Perfection Paralysis

My Dad has always told me that “procrastination is the thief of time”. It’s something he told me a lot when I was growing up, and something I think about often in my working life. I’ve always been guilty of procrastinating. I often put things off for as long as possible, waiting until the absolute key moment to get things done. I’m the typical journalistic type in that I work best when I have a deadline, because then there’s no dallying. And it’s best if that deadline is set by someone else, rather than me. Because if it’s set by me, I’m much more likely to put it off. This sounds like a terrible quality for someone who works for themselves and is expected to figure out and control their own workload, but I actually think that’s part of the reason being self employed works for me.

But I’ve had a revelation recently. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because I’m more self aware or a combination of the two, but it seems that I have quite a lot of these revelations these days. You see, as well as being a procrastinator, I’m also a perfectionist. You might not think it if you were to see the way I bake or the presentation of food on my plate, or the disarray of books next to my bed, but when it comes to my work, my writing in particular, there’s a strong part of me which feels that if it’s not perfect, it’s not worth doing at all. So often I find myself with something to write or an idea that I need to pitch and I stop. I end up paralysed by the idea that I’ll never be able to make anything as perfect as I’d like it to be, so why would I bother even beginning? Obviously, I’m able to give myself a kick up the backside more often than not (ALWAYS if there’s a client or a work project involved) – but there are definitely things, primarily ideas I have, that linger by the wayside as I procrastinate them off my agenda.

This is something I have really found with Life, Lemons and Melons over the months since the Kickstarter finished. This is one of the easiest things to procrastinate off my agenda that I’ve ever worked on. It’s a balance for me, at the moment, between doing work that I’m making a living from and work that is essentially going towards a passion project, not to mention the fact that putting a massive piece of my heart and my soul on the line feels like a gargantuan step. How on earth am I not going to screw this up? I suppose it’s no surprise that I hold incredibly high standards for myself. I have done for a very long time in pretty much every aspect of my life. I must be the best daughter, sister, wife, employee, writer, cancer patient, survivor, mental health patient I can be – not being those things, and the pressure I put on myself to do them, is a big part of what sends me into a tailspin that results in my prolonged periods of low mood.

Procrastination, perfection and paralysis are three words that sit together very well, and not just because they are alliteratively pleasant – but because one often leads to the other. When a hearty dose of self doubt is thrown into the mix (and everyone has at least a dollop of this thrown into their genetic makeup), it’s easy to see why people find themselves in a vicious cycle of trying to get things done, freaking out that they won’t be exactly how they want them to be, aborting the thing they’re working on and then repeating the whole cycle when they try to confront the task at hand again. It is exhausting. For such a long time I thought I was just lazy, but it is SO not true. I mean, I obviously am lazy sometimes (what would Sunday mornings be without a lovely long lie in?), but I’m not lazy when it comes to my working life – just sometimes I am incapacitated by my urge for everything I put out into the world to be perfect. Do you know how many half written blog posts I have saved on the back end of this website? Too many. Do you know how many half-written pitches I have for features I’ve been considering and then suddenly decided they’re definitely not worthy of sending? Countless. I have a whole spreadsheet. I have semi-written stories, opening paragraphs of stories and a notebook full of wild and wonderful ideas that may never actually see the light of day unless I break this habit. And I’d bet my bottom dolla that I am not alone.

So what can we do when Perfection Paralysis strikes? That’s a bloody good question my friends, and something I think Liz Gilbert touches on perfectly in her book Big Magic (if you’re at all creative and haven’t read it, beg, borrow or steal to read it).

I keep coming back to Big Magic in times of creative distress . She describes her creative journey as a “road trip”. Those present in the car are Gilbert, her creativity and of course, the unavoidable Fear, who’s main purpose appears to be to tell us that what we are doing is not enough. She goes on to describe the welcoming speech she gives to The Fear before the trip gets underway. She accepts that fear is coming along for the ride – but she sets out definitive rules for it if it insists on coming. She says:

There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way“.

Gilbert goes on with the analogy which perfectly nails what it is to be a creative person who is trying to combat The Fear. Her closing words to The Fear?

You’re not allowed to touch the road maps, you’re not allowed to suggest detours. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive“.

I’ve learned a lot about acceptance over the last few years – I’ve had to accept my body as it is now, I’ve had to accept my experience of cancer and I’ve had to accept my brain for the gifts it gives me. I suppose combatting this Perfection Paralysis is just another part of that – accepting my brain for the gifts it gives me, but not letting it run the show.

And here’s the thing. What is perfect? Who decides what’s perfect? And why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve that unrealistic standard? As with most things, it’s time we gave ourselves a break. So I’m creating a new mantra for myself: “imperfectly finished is better than perfectly unfinished”.

AND HOORAY! I’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT WRITING THIS BLOG POST FOR ABOUT 6 MONTHS AND I’VE FINALLY DONE IT. It’s not perfect, but it’s DONE!

Here’s a song by Fairground Attraction. When it comes to love, perfect is pretty nice

One thought on “Perfection Paralysis

  1. Danyah says:

    Love this blog – thank you for writing it…. I have written and perform in a solo show called “Perfectly Imperfect’ which is a biographical wonder tale and premiered last year on International Women’s Day….. yup! I have my own battles with ‘perfection’!!

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