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Perfectionism and Procrastination Get in the Way of Willpower

Without doubt, from the perspective of willpower, the most challenging personality characteristic is perfectionism. Continually striving for unrealistically high standards and beating yourself up when you fail – the defining features of perfectionism – can combine to drain your willpower. Perfectionism’s weapon of choice is procrastination or simply avoiding doing things in a timely fashion.

In combination, perfectionism and procrastination amount to ‘won’t power’ – surely the opposite of willpower.

Recognising procrastination

Procrastination is a suitably long word to describe what’s often a long delay between realising that something needs to be done and actually doing it. For example, you may think, ‘This essay is too difficult for me, I haven’t done enough background reading’ and further delay writing the essay. Or you may think, ‘The dentist may criticise me for not keeping regular appointments’ and put off making an appointment. Your excuses for putting things off may be apparently plausible, but they’re also biased or simply guesses that may prove wrong.

Engaging in perfectionism

Perfectionism shouldn’t be confused with valuing and striving for perfection. Aiming for perfection is a good thing and an excellent use of willpower! Perfectionism, on the other hand, has three key features that in fact reduce the likelihood of achieving valued goals and fritter away your willpower:

  • If you’re behaving as a perfectionist, you’re more likely to set unrealistic goals or aspire to unattainable standards. This makes it more likely that you’ll give up or throw in the towel from a willpower perspective!

    For example, a perfectionist is more likely to become disheartened when learning something new, because it takes considerable practice to achieve the high level of competence aspired to.

  • Perfectionists base their estimation of self-worth to an excessive degree on their performance or ability, rather than, say, their value to others in the role of parent, partner or mentor. This leads to a tendency for perfectionists to blame themselves when they fail to reach the high standards they set themselves.

  • When perfectionists make judgements about their performance, they rely too much on the opinions of others, in particular going out of their way to avoid criticism. Think about it: if you’re striving for perfection, criticism is the last thing you want to hear. A perfectionist may think, for example, ‘I simply can’t tolerate critical comments at work, therefore I can’t afford to make mistakes.’

In combination, these factors mean that perfectionists can end up achieving less than people with more realistic standards or those who are less concerned about the possibility of being criticised. In an effort to avoid criticism or failure – the worst things that can happen to a perfectionist – procrastination and avoidance ensue. Perfectionists can therefore become disappointed and demoralised, and be more likely to avoid future challenges such as applying for a job at the upper end of their range of competence.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, you’re likely to set unrealistically high standards not just for yourself but for others. This can create tension and conflict, which can deplete your willpower. Even more directly, you may be forced to deploy willpower to suppress your criticism of others.

In his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie points out that nobody likes to be criticised. If you have perfectionist tendencies, you’re likely to criticise others. However, you may well need the support of these individuals to fully utilise your willpower. So, if you feel the need to deliver negative feedback, try suggesting something positive such as, ‘Have you thought about doing it this way … ?’ or ‘You might find it easier to do it this way.’

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