Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Overcoming a perfectionist procrastinating self

Knowledge workers have more things to do than you might think. Scientific articles, progress reports, conference papers and presentations, and – obviously – the research supporting all that. However, since thinking about the science we develop is hard and demanding, and unless you develop the ability to laser focus, you most likely procrastinate. But there are other reasons.

Perfectionist

I remember a friend who had a lot of research work done but kept getting sad because other researchers often published what he work hard to publish as well, but didn’t. Not because these authors stoled his work, but due to his perfectionism, he kept postponing the submission of his work to a peer-review journal.

There are several reasons for perfectionism, and you’ll find an excellent and broad book on the topic, “The Joy of Imperfection” by Damon Zahariades. Inspired by what Damon synthesized, here are three reasons why we procrastinate in science because of our perfectionism.

 

Fixed mindset procrastination

Zahariades says “perfection is an illusion, and the struggle to achieve it can only lead to disappointment, frustration, and self-criticism.” This reminds me of the behavior of someone with a “fixed” mindset, according to the psychologist Carol Dweck. If you measure the quality of your work by your standards alone, it will never be ready to be submitted to the scientific community, and you procrastinate.

Try being less perfectionist and experience a “growth” mindset instead. You can always improve with the review or even rejection of others. You may still be disappointed and frustrated, but overcome this feeling if you keep your gaze fixed on the opportunity for improvement. You risk more but procrastinate less. And with time and experience, the accumulation of improvements leads to better and high-quality work the first time you submit.

 

Harsh inner critic

According to the experience of Zahariades himself “only after I figured out how to silence my inner critic (…) I was able to write with confidence.” This is probably the most common reason for procrastinating your scientific writing. You criticize yourself more than you should. And you can manifest this with a sentence alone.

I remember another friend when I started my research career, which spent an entire morning writing a sentence. It had to be perfect, but was it? It is essential to write scientifically correct sentences, but you only stop when they’re perfect? You should stop when they’re written. And afterward, you review your writing. Hemingway said “the only kind of writing is re-writing,” but you must have something written first.

If your inner critic leads you to procrastination, let him know how the 101 of any writing is bad first drafts. Creativity requires flow, and flow implies mistakes and imperfection. Hampering your creativity is the harsh work of your inner critic. Allow him to procrastinate instead.

 

Overcoming procrastination

Finally, Zahariades also points that “once you give yourself permission to be imperfect and make mistakes, your anxiety will melt away.” And I would add procrastination.

Evolution means this world is always a work-in-progress and that is what makes it exciting. As researchers, our work is always in progress. Significant breakthroughs must still provide more open questions than closed answers. And this openness to imperfection and mistakes can be a driver to your scientific work, give you the courage to submit it and overcome your perfectionist procrastinating self.

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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