How to Overcome Perfectionism and Procrastination In Your Business
14 steps you can take now to create new habits and start moving forward
Sarah was a freezer. She spent far more time being anxious about what she had to do than actually doing it. She would work herself up into an absolute tizzy every time she had a deadline, and would end up in tears, begging me to help her get through it.
She thought she had a problem with productivity, or time management. She thought she was just slow, or didn’t know how to properly estimate her work projects. She thought, more than once, that perhaps she just wasn’t cut out to be a business owner. She was often mad at herself and called herself names.
Every time she would reach her deadline, it was an all-night last-minute effort to get something complete, and she would delay sending her work to her clients because she wasn’t happy with the result. She couldn’t identify what was wrong with it, just that she hadn’t had enough time to work on it (which actually feels crappy for most people) because she had procrastinated for so long.
This same behaviour showed up in all aspects of her business, particularly in areas that she was uncertain about. Delays, excuses, procrastination, half-ditch efforts plagued her, and accompanying all that was constant anxiety and sometimes depression.
Sarah was miserable, and worst of all, desperate.
She tried everything – scheduling differently, planning differently, building padding into her estimates for work, charging more, charging less, changing clients, changing offers. Nothing helped – the pattern continued. She got more and more down on herself, and was ready to give up.
Her business wasn’t growing. She couldn’t sell more work because she wouldn’t do anything to seek out clients. She wasn’t showing up for her customers. She wasn’t marketing her services. She’d put her business in a total stranglehold and it was suffocating and slowly dying.
Almost every one of my clients (and a lot of business owners in my communities) has had some version of this scenario holding them back from achieving their goals, or from just merely being able to function in their business.
The results can be anywhere from mildly annoying to absolutely crippling, and often leads to complete shutdown. It’s a business problem but no business solution is going to fix it.
What these business owners are suffering from is perfectionism, and it’s rampant and debilitating, and holding them back in really, really big ways.
How do you know if perfectionism is your problem?
Perfectionism is defined as “the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness” (Merriam-Webster).
Damn. That’s heavy.
But it illustrates how serious a problem it can be, and its very sobering causes.
Perfectionist tendencies can manifest themselves in a whole pile of different ways. If you can identify yourself in a few of these, you might need to consider whether it’s affecting you, too
Typically, someone suffering from perfectionism will experience:
- Difficulty starting tasks
- Distracting behaviours
- Resistance to change
- Dependency on instant gratification and praise
- Beating oneself up over every little thing
- “Catastrophe brain” (overreaction to scenarios, made up or real)
- Gravitating to known, easy tasks
- Working below one’s capabilities
- Crippling self doubt despite high achievement
- Always doing things at the last minute
- Being critical of others
- Idealizing competitors
- Decision paralysis
- Hiding or disappearing from being visible
- Looking to others for direction
- Being non-committal
- Needing everything one does to be the “most”
- Taking too long to complete tasks
- Considering everything a potential threat
- Difficulty saying no
Now, these symptoms range from mildly annoying to severely disabling, but they are all real and all very frustrating to those who suffer from perfectionism. Procrastination is probably the most recognized symptom, but the others are just as real and just as debilitating.
Where does perfectionism come from?
Perfectionists live in a world of fear and anxiety – fear that they are deeply flawed and that if they screw up, the world is going to see their flaws and judge them or reject them for these. Sometime, somewhere, they learned that they aren’t safe or accepted unless they perform at a high level. They have a more compelling need to achieve in order to feel like they belong, but this is, unfortunately, fleeting and it won’t be long until they need another “hit” in order to feel good about themselves again.
With perfectionists, acceptance is derived from external sources, which they can’t control, so they feel constantly vulnerable and unsure. They end up in a never-ending spiral of trying to do more and more to gain validation and feeling defeated when something doesn’t provide that hit.
As we get older, and our capabilities grow, perfectionists establish increasingly higher expectations of themselves and constantly trying to achieve those leaves them feeling emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted.
It’s no way to live. And it’s no way to run a successful business.
Unfortunately, we’re living in a society where having high standards is often celebrated, so perfectionists are rewarded for their “high standards”, allowing their behaviour to continue. This is a self-perpetuating cycle, and they start to equate “high standards” with their own identity.
But perfectionism isn’t the same as having high standards – it’s about having control, safety and assurance. Someone with high standards will know exactly what needs to be done in order to achieve them but will not consider it a personal failure if those are not met.
A perfectionist will often hide behind “high standards” as justification for their behaviour, because it is so internationally valued, but that’s just a delay tactic and an enabler for them to continue what they usually know is destructive behaviour.
