How to Beat Perfectionism and Actually Finish Things
I want to be perfect so badly. I can’t even put it into words.
I see things like Hamilton and Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies and J.K. Rowling’s amazing magical world, and I am simultaneously filled with wonder and dread.
Ira Glass of This American Life explains why this is. I see something amazing, and I want to do it too, but I know there’s a monstrous gap between that vision and my ability to do it. If it were food, we’d say my eyes are bigger than my stomach.
While these great works that I love inspire me to go create something, this feeling of a gap stops me in my tracks. I got nothing, I tell myself. I can’t do that. I’m just a beginner. Why should I even try?
I have a confession. I’m a horrible, terrible, chronic perfectionist. Perfectionism is like my second wife. A sinister, shrewish wife who hounds me at every corner about every thought that I have, especially thoughts that involve putting something of my own out into the world. But she’s also a beautiful, alluring seductress who convinces me that what she’s saying is my saving grace. If you put the things in your head into the real world, they won’t live up to your expectations, and you’ll be hurt, injured even. And if you share them with others, they won’t say anything mean, but they’ll know you’re a hack and put you on a list in their minds of people to stop taking seriously, to stop respecting. See? she says. I’m helping you by keeping you safe from the unalterable dangers of this world.
I tell myself she’s right. And I put away that story I’m working on and begin another. Only to have her tell me the same thing about this one. It’s a predictable process that I almost never predict. Some dysfunctions are too close to see with your own eyes.
But when you have a dream of being a fiction author and you’re 31 and you have never completed a single story, you start getting suspicious. For years, she’s sold me on the idea that someday I’ll have wild success, but that at the same time, I shouldn’t accept bad work to come forth from me. Bad work is failure. Only excellence is worth your time.
So I try for excellence. But because I haven’t done a whole lot, I haven’t learned and grown and gotten better. I know enough to know that practice makes perfect. But that means the path to perfection is paved with imperfection, with tries, with best-efforts. But Perfectionism’s policy strictly forbids those.
It’s as though she requires me to move to Hawaii, but won’t allow me to enter a boat or airplane. It’s an impossible standard.
Last month I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to finally finish something, dang it. I wanted to defy Perfectionism and step on that path of imperfection and actually make some progress toward my goal of becoming a good fiction writer.
I’d heard the phrase “done is better than perfect,” but my brain seemed to wriggle out of its grasp. Just because one thing is better than another, doesn’t mean they’re mutually exclusive. You can have done and perfect, right? I mean, some of Robert Frost’s poems are flawless little gems of amazingness, and they’re done.
Then I heard illustrator Jake Parker speak these words: “finished, not perfect.” And it hit me!
Finished, not perfect. Don’t just settle for imperfection, expect it! Own it. Deliberately lower your quality expectation from perfect to good-not-great.
Now, wait a second, what? Since when was good-not-great an acceptable standard? We’ve all been to movies that were good-not-great and walked away feeling meh.
But then something even bigger hit me, and it came from an author I greatly admire, Brandon Sanderson:
“Remember that the product of your writing career is NOT the books themselves, but YOU. Your purpose in writing is to train yourself to be someone who can write incredible books, and you get there by finishing story after story. Don’t get too bogged down in the project of the moment; keep moving forward. YOU are what you are creating, not the story” (source).
I understood now. My goal was to become a good writer. But each individual story I wrote didn’t have to be flawless. It just had to get me one step closer.
And I knew how it would get me one step closer: finishing it.
It seems odd, but it’s common knowledge to prolific creators that the simple act of finishing a work is where the growth lies.
A quote I’d bandied about but hadn’t applied was this one from author Neil Gaiman: “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”
The logic seemed simple: if you achieve greatness by learning and growing over time, which you do by finishing things, then if you finish a lot of things, you will get better faster.
Thinking about the creators I admire, this seemed to be very much the case:
- Early in his career, John Williams composed a new TV score each week.
- My favorite author, Ray Bradbury, often completed a new short story a week. He advises to begin your writing career by cranking out a lot of stories.
- Jake Parker creates a finished drawing each day and shares it on social media. He attributes his biggest growth to a period in his life where he had to abandon high quality for the sake of abundant quantity. He encourages beginners (and experts) to participate in 30-day drawing challenges to help them to level up in their skills.
