The “3 P’s”: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis

Samantha Stein
3 min readApr 30, 2024

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photo by the author

Many people set their standards high but constantly feel like they’ve failed. This can be because of a vicious cycle made up of what’s known as the “3 P’s”: perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis. Each of these three leads continuously to the next, leaving us feeling stuck and unable to accomplish our goals. That said, there are steps we can take to disrupt this cycle and help bring us to completion.

The first “P,” perfectionism, can be defined as striving towards impossibly high goals. The perfectionist engages in rigid, black or white thinking about their performance. Perfectionism believes if it isn’t perfect, it’s horrible. While aiming high can help us become successful, aiming for perfection sets goals always beyond our reach.

Perfectionism leads to the second “P”: procrastination. Setting our goal to an impossible height can lead to delaying a project until the “perfect time” (which never seems to happen), over-planning, indecision, or never being able to complete a task because it isn’t yet perfect–all leading to procrastination. In other words, the perfectionism-procrastination loop occurs when perfectionism prevents someone from starting a task and then they put it off until later because they think it won’t be perfect.

Another way to think about it is in terms of our innate rewards system. Perfectionism contains a deep criticism of every effort that doesn’t meet an unattainable standard. When faced with that level of criticism, even if it’s coming from within (and we aren’t fully aware of it), we lose our energy and excitement for our project. The human being is a positive reinforcement system. We get energized by praise and acceptance, and we become unmotivated and stuck when we’re criticized.

The final “P,” paralysis, is the outcome of this perfectionism-procrastination loop. As time goes on, we grind to a halt and the project simply fails.

However, this cycle is not unbeatable. There are steps that we can take to avoid falling into the vicious cycle of the 3 “P’s. Here are some ways to get out of the cycle:

  • Become aware of the perfectionistic, judgmental voices in your head. Learn to ignore them and, over time, they will become quieter and significantly less powerful. You can even develop counter-messaging–things you say back to them such as “I’m aware this isn’t perfect and that’s okay with me.”
  • Separate yourself from your results. In other words, help yourself understand that completing something that isn’t perfect is not a negative reflection of who you are. It’s just an imperfect project.
  • Look for role models who are successful and satisfied with “good enough.” Notice how they get things done and don’t judge others.
  • Reframe your relationship with failure. There are no mistakes, there are only learning experiences.
  • Set up realistic goals. Ask yourself if your goal is actually something you can complete and then track to see how accurate you are. Learn what you are capable of and have that be your guide.
  • Let go of the idea of a perfect start or finish. Neither exist.
  • Treat yourself with kindness.
  • Avoid all or nothing thinking.

Finally, it can be helpful to find a buddy who can accompany you on your journey. The two of you can help each other set reasonable goals and encourage each other with each baby step forward as you do a little every day. Eventually, you’ll be able to be this kind of buddy for yourself and learn that you were capable all along–it was just your unrealistic expectations that prevented you from functioning. In a society driven to perfection, it’s easy to get stuck in the vicious cycle of the “3 P’s” and never start or finish the things we want to do. But there are simple steps we can take to get out of this vicious cycle and do the things that are important to us.

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Samantha Stein

I’m a writer, photographer, and psychologist who (monthly) explores self, relationships, and mental health in an ever-changing world.