Why You Should Set Your Sights on Movement, Not Perfection

The perfect fuel for an imperfect moment of writing

It’s several days past the midpoint of the first month of this new year, and already you have just about had it with yourself. The freshly laundered smell of your clean gym clothes, untainted by a drop of sweat, is the scent of humiliation, Eau de Pathetique. Your willpower is nonexistent. Dry January has proven every bit as wet as in years past, because you don’t possess the barest semblance of follow-through. You’ve used colourful language with the kids at least five times and have been eloquent indeed as you mutter under your breath about your hatred of your job, but you haven’t committed a single word of creative writing to paper, except for that stream of unpublishable self-critical obscenities you typed out the other day. You never change, do you? All those lists, all those good intentions. Ah well…2020 is another year.

This first part is going to sound a little smug, but stick with me for the last bit of the paragraph. That actually hasn’t been me this year. At the end of last year, I purchased my 2019 Diary for Valued Action and dutifully assessed where I was and where I wanted to go, and boy, have I been sticking to it. For example, I noticed that disorganisation in the house was getting me down and causing inefficiency, so I identified ‘Order’ as one of my key values for the first few weeks of the year and knocked goal after order-related goal out of the park. Like a crazed Marie Kondo on steroids, I embarked on a campaign of rubbish tipping, charity shop donating, cupboard cleaning, and militaristic mobilising of my child and spouse to serve in the War on Clutter. So far, so good. Check me out, living life in line with my values, engaging in committed action day after day! Am I killing 2019 or what?!

Today, though, I finally had to get real with myself.

All of this frenzied activity in service of my values might have looked like me following through on my resolutions, and living in an uncluttered house is definitely great. At the end of the day, though, it’s just a smoke screen, papering over the fact that I wasn’t attending to the deeper values in my life. It was time to figure out what was going on, call myself out, and hold myself accountable.

Way back in 2017, I made a really scary decision. After years of telling myself it was inadvisable, undesirable, and maybe even impossible, I quit my academic post to write a book. I hadn’t written it yet, and I didn’t have an agent or a contract, so I strongly suspected it was just an acceptable excuse to quit and that I’d never actually end up writing it. I surprised myself, though, and it’s now a reality, due for publication soon. Who knows how it’ll do, but whether it succeeds or fails, I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. This year, I have told myself, will be The Year of Writing. CREATIVITY, I wrote in my values diary. PERSISTENCE, I wrote next to it, and I drew arrows between the two. I set two related Big Goals for the year — 30 blog posts and a novel. Too big? Nah, I reassured myself. You’ve got this.

So for each of the last three weeks, I dutifully wrote down goals in service of these values. First week: ‘Write scene from novel.’ ‘Write blog post.’ (Didn’t happen.) Second week: ‘Write just 100 words’ and ‘Start blog post’. (Didn’t happen.) In the third week, I went back, crossed out the number ‘30,’ and changed it to 20 blog posts. And I didn’t even believe that, because I hadn’t written a word, but my sock drawer was looking fantastic.

So today, I called bullshit on my brain. I know what you’re up to, I told it. I know you. And I’m not listening to you anymore.

I’m not delusional — I don’t hear voices, and I don’t talk to myself. I talk to my brain. There’s a difference. In the best possible way I can, I treat my brain like an independent entity, with its own ideas…a well-meaning entity, by all means, but one that often gets the wrong end of the stick and has a pretty skewed idea of what being helpful looks like. You need to go easy on yourself, it says, persuasively, because things have been pretty crazy lately. Chill out! Cue three hours of Netflix, viewed from a prone position. It’s not the right time, it says, soothingly. Give your ideas more time to develop. It’s true, there are a lot of thoughts flying around my head. I go to check that all the clothes in my closet are facing the same direction. If you write it now, it won’t be perfect, it warns. Oh, I hear that, thinks the woman who used to be the girl who cried her eyes out if she got 98% on a school exam. So I decide to read someone else’s stuff for a while until I feel more confident…except that doesn’t happen. I read, and I just think, gosh, I’ll never be as good as that.

In other words, I pay more attention to my mind than my experience…and that takes me in the opposite direction from some of my core values.

When I pay more attention to my mind than my experience, I forget that my value of creativity is way more important than my value of order, and so all that activity in service of order becomes a distraction from the main event.

When I pay more attention to my mind than my experience, I forget that going down Netflix rabbit holes may feel good in the short term but makes me lethargic and unproductive in the end — ultimately, it makes me feel worse.

When I pay more attention to my mind than my experience, I forget that a writer who never writes has a rather questionable claim on the title of writer.

And when I pay more attention to my mind than my experience, I forget that when I start writing, I feel good. It is reinforcing, even if no one ever reads it, but people often do, and that feels good. My momentum builds. The internal and the external reinforcement I receive increases the likelihood of the writing behaviour occurring again.

The things your mind tells you may be different than what my mind tells me, but the same rule applies. Take a moment to notice what’s happening. Are you tuning in to what your mind has to say, or to what wisdom your experience has to offer? As strange as it may seem — given that it’s supposed to be looking out for you — your well-meaning but often overly cautious mind doesn’t always have your most closely held values at heart, and it often cares more about safety and the status quo.

I sat down today to write because I got real with myself and looked at what my experience tells me, not what my mind tells me. Movement is more important than perfection. Half an hour ago, this post didn’t exist. Now it does. I’m not even going to proofread it, because I’d rather publish it.

Take that, mind.