Perfectionists Who Procrastinate

I wrote this post last night after my kid went to bed.  

Just kidding. But if that scenario rings true for you, I get it. I’m a (largely) reformed procrastinator and also have experience working with a variety of different people who struggle with procrastination. I’ve written about it in both The Mental Game of Poker and The Mental Game of Trading because it is a common and persistent problem for so many people.

If you haven’t reviewed the books in a while, let me give you a simple breakdown: procrastination starts with the belief that you can always just do it tomorrow. So you delay. And then “tomorrow” becomes “today” and you delay again. And again. And again. Until you build the skill of delaying instead of the skill of getting the work done. In short, “tomorrow” never comes. It’s a fantasy.

Only when you have waited so long that there are no alternatives but to get it done, are you “inspired” to take action. And if you get away with it? Well, then, what’s the reason to change your habits? The only problem is that as a trader or poker player, procrastination takes away your options and prevents you from developing your competencies in a stable and consistent way. And it can show up in some unexpected places.

One somewhat surprising place that procrastination shows up is in those dealing with perfectionism, which on the surface seems to defy logic. You would think that a perfectionist would have no tolerance for procrastination and they would do the opposite and be working all the time. Of course, some are like that, but many others are not and they get trapped in a cycle of procrastination.

Why Perfectionists Procrastinate

Perfectionism is not a singular affliction. And in some cases, procrastination is a way to avoid being less than perfect. 

When you begin a task, especially one that requires revisions and iterations over time, you’re not going to be very good at the onset – which perfectionists do not like. But if you procrastinate, you can avoid having to face being less than perfect. In this case it is less a belief that there is always tomorrow and more of a distaste for being bad and/or the discomfort with proof that you are currently bad at something.

Another place procrastination rears its ugly head is when you delay making a choice because you are terrified it will be the wrong one. By procrastinating, you shrink the time frame to make the choice, lowering the emotional consequence if you get it wrong and the likelihood or time that you can second-guess the decision.

A poker example is delaying a series of simulations to run or setting your schedule for a poker tournament series. A trading example is not adding mental game content to your post-market cool-down. All because you aren’t 100% sure what you’re doing. This is especially true in industries like poker and trading where false feedback in the short-term only adds to the complexity of evaluating your choice.  

Taking Action

When perfectionists are procrastinators, procrastination is not actually the problem – it’s a symptom, and the true underlying flaw is perfectionism. Perfectionism is a topic I spent a lot of time on in The Mental Game of Trading in a way that’s quite universal. Check out the Perfectionism section of Chapter 7 (Confidence) for a deep dive.

If perfect is what you’re after and you are constantly procrastinating, well it’s clear that what you are currently doing is far from perfect. One thing you can do is redefine what it means to be perfect. Instead of focusing on the results and outcomes you want to obtain, put the focus on perfecting your process. If you take a step back and create a game plan, while giving yourself a chance to test and improve, you become more perfect in your process.

Also, if you think your perfectionism is far too intense and is creating problems for you elsewhere, outside of poker or trading, I suggest looking at your confidence. If perfectionism is impacting multiple areas of your life, in my experience there’s a high chance that you have a weakness in confidence and perfection is your way of compensating for it.

I also want to remind you to focus on progress. You need to be realistic about how to build capacity in your process. If “perfect” is 20 minutes of diligent work in your cool-down, start with 5 minutes and steadily build up to 20 minutes. This practice also links back to confidence as you can acknowledge your success with the smaller goals and continue to build on that success.

Most importantly, expose yourself to the struggle. Keeping yourself in a bubble where you can’t fail hurts both your capability and your resilience. Staying on the sidelines makes your mental game more brittle. Putting yourself in the fire is how you forge strength.

Written by Jared Tendler

July 11, 2022

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