The Perfectionist’s Guide to Failing
Just get it done, in all its iterations — just write 500 words, just run for 20 minutes, just send the email — usually seems like sound advice. And it can be when you’re procrastinating because you don’t want to do whatever it is. But sometimes the point when you actually sit down to do something is precisely when the problem starts: When the only way you know how to do something is perfectly, it can feel too overwhelming to begin.
For self-proclaimed perfectionists, in particular, the desire to get something right on the first try can be so powerful that nothing ends up getting done at all. When you know you can’t execute the way you want to, procrastinating becomes a coping mechanism. And these unrealistically high standards, in turn, can lead to depression, anxiety, and, perhaps worst of all for a perfectionist, a missed deadline.
But you can overcome that mental block and really, truly just get it done, even if you’re bad at whatever it is you’re doing. Here’s how to accept the fact that taking a clumsy, poorly done first stab at something can be the only path toward actually accomplishing it — and how to let yourself fail when everything in you is fighting against it.
Break It Down to Smaller Steps
Getting into a state of flow — where everything else fades away and you’re totally focused on the task at hand — typically only happens when your skill level is well matched to what you’re doing, says psychologist Keith Sawyer, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina. If the challenge is too big, he explains, the task gets frustrating; if it’s too small, it gets boring.
If you find yourself hitting a wall, sometimes the answer isn’t to push through, but to make things easier on yourself. This can mean breaking down a big project into several smaller projects, or learning to draw a stick figure before you attempt to paint the Sistine Chapel. “Whenever anybody starts learning something for the first time, they’re going to be really bad at it,” Sawyer says. But “if you can reduce the challenges to match your skill level, you can still be in flow even when your skill level is low.”