Procrastination : the ultimate in perfectionism?

by | Apr 25, 2022 | Leadership

I‘ve been thinking about writing this blog on procrastination for a while, which feels quite appropriate given that procrastination is about putting something off.

I love the fact that the etymology of the word procrastination is so straightforward. It comes from the Latin pro meaning “forward” and crastinus meaning “belonging to tomorrow”. In other words, “put off until tomorrow”.

We often consider procrastination as being about deferring things we don’t want to do, like cleaning the oven, or giving a difficult message to someone.

However, it was when I was reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks that I realised that we often procrastinate on things that we actually want to do. Why? Because we’re worried that we won’t be good enough or that others won’t respond as we would like.

I’m a decent amateur soprano. I particularly love performing solo and I’ve decided I want to up the ante. As well as more singing lessons, this means I need to practise more at home in the unforgiving acoustic of my living room. The music stand’s set up, the piano’s there, I’ve got the app to accompany me, but I’ve been avoiding practising because, when I open my mouth, the sound often falls short of my high expectations.

Burkeman talks about the theory of philosopher Costica Bradatan on this subject :

“When we find ourselves procrastinating on something important to us, we’re failing to see or refusing to accept that any attempt to bring our ideas into concrete reality must inevitably fall short of our dreams, no matter how brilliantly we succeed in carrying things off – because reality, unlike fantasy, is a realm in which we don’t have limitless control, and can’t possibly hope to meet our perfectionist standards. Something – our limited talents, our limited time, our limited control over events and over the actions of other people – will always render our creation less than perfect.”

Essentially, we can be anything we want in our imagination, but reality will always fall short.

The upshot being that, if we judge ourselves by the flawless standards of our imagination, we’ll definitely never do a good enough job. So, if we want to do something, we might as well make a start.

Where are you putting something off that you want because you’re afraid of not being good enough or that you’ll fail?

Perhaps you want to speak or write about a topic you care about, put your hand up for promotion, grab a leadership opportunity, enter a marathon – or simply take up a hobby you’ve always fancied but have told yourself you’re too old or you can’t spare the time.

This is what I’m learning about overcoming procrastination :

  • Find your why. Connect with what’s important to you about the thing you want to do and imagine your desired outcome. What will you regret if you don’t do anything about it?
  • Create an imperative to act. For me, it’s entering music festivals which gives me a deadline for being ready to perform. Plus I’ll get feedback from experts. For you, it might be offering to speak at a company event or scheduling a meeting to make your proposal.
  • Tolerate the discomfort of the process.  Imperfection is a necessary part of mastering anything. Allowing the not-always-pleasant sounds that come out of my mouth, particularly when I’m warming up, means that I make way for the opportunity to create a good sound. The more I practise and the less I judge myself, the more this will happen.
  • Seek guidance and feedback from people you trust. It might be a mentor, a teacher, someone who’s really good at what you want to do.

Procrastination is a surefire strategy to avoid failure, but it also precludes any chance of success. Life is short. What do you want to stop procrastinating on?

I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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