How to Overcome Perfectionism and Procrastination

It’s only natural to want to do your best at university. To get the perfect grade, flawless assignment, or resume full of awards. But when it comes to studying, striving for perfection isn’t always equal to doing your best. In fact, it’s possible this drive for perfection is actually hindering your chance of success. 

If you’re wondering whether you are a perfectionist, there’s a good chance you are—at least to a degree. Perfectionists strive towards being flawless, are overly critical of themselves, and are excessively concerned about negative evaluations from others. Perfectionism is common amongst ambitious students and young professionals, and it’s also widely misunderstood. 

What is Perfectionism, and Why Does it Matter?

You may not consider yourself a perfectionist because you feel "so far from perfect so much of the time", however if you:

  • struggle with procrastination
  • perform poorly because of the pressure you feel
  • experience an intense fear of failure
  • constantly criticize yourself and your performance...

...then you may be struggling with perfectionism.

Perfectionism is not about being perfect. It’s about setting unrelenting, excessively high standards and criticising yourself if you don’t meet them. It can make you feel like you don’t deserve a rest and that you are a failure if you make a mistake or fall short of the expectations you set for yourself. 

Students who struggle with perfectionism operate from an intense fear of failure and feel unsafe when they are forced to interact with the unknown. This discomfort makes new experiences intimidating and can turn assessments into terrifying opportunities for failure. This increases the chance of developing depression, anxiety and burnout and can impact a student’s ability to learn. 

How to overcome perfectionism 

For many, perfectionism is born out of a mindset that requires working hard at all costs, however it’s actually a really unproductive way of thinking. 

So, what if we swapped this with a more a ‘productive’ mindset. One which allows you to encourage yourself and others to set realistic timelines, explore new opportunities and learn from things that don’t turn out as planned — all of which more closely correlate with results. 

It’s sounds easy on paper, but how can you switch from a perfectionist mindset to a productive one?

How to embrace a conscientious mindset

1. Reject the flourish or fail mindset

The flourish or fail mindset insists there are only two outcomes for anything you attempt: either you perform flawlessly, meeting all standards and exceeding all expectations, or you fail miserably. This mindset feeds the belief that if you don't perform perfectly, you have failed, and therefore, you and your work are worthless.

By rejecting the flourish or fail mindset, you can expand your definition of success. This allows you to reflect on your values and focus on the process of learning and embrace your studies with curiosity and conscientiousness. The next time you feel the mounting pressure of perfectionism, remind yourself, "my success is as unique as I am, I don't need to be perfect to succeed.

2. Prioritise progress over perfection – Done is better than perfect

Perfectionism frequently leads to procrastination and paralysis. When we feel overwhelming pressure to perform perfectly on the first try, we put off assignments and study until we feel ready to be perfect – a feeling that, of course, never comes. So how do you overcome this vicious cycle of anxiety and procrastination? The answer is simple, make your first goal highly achievable and low stakes.

This could be as simple as:

- Setting a 10-minute timer with the goal of reading the task sheet before time runs out.

- Create three questions you need to answer in your research.

- Create flashcards or other resources to help you study.

You may find the momentum you gain from achieving the first task on your list actually motivates you to complete your next goal right away.

3. Celebrate your wins!

Constant self-criticism is exhausting and often leaves students with no energy or motivation for their studies. But thankfully, there is a simple way of combating that struggle mindset – celebrating your wins. By setting small attainable goals and rewarding yourself when you achieve them, you will see a huge difference in your mindset. By rewarding behaviours over outcomes, you bring success within your realm of control. This allows you to feel pride in yourself and can increase self-confidence.

4. Practice self-compassion

Practicing self-compassion can help challenge the negative stories you tell yourself and make choices that support you in moving away from perfectionism and towards a conscientious approach. When you notice you are being unkind to yourself, ask, "does this thought help me make healthy sustainable choices?" If the answer is no, simply acknowledge the thought does not benefit you and move on.

5. Seek social support

By surrounding yourself with friends who strive for excellence and prioritize learning alongside their wellbeing, you can support each other to succeed academically and personally. Encourage your friends to engage in healthy study habits and remind them they don't need to be perfect to be successful. Talking with friends gives you the opportunity to practice what you preach and gives you a supportive community to keep you accountable.

6. Practice imperfection

A great way to start practicing imperfection is choosing an area of your life that isn’t linked to your studies. This does not have to be something public; just something you can begin to push the boundaries of what you think you can tolerate.

Take 10 minutes from your screen time and devote it to:

  • sketching the view from your window
  • learning the lyrics to a song
  • or trying a quick new workout routine

It doesn't matter what the activity is; it just needs to be new to you. 

Final thoughts

Remember, no one can overcome perfectionism perfectly! It's a process of letting go of old habits and standards and embracing a new perspective. Focus on small manageable goals, celebrate your wins and reward behaviour that encourages a conscientious mindset. Your best is worth pursuing, so don't let perfectionism get in the way!

Finally, know that you’re not doing this alone! There are plenty of avenues of support you can turn to, including a range of programs and counselling services offered at UQ to help support students’ mental health and wellbeing. We also highly encourage you to check out UQ's Sharper Minds program which offers a package of FREE resources designed for undergraduate and honours students to help support your physical and mental health at university. 

You may also be interested in reading:

Feel like an imposter? You’re not alone.
Five healthy habits to look after your mental health at university
How to avoid and deal with university burnout

Last updated:
29 August 2023