Have you ever said to yourself, “I won’t start writing that essay until I can get it absolutely perfect?” or “I won’t start that project until my desk and room are spotless”.
Welcome to the world (and trap) of perfectionism.
I come from a family of perfectionists. So I have first-hand real world experience of the debilitating and crippling effects of perfectionism.
When you hold yourself to an incredibly high standard, it’s really hard to get anything done. It’s no surprise that perfectionists start dozens of projects but don’t quite manage to finish any of them. If perfectionists finish a project, they do so in most painfully drawn out way.
Psychologist Dr Sharon Melnick says perfectionists live in the hope that one day they will be a success. One day they are ‘gunna’ do it. And they hang onto this hope instead of taking the first step.
Why don’t perfectionists take the first step? What’s with that?
The reason is they’re scared. They’re scared that they may not have what it takes or they won’t be able to handle the criticism. So they protect themselves from criticism by never putting anything out there.
Instead, they make excuses for why they can’t get started. The conditions aren’t quite right. Plus the bed needs to be made. The dog needs to be fed. They’ll start when they’ve ticked those things off the list and they feel ready. Sound familiar?
Trying to do things perfectly is just plain crazy. Writer Anne Lamott says perfectionism “will keep you cramped and insane your whole life”. Do you really want to live like that?
Your work will never be perfect. My PhD supervisor’s 8-year-old daughter can tell you that.
On the day I handed in my PhD thesis, I mumbled something to my supervisor and her daughter about my PhD not being perfect. My supervisor’s daughter looked at me with this serious look on her face and said:
“Jane, nothing can ever be perfect!”
I was shocked. Such wisdom from an 8-year-old child!
I shot back, “How did you learn that Elizabeth?”
She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Come on Jane, isn’t it obvious?”.
Indeed, writing coach and author Catherine Deveny says in her book ‘Use your words’:
“The best thing you can hope for is that it gets finished. It will never be perfect. Perfect is the enemy of good. Embrace your inner completionist. Tell your inner perfectionist to go sort the cutlery drawer. But not until you’ve completed your writing!”
It feels good to be a ‘completionist’. It feels great to get stuff done.
Over the last few years, I’ve learnt strategies to help me shift from being a perfectionist to ‘completionist’. Below are a few strategies that you may find useful too.
Tell the little voices to go away
Most things are usually a lot easier to do than we think they will be.
I find the toughest bit of doing any work is usually the getting started part and having to deal with the negative voices in my head.
You know the voices I’m talking about. The little voice that says, “You’re work is rubbish”, “You’ll never be able to do this”, “This isn’t up to scratch” or “You’re going to fail”.
Unfortunately, these voices never go away. But you can learn to manage them.
I visualise the negative thoughts as being a pesky little monkey on my back. Whenever the monkey of self-doubt strikes, I strike back. I usually say something along the lines of:
“Go away you feral monkey! You can come back once I’ve finished writing this paragraph. Now go eat some peanuts. I have work to do here!”.
I know it sounds nuts, but it works. Try it out for yourself.
Exercise to clear out the mental cobwebs
Research shows that exercise can help you think more clearly, sharper, and boost your creative outputs. When I exercise it’s like all the toxic gunk in my brain is being washed out and replaced with feel good chemicals. Indeed, research shows this is what happens.
I’ve reached the point in my life where I need to exercise before I can work on anything substantial. But is this just another way to procrastinate?
I don’t think so. Exercise plays a critical role in mentally preparing you to pump out your best work. As Deveny states:
“..it [exercise] gives you access to parts of your brain you can’t get to if you are sluggish. Chess players exercise for the same reason. To get the wriggles out, think clearly and remove the sludge off the top. To get into the ‘good rooms’ in their brain”.
When I exercise, I also find that I’m in a better position to tell those little negative voices where to go (“Get out of here monkey! I’m busy!”).
Focus on one project at a time and take it to completion
Do you feel like you are spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere?
This is what can happen when you take on 10 different projects all at once.
Psychologist Sharon Melnick recommends you focus your time and energy on just one project and take it to the finish line.
She uses the analogy of rugby players taking the ball all the way over the line. She encourages us to imagine taking the next step on that project, then the next step and the next..until touch down!
Completing one project gives you the confidence to take on the next project.
Eat the frog first thing
Brian Tracy wrote a bestselling book called ‘Eat that frog’. The idea behind the book is simple: if you have to eat a frog every day of your life and it’s the worst part of your day, you should eat the frog first thing.
In short, start your day by tackling the hardest thing you need to do.
If you do manage to eat the frog, you’ll feel relieved and awesome for the rest of the day.
Find your ‘completionist’ mantra
Whenever I hit struggle town, I need words of wisdom. I have a little deck of palm cards with quotes I’ve scribbled down that I flip through when I am doubting myself or in a funk.
When I was working on my PhD, I had a saying (you could call it a mantra) that I would tell myself to keep me going. It was this: “Just keep chipping away”.
If I wasn’t telling myself to chip away, I would say “Done is better than perfect” or “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”.
You want to find your ‘anti-perfectionism’ quotes. Quotes that resonate with you. And then write those quotes out on palm cards and carry them around with you. When your inner perfectionist starts running the show, grab your cards and read those quotes out loud.
Life has a use-by date: Create a sense of urgency
Towards the end of my thesis, I travelled overseas to Japan to say goodbye to a friend who was dying of cancer. She was only 45. It was devastating because I thought she would live for a lot longer.
Sitting by her side in the hospital had a profound impact on me. It made me realise that you just don’t know when your time is up. You could live until 100. Or you could be dead in a year’s time. So what do you want your life to be about? What do you really want to do? I couldn’t help but think about these questions.
I knew I wanted to finish my PhD. So when I arrived back in Australia I worked on it with a sense of urgency to get it done.
I knew I could spend the rest of my life tweaking my thesis but I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to get it done.
Writer Catherine Deveny suggests that you should write (or work) “like you are on fire and you’ll be dead this time next week”.
Don’t be afraid to make a mess and make mistakes
When you first start working on an essay whatever you write isn’t going to be great. The first draft of my thesis was a complete shambles.
But that’s just how the process goes. Your work starts off being not so crash hot and gradually, it gets better.
I’ve learnt to enjoy making a mess with my early drafts and not compare my early drafts with other people’s finished products.
Catherine Deveny talks about the futility of comparing your ‘behind the scenes’ work with someone else’s ‘final cut’. She says:
“Imagine you turned up early to my place for a dinner party – say, at 4pm. There would be a mountain of washing on the couch (with the dog sleeping in the middle of it), the kitchen surfaces would be covered in dirty plates, half-eaten food and half-unpacked shopping bags. There’d be three dishes in preparation on the stove, and the only music would be the sound of the electric mixer droning at full bore. You’d think, ‘This is the worst dinner party I’ve ever been to. And what are you wearing, Dev? Are they jeggings? Crocs? A nightie?’ Because it’s not done yet! This is not the dinner party. This is the getting-ready-for-the-dinner-party”
I find when you think this way (“It’s not done yet, I’m still working on it”) it gives you permission to make a mess in the kitchen. You know that later on you’ll get round to tidying things up and making everything look pretty.
To sum up (and get this blog post done!)
I could keep perfecting this blog post for days but I’m not going to do that. Done is better than perfect, right?
What project would you like to take over the line and score a ‘touch down’ on? Could you apply some of the strategies mentioned above to help you do this? Do you have any strategies that I haven’t mentioned above that help you be a ‘completionist’? If so, I’d love to hear what works for you.