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Coaching tips for clients: “perfectionism and procrastination”

For highly accomplished business professionals, the challenge of overcoming procrastination can be a lifelong struggle.

It may seem counterintuitive that a chronic procrastinator can actually achieve much more than the average person, since many assume procrastinators are lazy or unmotivated, putting off what they could do now until later.

But in fact, procrastinators often are highly driven individuals who just can’t externalize their internal drive on a consistent basis.

They have dreams to achieve grand goals, but a fear of failure (or success) often paralyzes their execution.

Many are perfectionists who undergo a fight or flight response every time a challenge comes their way, choosing to avoid the anxiety of engaging in a task they know is critical to the success they seek.

And many others respond better to the adrenaline that comes with having to meet an emergency deadline while lacking the motivation or vision to see the benefits of early action when such a deadline is still days away.

Moving from Procrastination to Productivity:  An Inside Game

Countless books exist on tackling procrastination, from better planning methods to getting up early everyday; from goal setting apps to reminders to “eat that frog” or set aside fixed amounts of time to sprint through tasks (like the Pomodoro technique).

Different solutions work for different people and in my experience as well as in coaching my clients, I’ve recognized that the value of a solution emerges after experimentation.

One method I’ve found that has worked for many of my clients is more about inaction than action.  It hinges more on self-insight than on knocking off items on a checklist.

When my clients think about how their minds work and how they help or hinder the processing of work, they actually make great leaps.  By sitting with the insight they actually move further than if they just took action.

They remember that our brains have a rational side and an emotional side that are at combat for our attention and that people have personality tendencies which favor each at different times.

So they sit with the feelings of perfectionism and resistance to act by practicing mindfulness.  They extend their awareness of the rational-emotional duality in their mind.  And through such awareness, they are better able to observe the feelings of anxiety or other corollary reactions, and distance themselves from identifying with the feelings.

By non-judgmentally observing the feelings, they recognize these feelings are nothing more than a natural defense mechanism against perceived threats.  And from that recognition, their urge to be perfect dissipates as their willingness to do something rises.

When You Need a Helpful Coaching Reminder

Coaching people through shifting their mindset is very useful.  When these inevitable sensations of fear, fatigue or other internally critical thoughts emerge causing perfectionism or tendency to procrastinate, someone reminding you of the value of sitting with it is vital.  It moves you from knowing the theory to actually remembering to practice.

And just because you are aware of how your mind works in general, doesn’t mean you are equipped to control it in real time.  For this reason, “making plans” to deal with perfectionism is just as important as actually making your typical action plans.

When I work with clients, I suggest some resources to use at the same time.  Here are some I’ve found useful.

Recommendation: Make sure to take one idea you learn from any of these books and start to implement it so you can reflect on its pertinence to your life and your threshold of comfort.

1.  The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The title is a play on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a popular resource for leadership in business.  Referring to the source of inertia as Resistance, author Steven Pressfield provides very useful advice on putting action before analysis as a way of controlling procrastination.

He also reminds us that honoring artistic motivations is critical for differentiated success. But doing so is naturally filled with bouts of self-doubt.

2.  The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. I am a big fan of this book, which looks at procrastination from a time management and planning perspective, as well as a result of how we talk to ourselves and interpret the world around us.

Fiore provides suggestions on changing the way we indicate value behind tasks using different language, since how we talk to ourselves influences how we think and how we think influences how we feel.

The next time you find yourself thinking “I have to get this report finished today” or keep putting off calling a friend because you know you “have to get back to them now or you never will,” try changing the word “have” to “choose.”

Just saying to yourself, “I choose to get this paper finished,” or “I choose to call him back today,” can completely reverse your state and begin the motion toward action.

3.  One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer.

Business schools commonly teach the case of Toyota using Kaizen methods of continuous improvement to reduce costs, improve quality and better engage the workforce.

This book lays out interesting applications of this philosophy to personal improvement and productivity. Following the spirit of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and his quote of “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Maurer discusses how breaking down anything into the smallest steps is possible to fight procrastination.  Because in those smallest of steps, no anxiety or pain arrives yet the small effort can compound in energy and momentum, leading to exponential motivation and sustained change.

4.  Accidental Genius by Mark Levy.

Procrastination comes in as many forms as there are tasks, but one of the most frequent occupations in which it rears its ugly head is in writing.

Writer’s block, analysis paralysis and the putting off of assignments past deadlines are commonplace hazards for those whose careers rely on producing the written word.

We see this happen for so many professions beyond traditional authors, including lawyers, industry executives, bankers, consultants, musicians, journalists, screenwriters, teachers and anyone who has to present messages that aim to move an audience.

Levy provides a remedy in the form of “freewriting” which is meant to provide a risk-free action that gets the brain past its block and gets you creating something rather than thinking about it forever.

His ideas are a great complement to Julia Cameron’s practice of Morning Pages as outlined in her book The Artist’s Way, and I believe commitment to such rituals can make a huge difference in the lives of procrastinators.

5.  Lastly, Seth Godin has a nice presentation on what he and many psychologists refer to as the “Lizard Brain,” another synonym for “inner critic,” “saboteur” or “Resistance.” I’ve uploaded it below for you to watch.

Godin reminds us, just like Daniel Pink did in A Whole New Mind, that success in today’s business world relies on creativity and differentiated value, largely dependent on right brain activity. But the creative types who naturally tap into this part of their brain are also the ones who are most likely to avoid shipping out their ideas for testing and evaluation until they are perfect.

This delay produces a counterproductive effect as the speed to market is diminished. In other words, what good is a great idea if no one knows about it in time?

I hope these ideas are helpful if you tend toward perfectionism.  There is immense value in experimentation and while testing new ideas can be challenging for perfectionists, you may find it gives way to higher productivity and fulfillment.

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