Perfectionism and Procrastination

“Striving for excellence motivates you;¬†Striving for perfection is demoralizing.” – Harriet Braiker

As we enter into a new race season filled with possibilities, it’s important to recognize the role
perfectionism plays in our athletic ability. Like it or not, if you’re a triathlete, odds are good that you are, in
large part, a perfectionist. Most “normal” people would feel content simply being able to swim, or to bike,
or to run. Who else but a perfectionist would feel the need to do all three – one after the other after the
other?

“So what’s wrong with being a perfectionist?” you might ask. The answer is procrastination. For many
perfectionists, the idea that they may not be able to do something perfect make them anxious. And what
better way for them to prevent that anxiety than to avoid doing anything they cannot do perfectly?

For athletes, procrastination poses a great challenge to our training – if we don’t train we can’t compete.
Therefore, we have to stay on guard for all the various ways perfectionism causes us to procrastinate.
For example, when we say that we are going to skip a workout because we don’t feel “up to it,” what
we are really saying is “I can’t do this one perfectly so I’ll just avoid it.”

Where does perfectionism come from? Ironically, the need to be perfect stems from a feeling that we are
in some way flawed. It is essentially a critical voice that tells us that we are never enough, that what we
do is never enough, that we can never be enough – unless we try harder. And even then, we still won’t
feel we’re enough. For most people, the source of perfectionism can be traced to early childhood
influences. A critical parent, a coach that pointed out your mistakes, classmates that teased you, can all
contribute to the feeling that you must strive to be perfect (as opposed to feeling that you are perfect just
the way you are – imperfect!).

Perfectionism can be seen as an intense fear of failure. As such, it not only takes a toll on our training, it
also can adversely affect on how we compete. Think about the goals you have set for yourself this
season, the races you have selected. Are you avoiding certain courses or certain distances because
you are afraid you won’t be able to finish (that is not do it perfect)?

One cost of needing to be perfect and fearing failure is missed opportunity. You will never know what
you are capable of unless you try. Another cost is that can turn almost any fun activity into a chore. John
Bingham, a.k.a. “The Penguin,” has for years written a column in Runner’s World magazine where he
advocates running slow and enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells around you, or as he puts it, “to
simply enjoy the most fundamental component of being a runner: running. How much more fun could your
workouts or races be if you didn’t have to do them perfectly?

So as you consider the 2005 season, challenge yourself to risk failing. You might be surprised at how
much more you can accomplish. Set aside procrastination and perfectionism for the next 6 months.
Instead, try taking comfort in the knowledge that the only thing you will ever be able to do perfectly is to
not do everything perfect.

© 2005 Craig Kain, Ph.D.