Imagine you’re taking a multiple choice exam, and you come across a question you’re unsure of. You do your best to contemplate the right answer, but in the end, you have to rely on– *cringe*– a guess. So you choose ‘B’ and hover your pencil over it. But then you second-guess your guess. Maybe it’s ‘A’ after all! Wait, what was the reasoning behind guessing ‘B’ first? Maybe that was more valid. OR maybe ‘D’. Crap, now we’re back to square one, just read the question and answers all over again…
We know this can’t take forever. After all, this hypothetical exam is timed, and you have more questions to get through. But statistically speaking, your first instinct of choosing ‘B’ would likely be the correct answer. Second-guessing your guess in a multiple choice test frequently does more harm than good. So fill in the ‘B’ bubble, breathe through the anxiety that it might be wrong, and move on.
Taking action to push through ‘perfectionist paralysis’–the anxiety-filled procrastination driven by wanting to make progress perfect from beginning to end–requires a similar process. Last week’s post, Part 1, was mostly about the “breathe through the anxiety” bit. This week, Part 2, will be more about the logistics on how to “move on”.
Here are a few tips on how to keep yourself moving forward, and prevent future stumbles into perfectionist paralysis.
1. Exercise realistic goal-setting and prioritization.
Your over-eager mind is just dying to tell you all the different ways you can defeat imperfection. It likes to incessantly add more to your to-do list before you even get started. This creates a fantastic breeding ground for perfectionist paralysis.
Keep your mind focused on action instead. Organize your thoughts and start narrowing things down to your most realistic, most important to-do items. Ask yourself:
- If my goal or project can be broken down into tiny step-by-step tasks, what would those be?
- Of those tasks, which are the top 3 priorities to focus on right now?
- How much time am I currently dedicating each day to those 3 priorities?
- If the answer is not much, or not as much as I’d like to in order to be effective, then what am I spending my time on?
As I work toward my own goal of building up this blog, I often have to remind myself to stick to my top priorities in the moment. I have so many ideas bouncing around in my head. So many ways I can improve what’s already published. So much advice I hear from other bloggers. I can get distracted easily, and have had those days that I wasted by over-researching things like animation tutorials for mindfulness-themed videos I could feature on a few of my posts in 3-5 years. (Don’t even get me started on how many days I spent choosing my color theme before I launched my first few articles.)
Your mind will always try to distract you even as you take these steps, but keep your top 3 priorities written down and memorized so you can keep asking yourself periodically, Is what I’m focusing on right now helping me achieve one of my top priorities?
Having a clear set of priorities will also help you know when to celebrate yourself (and please do) when you complete a step toward your big-picture goal.
And, speaking of acknowledging your progress along the way:
2. Listen to healthy self-coaching.
Another thing your mind will reliably do is keep playing and replaying recordings of your inner critic. This critic is an artist whose craft can toss you back into paralysis, and its tactics strike an even more personal note than the never-ending to-do list.
What are your inner critic’s most popular hits? It might be a comparison opera. Or a sad song about past failures. Perhaps a death metal DO MORE, DO BETTER, AND DO IT FAST number. If given your attention, they’ll all inspire you to fall back into perfectionist paralysis. So do what you would with any annoying song you can’t turn off: Let that noise play in the background, and do your best to fill your mind’s attention channels with something else; ideally, some healthy, compassionate self-coaching instead.
Earlier this year, I joined a boxing and Muay Thai gym after freaking out at my new job for three months. That was three months of having an intense perfectionist mindset in a new setting after having spent the previous two years getting work-rusty as a stay-at-home mom. Basically, I joined the gym with two bald spots in my hair and a very loud inner critic. Even though I was gradually adapting more and more to the job, because my introduction back to the work field was so imperfect, I was filled with doubts about my capability to continue working as a therapist. The perfectionist paralysis had spread to afflict my whole career.
In my first week, the master at the gym had written on the white board the following rules to healthy self-coaching:
- If you do something great, tell yourself you did great.
- If you do something good, tell yourself you did good enough.
- If you failed, tell yourself, “Needs work.”
Do you ever have those moments when someone says something you need to hear at the exact moment you need to hear it?
3. Don’t hesitate.
The last tip I’ll share on keeping up your momentum is to override hesitation.
Motivational speaker and author of “The 5 Second Rule”, Mel Robbins, emphasizes that the brain can be tricked into overriding common paralyzing fears, and this is true.
If you mentally commit to taking action, but you physically hesitate to follow through when the moment comes, your mind will pick up on your body’s reaction and think, “You’re hesitating?! You must be in some kind of pickle. Let me intervene.” It will then give itself permission to overthink again. It will start replaying your paralyzing fears and criticisms.
To override this, Robbins suggests counting back from 5 and then launching yourself into your committed action, as it only takes a matter of seconds for the mind to go from the initial hesitation to paralyzing overthinking. The action may start out feeling robotic, kind of how you force yourself to get out of bed and get ready for work even when your motivation to do so isn’t that high. This is frequently referred to as “opposite action.” You don’t have to feel 100% motivated to follow through with something in the moment. If you know what needs to be done, and your priorities agree that it’s important to do right now, then launch yourself into it without hesitation. And trust that if you come across a setback or problem, or learn about a better way to do things along the way, you’ll adjust. The important part is, you act.
These tips still won’t make your progress perfect. But just as knowing that going with your first instinct is statistically better for your multiple choice exam score, these guidelines may give you a sense of comfort that you’re doing your best to go in the right direction.