- Author Brandon Sanderson is famously prolific, writing multiple novels a year. He says that when he was starting out, before he got published, he didn’t polish his finished novels. Figuring he’d learned a lot, he moved on to write another one.
Dozens of times, I’ve watched this video in which Ira Glass urges beginners to plow through a huge volume of work, to get past the bad stuff as quickly as possible so they can improve and move on to the good stuff.
But it all came together when I remembered an experience in my own life where being prolific had led to rapid improvement in a particular skill.
In the summer of 2007, I was a counselor at an inspirational youth camp run by my university, BYU. I had attended the camp as a teenager, and I wanted to pay forward the life-changing experiences I’d had. In addition to running activities and shepherding kids from place to place, I was expected to teach a lesson each night and most mornings.
This meant that I had a new deadline every night and morning. I had to have a lesson ready by lesson time or I’d spend 30 awkward and embarrassing minutes with a dorm room full of ten teenage boys. But I’d also know that I wasn’t pulling my weight as a counselor and fulfilling the meaningful mission of the camp, which I wanted to contribute to.
My first lesson that first Monday night was terrible. The boys’ eyes wandered about the room, and there was little participation. Twenty lessons and three sets of boys later, things were different. I could communicate complex concepts to distractible teenagers with confidence and ease. Their eyes were focused and alive; we had meaningful discussions, and I could tell the lessons were sinking in. I continued to improve after I was asked to teach Sunday School (to young adults this time) at my local church.
The sheer necessity of needing to prepare new lessons at a regular pace forced me to perform, and by doing so, I improved rapidly.
I became so convinced that I would improve faster by being prolific than by obsessively perfecting individual stories, that I mocked up this graph:
It’s a bit nerdy, but the point is that you can spend, say, 6 months creating and perfecting two stories. Or you can spend that same amount of time creating and not perfecting six stories, and by the end (1) your last four stories will be as good or better than both in the previous scenario, (2) you’ll have improved more as a writer, because, if by finishing you learn more, you will have theoretically learned around three times more than in the other scenario, and (3) you’ll have six finished stories (rather than just two)!
This principle just felt true. So I did what I hadn’t done before: I applied it.
At the time it was mid-August, and I was working on a short story about a robot concerned with its relationship with God. I set a goal for myself to finish it by the end of the month. To show myself I was serious, I drafted an empty post and set it to be published on 11:59pm on August 31. If I didn’t have a finished story by then, an empty post would be published.
To my own surprise, and with a great deal of energy and focus (and timely encouragement from my (real) wife), I did it!
When I set up that empty post, I also set up two more: one for an article to go out on September 30 (this one), and one for another story for October 31.
Having accomplished this goal just twice now, here are some things I’ve learned:
Set a deadline
I have never liked deadlines. They add stress to an already stressed-out guy, and I haven’t had much experience meeting them anyway.
But a deadline is the structure that will make it possible for a perfectionist to be prolific. If a deadline is screaming in your ear, Perfectionism’s sinister whisper is hard to hear.
I used to have little faith in the merits of deadlines or in my ability to meet them. But then I remembered those lessons at camp all those summers ago. Once you meet one deadline, it becomes easier, even motivating, to meet the next.
. . . A tight deadline
Give yourself as tight a deadline as is actually doable: not so tight that stress cripples you, but tight enough that you do feel a bit of a pinch.
Why do this? You want your mind to be forced to focus on the essential basics of the work and not get lost in the myriad surface details. For writers, this is polishing the prose. For artists, this may be tidying up the line work. Improvement means engraining the fundamentals upon your mind-flesh, so you want to force yourself to focus mainly on the fundamentals without being distracted by niceties.
Here’s a good rule of thumb. If you find yourself slacking, telling yourself, “I got time; I can whip out a functional piece in the last four days before the deadline,” stop right there, and change the deadline to four days from that very moment. That’ll kick you into gear. If, on the other hand, you sincerely tried to meet your deadline, but you just didn’t get a finished product out the door on time, it may be wise to extend the deadline and give yourself a wider timeframe for future rounds.
Make sure people are expecting it
If you can put out lots of work with no one expecting it from you, then power to you. But for the rest of us, adding social accountability to your deadline is a powerful motivator. By telling you that I will be posting another short story at the end of October, I’m already feeling my blood circulate into my brain, flooding it with an urge to get started early in the month. That is a powerful ally, and a stake in the heart of Perfectionism.
