I am on the phone to my mother for what feels like the fifth time in as many hours. This time, I am asking her what on earth I am supposed to put in the box asking for the value of my furniture. I am, to clarify, trying to renew my flat’s contents insurance. Mum sighs.
Her frustration is understandable. I call her all the time, to ask whether I should switch energy supplier or which flight to book. I panic about whether to file things alphabetically or chronologically (and it ends up being neither), or whether to pay my flat’s service charge monthly or quarterly. On the face of it, the anxiety I have around personal admin is hard to understand. After all, I am perfectly happy to do much more traditionally anxiety-inducing things: public speaking, exams or writing about myself online. The insurance renewal, though, has been bothering me – I’d already put it off until the last possible day.
Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that I am an only child who gets on well with her parents; it’s always been very easy to ask them for help. I am happy with the exams and the writing and the public speaking because I feel like I know what I’m doing. With the British Gas engineer, not so much.
In an attempt to become a functioning adult, I ask life coach Jo Wheatley to help me step out of my comfort zone. I am determined to become more organised, decisive, independent and capable.
Everyone has core values, she explains, that determine how we think and act. Perfectionists tend to value personal achievement and pleasing others, and associate getting something wrong with failure and letting people down. As she tells me this, I nod and laugh – I have been sussed out in under five minutes.
Situations that cause stress – say, when your contents insurance deadline is approaching – are an especially effective trigger for perfectionism, Wheatley explains, because at its core, is the belief: “I am only OK if I am right.”
The key lies in rewriting that belief and switching it to: “I am OK if I get this done.” It’s also a pretty good rebuff to perfectionism’s close cousin: procrastination. Just do it.
“We can start with laughing at ourselves,” Wheatley says. Recognise that your expectations might be ludicrously high; why on earth are you worrying about finding the most efficient way to file old water bills? But there are also practical steps that the admin-averse can take, such as time-blocking, a scheduling technique where even small tasks are given their own space on a calendar. This gives us a defined time period in which to do something. As Wheatley puts it: “We know when we get to the end of that time block, we are going to send that email off.”
“Celebrating is also really important,” she says. It’s helpful to “reward ‘good enough’” as much as you would perfection, so your brain gets the message that it’s OK. Last, Wheatley recommends “having an accountability partner”, like a coach or mentor, who can listen to your worries, as well as provide honest feedback.
I take the last suggestion as permission to continue calling my mum when I really need to. Then I set myself half an hour to make an informed guess about my furniture. I send the form. In the days after my chat with Wheatley, I time-block doing my expenses, and submit them in one sitting. I send emails when they are “good enough”. I am not quite reformed, but I can see that progress is possible. At the end of the week, I pour myself a glass of wine. I have, after all, been told to celebrate.