Thursday, May 24, 2012

Perfection and Procrastination

Procrastination's always been a problem for me. It's a problem for many, if not most, people. On a fundamental level, it makes sense: the act of work, itself, is harder than not working, or else it wouldn't be "work." Why wouldn't we put it off if we could?

 But it's often more than  a simple aversion to effort. For me, it's also hard to do work when you feel like you're failing as you do it, when you feel that no amount of work will take what you've made and make it satisfactory. It's partially an aversion to effort, certainly. But it's also an aversion to imperfection.

It took me awhile to get the perfectionist connection to procrastination and to myself; I assumed that a perfectionist would be the sort of person who labored intensively for hours trying to get every last thing right. And, for some, that's the case.

But then I had a conversation with my therapist
Me: "I often notice my clients repeating patterns or behaviors, and I think 'if you could just stop doing that, you'd be so much happier and healthier.' Do you have that experience with me?"
Her: "I sometimes wish that you could stop being so much of a perfectionist and just give yourself a break."
Me: "But how could I be a perfectionist? Pretty much everything I do is miles from perfect."
<two second pause>
Me: "Oh, right. I see your point."

The fear if imperfection fuels my procrastination. I put things off because one cannot worry about creating inferior material when you literally have to work at that moment or not get the damn thing done. Procrastinating until the last minute is what saves me from having to experience doubt, fear, and failure.

So what can I do? A friend posted a link about forgiving yourself for procrastination being the key, but I think that addresses a symptom not a cause. The really hard, and more important, thing, is to forgive yourself for being human: to accept that you will inevitably make mistakes and to instead find virtue in the attempt.

I've been learning that, slowly but surely. I delayed reading my adviser's response and making changes to my IRB application for eight days. I could have put it off longer, but I pushed myself to just sit down and do it. It took me maybe 45 minutes. After having it weigh on me for eight days. And you know what? It felt good to get it done. It felt good to do the work.

It felt good in the same way that Physics 101 and AP Calculus II did, because I had to actually work to get the concepts. And, when I did, I felt like I'd really accomplished something. It's what I loved about (pre-abstract) math: you do the work, you can eventually get the right answer. And it's what I hated about Chemistry/science: you do the work, and real world variables can still screw it up.

But that's also why I left Math: Partially because it was so time-consuming and hard. But, more importantly, because it didn't feel real (at the levels I was at). There are not perfect answers in life. You can check an answer in Math, but it's much harder to find anything approaching that certainty in the questions of who we are, what we want, and how we get it.

Tackling procrastination is just as much about tackling my inherent feelings of worthlessness. I need to learn how to see value in work, even if the results aren't perfect. It's appreciating the challenge of a paper. It's being present with clients, not fixing them. It's caring about someone, about myself, even if, someday, everything ends. It's getting hurt, and accepting that that's the cost of a life lived.

But that's me (for the moment). What's your relationship to procrastination? If you do it, why? If you don't, why the hell not?

No comments:

Post a Comment