We’ve all been there. A huge deadline is looming and you’re so focused on doing the job perfectly that you freeze up completely and leave everything until the last minute.
Welcome to the debilitating world of task paralysis, “a transient feeling of being stuck in a place of uncertainty, unsure of where to begin,” according to Mary Kingsbury Enquist, assistant vice president; strategy, planning and business development at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Worse than that, she explains, “This lack of clarity holds you back from being able to leverage your full creativity and foils your attempts to harness your energy to focus on the goals you’ve set out to achieve.”
Task paralysis starts with perfectionism
Believe it or not, that feeling of choking and being unable to move forward doesn’t mean you’re a slouch — quite the opposite. “It often originates from not knowing where to start or not having enough momentum to keep the pace and cross the finish line,” Enquist said.
To put it into the most basic terms, “Perfectionism and over-analyzing is just a form of procrastination,” according to Tracy Matthews, host of the Thrive by Design Podcast and founder of Creatives Rule the World, where she helps creative thinkers increase their earning capabilities.
“When you wait until everything is perfect, whatever you’re working on will never be finished,” Matthews adds.
“Truth be told, you will never feel ready and if you stay stuck in that, you’ll never complete the tasks and projects you’ve committed to.” And that doesn’t just mean you’re stuck, you might be sabotaging yourself in the process. “Perfectionism, over-analysis and procrastination drain your creativity because it places a mental barrier on your ability to just get it out there,” according to Matthews.
Author and researcher Jon Acuff created a goal-setting course called 30 Days of Hustle and expected to find that most people quit about halfway through the course.
He was shocked to find that people quit a lot quicker than that and some left on only the second day. In his book, FINISH: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Acuff often refers to himself as a “chronic starter” and blames this trait not on laziness, but a quest for perfectionism.
But it’s only temporary
Before you convince yourself you’ll be stuck in this panicked pursuit of perfection forever, it’s important to realize these feelings really do pass.
“When you find yourself spinning in the illusion of perfectionism and fears that you (or your work) won’t measure up, I encourage you to identify that feeling, pause to gain some perspective and remember that task paralysis is transient,” said Enquist. And it might help to shift your focus.
“Turn your focus to the immediate next steps that you need to take and start to break it down to take it down,” Enquist advises. While you’re at it, try “giving yourself short, attainable deadlines (e.g., I’ll get X done in the next hour).”
As you start crossing the easy stuff of your list, you’ll probably find yourself regaining momentum.
Break the habit of perfectionism
Even if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you’re not doomed to an eternity of panic vs. perfection.
Here are some easy-to-implement tips to help you break through the cycle of trying so hard that you almost mess everything up:
- Reframe the way you think: “If you put yourself out there, what’s the worst that can happen?” asks Matthews. If you allow yourself to consider both the worst- and best-case scenario, you might realize that the worst thing isn’t that bad after all. Besides, “What’s the worst thing?” continues Matthews. “Perhaps someone tells you ‘no’ or gives you feedback that improves your idea.” It’s time to overcome your need for perfectionism and just move forward to get the job done. As a wise woman once sang: “Let it go. Let it goooooo.”
- Commit to ambition: Many successful people worry they’re thinking too big and that fear sometimes stops them from moving forward. “This is the step where I set my objective,” Enquist said. “I like to make it aspirational, really pushing myself beyond my previous best work.
- Make a plan: “When you feel overwhelmed and don’t have a plan of what needs to be completed, you’ll often work on the easy or unimportant stuff first or get distracted by email or social media,” Matthews said. A better course of action is to prioritize your tasks. “Break down overwhelming projects into smaller tasks,” Matthews adds. If you can, commit to a doable amount of tasks to finish each day and stick to it. Sometimes the mere action of creating a plan helps you to move forward because you’re already working on it. Enquist says that you should “prepare with rigor,” since this is where “clearly defining your strategies and tactics will help you later in staving off task paralysis.” If it helps, consider it a script and then “develop and stick to a thoughtful plan.”
- Set attainable goals: If it still all feels a bit overwhelming, realize that you don’t have to shoot for number one. Unlike Marie Kondo’s Konmari ethos, which suggests you rid yourself of anything that doesn’t spark joy, in Acuff’s book, he suggests that If you’re trying to declutter your home, start small. For instance, start by cleaning just the basement instead of the whole house. Attaining a smaller goal motivates us to repeat it.
- Beta-test it: Why not make like a tech titan and test out your pitch or product on trustworthy friends or colleagues? “I’m not suggesting you put out sloppy work. However, when you get your ideas, products or projects to market, you can use this as an opportunity to get feedback and know what works,” Matthews said. She advises launching before you’re ready every now and again so you can get customer feedback and improve the experience overall.
- Stay flexible: No matter how much planning and goal-setting you do, “Not everything will go as planned, and that’s OK,” offers Enquist. And don’t give up on yourself. “Trust yourself and your experience to carry you through any turns in the road that might require you to alter your course.”
- Set reward milestones: If your goal is to increase sales, you might actually enjoy the process if you set mini-milestones and reward yourself for getting a task done. Start small — say with new office supplies, or make a chart and check off wins and then save up all of those wins for a new laptop.
- Get rid of secret rules: In his book, Acuff says it’s important to remind ourselves not to create these ridiculous rules that only we know about along the lines of “if it’s easy it doesn’t count.” In fact, he believes silencing those ridiculous ideas also helps us to stop sabotaging ourselves.
Pat yourself on the back for overcoming procrastination
You did it! You overcame your need to excel and still managed to put in a phenomenal day’s work. Now it’s time to pat yourself on the back and maybe even boast about it.
“Not only will you have finished what you started, but you likely gained some experience, built some key relationships and made some positive impressions along the way,” said Enquist.
It’s also a really good idea to “reflect on what went well, what you can learn from and most importantly, what you can do better the next time around.”
But don’t worry about being perfect at everything. Even magical problem-solver Mary Poppins was only practically perfect in every way.
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