Breaking the habit
Before we talk about practical things perfectionists can do to try and shift from being at the mercy of their affliction to being functional and progressing, it’s important to acknowledge that severe forms of perfectionism may require help from a therapist who is qualified to assist patients in dealing with the root cause of perfectionist tendencies. The recommendations below are not intended to replace therapy where it is truly necessary.
Keeping perfectionism at bay over the long run requires shifting acceptance, reassurance and validation from external to internal sources, and this results from ongoing, intentional inner work. But there are some other, more practical habits that I have seen work with my clients and friends, which are outlined below and will hopefully help you make progress in your journey to overcome perfectionism.
14 ways to keep perfectionism at bay
Now, all of these suggestions may not work for you, but I’d encourage you to try the ones that feel comfortable or achievable at first. Try one or two to begin with. See if you can make them consistent habits before you try more.
The most important thing is that you start somewhere, even though this is a very uncomfortable thing for you to do.
My client, Sarah, found success by trying one at a time, and working diligently on establishing them as habits. While she’s not fully weaned from her perfectionist past, she’s in a much better place now and can recognize and address her tendencies when they arise.
I’ve compiled the following 14 things you can do to start on your de-perfectionisting mission, based on what’s worked with my clients, and based on my experience coaching them.
- Break down your tasks so you can start in smaller bits. We have a tendency to create big goals and try to achieve them in record time. But, of course, when we are busy that rarely happens, and we constantly feel like we are taking one step forward and two steps back. This translates as failure to a perfectionist. Instead, break down those goals into tiny, bite-sized tasks that can be achieved in an hour or two. This way, you’re always feeling like you’re moving forward and achieving something that you can check off a list.
- Remind yourself of why you are really doing something. Perfectionists can get caught in the minutiae and details, making every little thing matter. If you write down and post in front of you the big reasons why you are working on something, or trying to achieve something, it can be a great reminder of when you actually need to care about the outcomes of the detail work, and when it really doesn’t matter that much. Perspective is key!
- Write yourself a Reset Script. This was a game changer for Sarah. She had become aware of how it felt in her body to be on the verge of “catastrophe brain” and falling into the spiral of self-judgment. When that started, she would open her Reset Script and go through the process of bringing her back to neutral. The Reset Script is always going to be very personal to you but should be either a checklist, a mantra or a narrative that helps you reset your perspective and work yourself out of a freezing state. Some things you might like to include:
- Examine your thoughts – Are they real? Are they reasonable? What is the absolute worst thing that can happen right now? What would I do if it did? How much does this actually matter? What do I make it mean? Where can I find evidence that this thought is true? For more on this, I highly recommend Byron Katie’s The Work.
- Give yourself deadlines for your next actions – Walk around for 10 minutes and then sit back down to work, or maybe cry for one hour and then start planning your next action, or perhaps go and write in your journal for one hour. This is personal to what you know works for you but it’s a great way to break the pattern and get yourself in another environment for a few minutes before returning to your work.
- Identify when you need to use it – Sarah had a rule that as soon as she started feeling that sick feeling in her stomach, it was time to go to the Reset Script. Maybe your trigger is physical or when you start noticing certain behaviours. Whatever judgment or perfectionism means to you, and how it manifests itself should be a trigger to go to your Reset Script.
- Find a reset partner – As a recovering perfectionist, I have found that, like Brene Brown says, my shame cannot survive the light. By having a trusted partner who understands how my brain works, I can safely go to this person when I get stuck and she will know exactly what’s going on and how to help me. She knows my Reset Script, and helps me normalize what’s happening.
- If you’re looking for some help setting up your own reset script, I’ve created a worksheet here for you to work through.
- Focus on one thing at a time. Let’s face it, we’ve always got plenty of options of things to keep us busy. This is both exciting and overwhelming, but when we get overrun with perfectionist thoughts, it can be tempting to just start spiralling when thinking of all the things that are looming and we try to do them all at once to feel like we’re making progress. But, in fact, this prevents us from doing exactly that. The world will not end if you focus on one thing at a time, and you’ll feel so much better having accomplished something rather than only having made progress on a fraction of a bunch of things.
- Give yourself realistic time blocks to work within. One of the things perfectionists fall prone to is overwork. Because they take on too much, thinking that doing more will give them more opportunities to feel better about themselves, they will burn themselves out working to try and fit it all in. My giving yourself boundaries to work within, you can reel that in and see in advance what you can actually take on (because you’d rather not disappoint someone than take on too much, right?).
