The link between procrastination and perfectionism has to do with construal level theory. When you picture getting started straight away the close temporal distance puts you in near mode, where you see all the detailed impediments to doing a perfect job. When you think of doing the task in the future some time, trade-offs and barriers vanish and the glorious final goal becomes more vivid. So it always seems like you will do a great job in the future, whereas right now progress is depressingly slow and complicated. This makes doing it in the future seem all the more of a good option if you are obsessed with perfection.That "depressingly slow and complicated" progress is made worse if, like me, you're hypercritical. John Siracusa coined the term in a 2009 Ars Technica piece to describe an extreme form of perfectionism:
Knowing what's wrong with something (or thinking that you do, which, for the purposes of this discussion, should be considered the same thing) does a fat lot of good if you lack the skills to correct it. And thinking that you know what's wrong with everything requires significant impulse control if you want to avoid pissing off everyone you meet.Creative work is painful for me. In straightforward tasks, the space of all possible outcomes is tightly constrained. For example, cleaning the kitchen counter is completed when all non-permanent blemishes are gone. But creative work has a much larger possibility space. For any piece of creative output I can find fault, and for many of these faults I cannot provide an immediate fix. Some I cannot even concretely define.
But much worse than that, it means that everything you ever create appears to you as an accumulation of defeats. "Here's where I gave up trying to get that part right and moved on to the next part." Because at every turn, it's apparent to you exactly how poorly executed your work-in-progress is, and how far short it will inevitably fall when completed. But surrender you must, at each step of the process, because the alternative is to never complete anything—or to never start at all.
Managing this sort of debilitating perfectionism is what separates the successful from the chronically unfulfilled. John Siracusa cites Steve Jobs as an example of a successful hypercritical thinker. There is an ocean of capability between someone like Jobs and myself, and crossing that ocean will be a continuous process.
For now, there are two complementary goals: minimize procrastination and manage perfectionism. Breaking these up into actionable chunks will be a task for future blog posts.