Many procrastinators do not realize that they are perfectionists, for the simple reason that they have never done anything perfectly, or even nearly so… Perfectionism is a matter of fantasy, not reality. Here’s how it works in my case. I am assigned some task, say, refereeing a manuscript for a publisher… Immediately my fantasy life kicks in. I imagine myself writing the most wonderful referees report. I imagine giving the manuscript an incredibly thorough read, and writing a report that helps the author to greatly improve their efforts. I imagine the publisher getting my report and saying, “Wow, that is the best referee report I have ever read.” I imagine my report being completely accurate, completely fair, incredibly helpful to author and publisher.
At first Perry seems to suggest that the perfectionist tries to do the job too well and gets sidetracked on tangential stepping stones, which doesn’t sound accurate. Then he says:
Procrastinating was a way of giving myself permission to do a less than perfect job on a task that didn’t require a perfect job. As long as the deadline was a ways away, then, in theory, I had time to go the library, or set myself up for a long evening at home, and do a thorough, scholarly, perfect job refereeing this book. But when the deadline is near, or even a bit in the past, there is no longer time to do a perfect job. I have to just sit down and do an imperfect, but adequate job.
But why would you be so willing to give yourself permission to do something else unproductive for six weeks so you will have to do an imperfect job if you aren’t willing to permit an imperfect job straight off? If you’re such a perfectionist, wouldn’t you want to get started straight away and do a perfect job?
Here’s an alternative theory. The link between procrastination and perfectionism has to do with construal level theory. When you picture getting started straight away the close temporal distance puts you in near mode, where you see all the detailed impediments to doing a perfect job. When you think of doing the task in the future some time, trade-offs and barriers vanish and the glorious final goal becomes more vivid. So it always seems like you will do a great job in the future, whereas right now progress is depressingly slow and complicated. This makes doing it in the future seem all the more of a good option if you are obsessed with perfection.
Relatedly, similar tasks designed to prompt far mode increase procrastination over those designed to prompt near mode (summary, gated paper). Perhaps you mostly feel the contrast if you start in far mode, since to do the task you must eventually edge closer near mode? If you start in near mode you can stay there. The kind of trade-off-free perfectionistic fantasizing Perry describes sounds like introducing all tasks to oneself in far mode. I have no time to think about it further; I must return to turning pages and making squiggles with my inky purple pen.