Now, yes, telling people of your goal adds anxiety. That’s the point. But if Perfectionism is already stressing you out as it is, this can be a difficult thing to do. So start small. Tell a handful of close friends and family. Or, if that’s even worse than telling strangers, don’t share these goals with anyone until after you complete one of them. That accomplishment will boost your confidence — you can finish stuff! — making it easier to share your next goal with others.
I don’t know what it is, but having a recurring deadline helps. Maybe it gets your brain into a rhythm and you develop a casual expectation — or even anticipation — for your next deadline, instead of resistance to it. In any case, sporadic goals are better than no goals, but the pro version is to set deadlines at regular intervals and get into the habit of meeting them.
Days before my August 30 deadline for my short story, I still had so far to go that I considered quitting. I expressed my concerns with my (real) wife, and she encouraged me to stick it through and finish.
Yesterday, I had so much material for this article that I was having massive difficulty distilling it down into something readable. Plus, I was at a work conference this week, and there was very little time to work on it. I again considered quitting or missing the deadline, so I called my sister during lunch. She talked some sense into me, and after the phone call I typed out most of this from scratch.
We talk about building a support group of fellow practitioners. But in times of dilemma, it can be more helpful to express our worries and fears to the people we know care about us intimately and implicitly — and whom we trust will have valuable life insights — even if they don’t understand the ins and outs of our craft or industry.
Redefine your definition of done
As you near the finish line of your project, you will almost certainly notice details that could be improved, and you’ll feel compelled to fix it before you declare it finished and publish it. Then you’ll find another, and another. But this is just the opposite of Perfectionism’s main ploy: if she can’t keep you from starting a project, she’ll try as hard as she can to keep you from finishing it.
So before you begin, decide when you’ll declare the work finished. Specifically, set in stone in your mind what level of quality you will reach and not exceed.
As an example, when I set the goal to finish and post my short story, I wanted to get it to an acceptable level of “readability”: no problems with continuity; the reader feels oriented in the world and knows what’s going on in each scene. If I had time left over, I’d fuss over word choice and the like. But if not, if at least the story were readable, I’d be satisfied.
This eradicated Perfectionism, because I’d replaced her impossible standard with my own set of realistic standard. I actually felt excited to have it only reach that humble standard.
By lowering my standard of quality, I wasn’t turning my back on excellence. I was merely treating this story as a step on my way to rapid improvement. The quality of this individual story wasn’t important. My growth as a writer was. In that light, it was easy to sacrifice this story’s quality in the service of my ultimate improvement. Making this mental shift of treating it not as a masterpiece, but a “servicepiece,” helped immensely.
Done is done
After you click Publish (or its equivalent), you are done. Do not — I repeat — do not go back and edit your work. You can get lost in constantly tweaking it. But as Neil Gaiman says, “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
If you have residual energy or anxiety about the quality of what you’ve created, pour it into your next piece.
There is tremendous creative relief in doing declaring it done and moving on.
Let it go
If you put out something truly bad, and you don’t go back and continue to work on it, it may still weigh on you. Even so, do your best to let it go and move on.
Remind yourself that the end goal is to become good at what you do, and that each individual work is just a stepping stone on the way there. If you dwell on a past stepping stone, you’ll end up falling into the stream and wallowing there when you could and should be spending that time creating your next work.
This is true also of when you do awesome work. When the praise comes in, it is tempting to sit there and bask in the sunlight. But remind yourself that this too delays, and even diverts you from, your task of putting out a lot of work.
If a powerful emotion — positive or negative — entices you to remain motionless, slap yourself out of it and get going. In the words of Robert Frost: “[You] have promises to keep, and miles to go before [you] sleep.” Put your focus back on your next deadline and dive in with your whole head and heart.
I hope these thoughts help. I’m just starting out on this concept myself.
If you struggle with perfectionism, I encourage you to take a look at the work and careers of the creators you admire. See if they followed this same path to improvement through prolificacy as the ones I mentioned above did.
I don’t know yet if Perfectionism will ever leave me completely. And frankly, even though I thought I’d gotten rid of her while writing my short story, she showed up again while writing this article. But guess what. I applied the advice I was writing about, and she left.
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