Perfectionism and the Impossible Task

One of the things that has struck me in the past few years is how much of a symptomatic overlap there is between a wide array of mental health disorders and syndromes. One such symptom is the Impossible Task that I’ve seen described as a symptom of depression, a symptom of anxiety and a symptom of ADHD.

Impossible Tasks are small every-day simple tasks that everyone, including the person experiencing the problem, knows are not difficult but are surrounded by an invisible but impenetrable barrier preventing their completion. They are generally very mundane such as making a doctor’s appointment, taking out the garbage or cleaning your desk.

This impenetrable barrier can take on many different compositions including:
  • The expectation of significant boredom
  • The anxiety that there must be something way more important that should be dealt with first
  • The crippling guilt for not having dealt with the task already 
  • The conviction that opening this Pandora's box will unleash a never-ending list of related things that will also need doing if there is a hope to getting this thing done properly
In this post, I want to look deeper at a "Pandora's box" example. Here's how one of those might play out:

Task: Reorganise T-shirt drawer
Planned Steps:
  1. Place all T-shirts from the drawer on to the bed
  2. Arrange T-shirts into Daily, Sports, Special Occasion, DIY and Donate piles
  3. Fold all shirts neatly while placing all but the Donate pile back into drawer
  4. Put the Donate pile in a box by the door to take to the clothing bin up the road later
Imagined Actual Steps:
  1. See that there are already some things on the bed that also need to be organised into a wardrobe, go to the wardrobe and find some T-shirts that should be part of this task. Find items that are not T-shirts in the T-shirt drawer and need to be organised too. Put them on a pile in the corner of the bed. Except for that Rubik's cube, that needs to be finished.
  2. Agonise over the list of categories. Some of the sports items are for winter sports and it’s summer so maybe they should be put in a box into storage, what box should I use? What the hell is the Special Occasion category anyway? How many shirts do I need when I’m painting? Is it acceptable to put a T-shirt with a small hole on the Donation pile or should I create a Discard pile? I haven’t worn that for ages, what’s my criteria for Donate?
  3. Put everything back in the drawer. Lay down on the bed.
The key to the Pandora's box example is in the phrase “getting things done properly”. Some people instinctively avoid anything that has a potential for failure or they excessively agonise over small things to ensure correctness (ever spend over an hour on a two paragraph email?). To psychologists, this is known as Perfectionism and is an unrealistic pressure many people put on themselves in order to feel successful and as an attempt to avoid people feeling less of them. Impostor Syndrome, which many in the software industry might be familiar with, is often just a flavour of perfectionism. If the idea of being seen making a mistake fills you with dread, you might be a perfectionist.

I was thinking about this recently when I was reading about the Coastline Paradox. The question of how long an island's coastline is can sound simple until you examine the fractal nature of a coastline. The answer to the question varies depending on how zoomed in to the coastline you are. The closer you look, the more detail you see, and the longer the resulting measurement will be. Identifying a "minimum feature size" (say, 10km) will allow you to come up with an approximate answer. If this isn't good enough for you and you really want the "correct answer", you just keep shrinking your minimum feature size until you converge on this correct answer, right? Wrong. For anything with a fractal dimension you can just keep getting smaller and smaller and the answer to your question becomes larger and larger. The answer tends to infinity. 
various coastlines of Britain at different resolutions

If, by thinking about an impossible task, your mind races through all the possible ways you won’t do a good job, or how you might uncover an unending recursive list of other things that also must be done correctly, you might want to think about the correct length of a coastline and realise that perfectionism is a "tends to infinity" problem. 

In other words, perfectionism can be a cause of impossible tasks by literally making them impossible.

This blog post is not a substitute to professional therapy. Perfectionism is a debilitating and serious problem and it's a good idea to see a therapist specialising in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy if you are struggling. 

For more information on Perfectionism, check out this video: