7 Steps to Break the ‘Perfectionism, Procrastination, Paralysis’ Cycle

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It’s time to lower the bar. Lower… no, keep going. There.

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: A swirling to-do list in your brain. A list so long that even the simplest task becomes overwhelming and all-consuming.

Even as I sit here writing this article, I’m overwhelmed with the points I want to make and how to phrase them. It leaves me wanting to throw up my hands and deal with it later.

Getting things done or let alone getting organized when you struggle with anxiety can be overwhelming.

It’s this sense of overwhelm that feeds one of the common patterns that people struggle with: the perfectionism-procrastination-paralysis cycle.

For many people, the idea of doing a task in a less-than-perfect way may be grounds enough to say, “Forget the whole thing!”

Whether that perfectionism stems from a fear of judgment or judgments you have of yourself, the anxiety likes to convince you that if you can’t do everything and do it perfectly? You should probably do nothing at all.

But inevitably, there comes a point when that avoidance has gone on for far too long — and just when it’s time to pull it together? You freeze.

And along comes anxiety’s best friend: shame. Shame wants to constantly remind you that the task didn’t get done, only reinforcing your perfectionism… and perpetuating the cycle.

Getting organized has now become not only a monumental task — it’s now an existential crisis, as you begin to wonder what could be so “wrong” with you that you keep getting stuck.

Am I just lazy? Is my brain broken? Why do I do this to myself? What’s the matter with me?

Rest assured, you’re not alone. And there are very practical ways to overcome anxiety so that this cycle is not only something you can manage, but something you can conquer.

“The good thing about cycles is that they can be reversed in an equally cyclical way,” says Dr. Karen McDowell, clinical director of AR Psychological Services.

“When you tackle perfectionism, you’re less likely to procrastinate,” she says. “When you procrastinate less, you don’t get that sense of panic and paralysis, so your work ends up looking and feeling better than it would have otherwise.”

But where to begin? To break the cycle, follow these 7 steps:

1. Consciously lower the bar

The first step to breaking that cycle is to recognize that often times, accomplishing tasks is a slow process, and an imperfect one at that — and that’s normal and totally okay.

It won’t happen all at once. It’s okay to take your time. It’s okay to make mistakes (you can always go back and fix them later!).

In other words, it’s okay to be human.

It’s easy to forget this, though, when so many of the expectations we have of ourselves are lurking just below the surface, fueling our anxiety.

As a writer, it’s my job to write every single day. One of the best pieces of advice someone gave me was, “Remember, not every single piece needs to be a gem.” Meaning, don’t shoot for the Pulitzer Prize with every assignment I have. Nothing would ever get done and I’d wind up challenging my self-worth on a daily basis. How exhausting!

Instead, I’ve learned to separate which tasks deserve the bulk of time and attention, and which ones are okay to ease up on. This doesn’t mean accepting laziness! It just means understanding that B-level work is so very far from failure — and a normal part of life.

Before diving into your work, make a conscious decision to lower the bar. Free yourself from the expectation that you have to give 100 percent of yourself to everything you do.

2. Keep your tasks bite-sized

“Tackling perfectionism requires disrupting all-or-nothing thinking,” says Dr. McDowell. “For example, if you’re trying to get your inbox organized, it’s not going to help if you consider that as one single task. Figure out what the components of the task are, and take them in bite sizes.”

Breaking down tasks into their smaller pieces not only makes them more manageable, but leads to more frequent feelings of accomplishment as you cross each one off your list.

Let’s look at it this way: You have to plan your wedding. You might be tempted to write “get flowers” as a task, for example, but that could invoke feelings of overwhelm.

Sometimes the very act of crossing something off a list instills motivation to get more done. This is why no task is too small for your list! It can be as simple as, “Google florists in my area.” Cross it off, feel good about accomplishing something, and repeat the positivity.

Small victories build momentum! So set up your tasks accordingly.

3. Track your time

It’s important to remember that when a task is looming over us and we’ve built it up to be a behemoth, we often overestimate the time it takes for us to complete it. When you think an anxiety-inducing task will take the entire day, you also tend to not schedule any time for self-care.

“Balancing priorities is important,” says Dr. Supriya Blair, licensed clinical psychologist. “This is why we include time for social and self-care activities during our daily and weekly schedule. Holding oneself accountable to follow through on work and fun activities takes practice, patience, and self-compassion.”

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