Done is better than perfect

Advice from a former procrastinator

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A piece of white paper with a heading saying “To Do List” and one item stating “Mainly procrastinate”
PHOTO: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

By: Hayleigh Giesbrecht, SFU student

My 12th grade geography teacher once told me I’d be a great college student because I was so good at procrastinating. I laughed at what I assumed was a tongue-in-cheek remark because a) I hadn’t done the assignment that day, and b) I had a lifetime’s worth of school counsellors telling me the opposite. Then he said, “No, I’m being serious.” I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but when I began university a few years later, his words regularly came back to me. The truth is, I was really good at procrastinating, and I was a really good college student.

I went on to graduate with an honours degree in history, a gamut of extra-curriculars on my CV, as well as a never-ending, chronic sense of productivity fatigue. As proud and impressed as I am with myself, I know I only pulled this off through the sheer force of willpower, Zoloft, and unachievable expectations. I am the student that starts every semester naïvely holding a binder full of crisp dividers and a meticulously planned week-at-a-glance schedule — yet, I’m also the student who by week three, descends into a deep fatigue. But, dividers be damned, I almost always pulled an A.

The person who procrastinates because they’re a perfectionist suffers more than most people give them credit for. They know that once they begin doing whatever it is that’s giving them anxiety, the mental noise eventually fades away and the work does itself. Those familiar with the feeling of paralysis at the thought of starting even the most basic assignment know that sitting down at your desk and booting up Microsoft Word is always the hardest part. But writer E.B. White said it best: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” I too often came close to skipping assignments entirely, opting to receive a barely passing grade, because my inner perfectionist was deafeningly loud. But there really is nothing like the last 24-hours before a paper is due (or two weeks after an extension and numerous emails from the professor) to force words onto the page, coherent or not.

It was in these moments of panic-driven efficiency that I knew I was my own worst critic, and my routine of setting outrageously high expectations for myself was based on an idealistic notion of my own capacity for productivity. They were moments of clarity that I always forgot about after the dopamine crash that followed the last exam or paper of the semester. All over again, I would vow to get a new planner, to try some other variation of the Cornell method — to be better. But I am not a naturally productive person; I am a procrastinator.

For a long time, I refused to believe that I could be both a procrastinator and a successful student, and in a sense I still don’t, because it’s an unsustainable way to live. But I came to realize that all the “study with me” style Instagram influencers who peddle their own custom Notion templates and a Squarespace discount code were battling the same perfectionist demon that I was. It wasn’t until my last semester, during an honours seminar of all places, that my professor gave me the most straightforward piece of advice I’d ever received: “Done is better than perfect.” Perfectionist-procrastinators will be hard-pressed to admit there really is no world in which an assignment is both perfect and complete. There is no optimal way to take notes for retention or time-block your calendar, because at the end of the day, the job is done — ideally to the best of your abilities, but most importantly to the best that your mental health and capacity will allow. Yes, there are strategies that can help, but they aren’t fix-all solutions for an issue that comes from the psychological crisis of needing to do things perfectly or not at all.

I struggled with procrastination throughout my entire degree. The 3.9 GPA I graduated with might seem like evidence to the contrary, but I would rather have taken the hit to my GPA than months later be suffering from the constant feeling of not doing enough while never really having the motivation or the discipline to do even a little. What the school counsellors don’t tell you is that, even if you can get by with abysmal time management and still pull off an A, the suffering increases tenfold when the thing you procrastinate is also the thing you love the most. Your hobbies become work and your guts become liquid at the thought of being bad at something. On my worst days, writing — something that typically fulfills me — feels akin to mopping the floor. I have to do it, part of me even craves it, and I generally enjoy the finished product, but starting is truly torturous.

All I can say is that the best technique I’ve found for combatting procrastination is to create something I vehemently hate, and, through enough time and frustration, make it something I love. Or, just go to grad school. Either way, stop listening to people who tell you that the only thing standing between you and a more productive lifestyle is a shiny new app or a 50-dollar planner, because all they’re doing is selling you a new way to hate yourself. The only real way to get something done is to be content with failure and to know that the world is a better place with your ideas and your art in it, imperfect as they may be.

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