So I finally get to work on it. Now it would have been simpler for me, and for the publisher, and for the author, if I had sat down and spent four or five hours on the manuscript right off the bat. If only I had been able to give myself permission to do an imperfect job right at the outset. Is there anyway we can bring that about?

You have to get in the habit of forcing yourself to analyze, at the time you accept a task, to consider the costs and befits of doing a less than perfect job. You need to ask the questions: how useful would a perfect job be here? How much more useful than a merely adequate job? Or even a half-assed job? And you need to ask the questions: what is the probability that I will really do anything like a remotely perfect job on this? And you need to ask: what difference will it make to me, whether I do or not?

And the answer, in an enormous number of cases, will be that a less than perfect job will do just fine, and moreover it's all I am ever going to do anyway. So I give myself permission to do a less than perfect job, rather than waiting until it is overdue. I may as well do it now.

Editor's note : You will be happy to know the author has succeeded in his pursuit of acceptance of imperfection prior to spell-checking this article.
Structured perfectionism
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Author:るるど
好きな言葉:"Differences are not a threat, but a treasure" by Jean Vanier (ジャン・バニエは、尊敬する人の一人です)

email: mariaatlourdes@hotmail.com

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