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When procrastination is just procrastination August 17, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, societal commentary, teaching, work.
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Last week, I wrote a post at my favorite engineering blog on how to deal with perfectionism when it manifests itself as procrastination.

There were a couple of comments on that article that I wanted to look at:

After many years in engineering I have found that you need to be able to throw stuff away. 

and

But how do you know when procrastination is about being lazy, not wanting to do it, or Perfectionism? I was label a Perfectionist in college when going for my BT in Network Administration. It mostly hit me in my writing assignments. The question relates to my guilt about being labeled a Perfectionist since my GPA ~2.7 might suggest otherwise.

The first case of not wanting to throw things away is not necessarily perfectionism.  Perfectionists want to do things perfectly, but they usually are more than willing to rip something up and throw it away when they realize it’s going to end up imperfect.  Sometimes they will do this repeatedly, not realizing that they have seriously violated that corruption of the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule.  (In fact, I’ll bet most perfectionists have never heard of it.)

In fact, I have gotten really fed up with people who aren’t willing to go back and improve their work.  I have run into many students and have had coworkers who suffer from what I call “Don’t Want To Do This Over” syndrome.  In students, it’s just plain annoying, but with coworkers, it can be pernicious.  Students will often say they’ve got it done, it’s good enough…even when it is clear they’ve done the absolute minimum to complete the assignment.  With students, however, it’s understandable as they often have other classes.  Other times, it’s a class that isn’t in their major and they simply aren’t interested.  There are also those who really did make the maximum possible effort, and that’s the best they can do…even if, as a teacher, you find the result underwhelming.

This is a trait that makes me absolutely insane when it shows up in coworkers.  I’ve had coworkers who have refused to start things until we have every detail of the project nailed down.  They also will not take initiative to complete things as someone may ask them to change it later.  They will get bogged down in details, thinking that they can’t do anything without defined minutia.  And when they do something, they will either expect you to live with the results and problems that arrive from their lack of quality or even expect you to rave about the quality of their work (undeserving as it may be).  Of the people I’ve worked with, those who have this “Don’t want to do it over” attitude make me nuts primarily because it flies in the face of perfectionism.  Not wanting to do something over when necessary often means, to me, that they don’t care about the quality of their work.

It’s crazy to expect that everything one does the first time will be perfect, and I say that as an perfectionist: I would rather spend extra time and do a good quality project to give to someone else than rush through things and give them something that I did once and in which I can still see a lot of flaws.

The second point above is similar: all procrastination is not perfectionism.  There are a lot of reasons that people procrastinate, and a lot of them don’t have to do with perfectionism.  It’s normal to occasionally feel overwhelmed and stressed, and this will lead even the most diligent person to procrastinate.  Sometimes people procrastinate because lack of interest in a subject or simple boredom.  And there can be other reasons.

Back to the ‘big picture’, I talked about procrastination as being a sign of perfectionism.  However, that by itself does not mean one is a perfectionist.  A perfectionist will have several other ways of expressing their perfectionism.  (A good article which catalogues some of these behaviors is here.)  However, that doesn’t mean that those other reasons for procrastination make it any less frustrating.

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