- Practice doing things “off the cuff”. Ad hoc anything is a perfectionist’s worst nightmare. The discomfort with not giving everything a thorough edit is so strong that it’s almost impossible for a perfectionist to let anything be casual. They avoid anything that wouldn’t allow them to have time and space to work and rework and ensure it’s perfect. But this means everything takes more time, and that you may actually be stifling your creativity and authenticity, which are so key to marketing and selling. So start with small, insignificant things that won’t matter so much, and graduate to more important things with increasingly higher stakes. Eventually you’ll learn that not only will everything be OK, but they might actually even be better! Sometimes done is truly better than perfect, and with your high standards, chances are you would actually create something amazing.
- Poll your audience and see what they really want. Perfectionists tend to take on everything all at once because they don’t want to leave any stone unturned. That can be exhausting because we rarely have time for all the things. However, if you get really, really clear on what your audience really wants and thinks is important, or where they are hanging out, you will have evidence that you can focus your efforts in a few effective places rather than being everywhere doing everything.
- Decide where high standards really matter, and where they can be relaxed. The perfectionist’s default is that anything they do needs to be done to the highest quality or to the “most” possible, even if it takes extraordinarily more effort to do it. Oftentimes, they have just never gone through a logical analysis of whether high standards actually matter. Work through your processes step-by-step, look at how long each step takes, and why. Ask yourself if each process needs to take so long, and if each step is really actually necessary in order to reach your goals. If you allow yourself to have higher standards where it actually makes sense for your business, you can relieve yourself in other areas where it doesn’t matter so much, without feeling as though you are compromising or working against your natural tendencies.
- Make changes in baby steps. Nothing will set a perfectionist into a spiral more quickly than trying to change everything all at once. Just like with these recommendations, I’d suggest trying one small thing at a time. No one needs more overwhelm than they already have. Plus, small changes feel like less risk for a perfectionist, so they can more easily get behind trying than a large, complex, wholesale change.
- Daily self-gratitude and acceptance exercises. Changing the dialogue inside your head is not an easy or immediate task. This kind of change takes time since our stories are so wickedly entrenched. Spend five minutes each day writing down the things that you are grateful for in yourself, and that you are happy with and accept. This may feel silly and uncomfortable at first but force yourself to do it each day, and soon enough you will begin to believe it yourself.
- Create a starting routine/habit. Perfectionists have a really, really hard time getting started on things because they get paralyzed by how to do it “right”. I found over the years that I had such a hard time starting a written assignment because I was applying my high standards to written work. I could easily start throwing a bunch of unstructured ideas onto paper, but I had such a hard time starting with narrative. So I would start by just brain-dumping a bunch of thoughts in a data-based tool like a mindmapper, and then organizing them from there into written word. As soon as something was there, I didn’t feel anxiety anymore, but to get there I just needed to start in a different way that my brain wasn’t applying my “high standards” to. Whatever that routine or habit is for you, use that every time you have to start something, and make it easier for you to bypass the judgmental part of your brain that holds you back.
- Create a distraction-free workplace. One of the coping mechanisms for perfectionists is to distract themselves from the task at hand with eleventy billion other things that feel less risky/at stake/hard. They will check email, social media channels, feed the dog, do the dishes… everything can become a priority when faced with perfectionist freeze. Create a workplace (or go somewhere) where there are no distractions. Put your phone away, turn off the TV, and give yourself the best chance of focusing possible.
- Practice eliminating “should” from your vocabulary. Perfectionists live in a world of “should”. They think that they should do everything possible to try and get it “just right’. Or that if they are leaving something out, it’s a failure of their high standards. Or they hear that someone needs something and because they can help, they should. By consciously evaluating each task or activity and disallowing “shoulds”, you’re giving yourself choices and saving yourself from the overpowering guilt that plagues you. “Could” is bursting with possibility, empowerment and choice. “Should” is laden with guilt, burden and anxiety.
- Identify your fears. Treading a thin line here with what a therapist might help with, but perfectionism is derived from fear. Fear usually has a source, and if we can figure out the source of those fears, it gets us on the pathway to change. When perfectionism strikes, take the time to write down what you are fearful of, and what could happen in this situation that would cause you pain. Sometimes just identifying it and calling it by name is enough to help dissipate the anxiety.
So there you have it – some practical, small steps you can take to start putting perfectionism in its place – relegated to the hall closet!
Unlearning ingrained behaviour is a long and winding process, which takes dedication and intention to achieve. The best thing you can do is start, and try one small step at a time. Give yourself grace if things don’t always work out as you had hoped. A setback here and there is OK!
I’d love to know if these have helped in any way! Where have you found the best success in combatting perfectionism in your business? Where are you willing to start?
If you’d like to download these tips into a handy reference you can keep beside your desk, I’ve created a free guide here with a bonus worksheet for your Reset Script that you can use to help you create your own.
Good luck on your de-perfectionisting journey! Be kind to yourself and know you are amazing, exactly as you are!
Tell me in the comments…
Where do you see perfectionism show up in your life and in your business?
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