11 ways to give writing perfectionism the heave-ho

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Is writing perfectionism something that troubles you? Here’s a list of practical tips to help you vanquish that unruly beast!

Many clients tell me they don’t write because they’re perfectionists. They can’t start their writing, they say, because they know it won’t be good enough. As a result, they procrastinate.

Sounds logical, doesn’t it? But with a bit of probing, I usually discover that another emotion is in play — typically, fear.

In fact, when I interviewed procrastination expert Piers Steel — a professor at the University of Calgary — several years ago (the recording and a transcript are available to participants in my Extreme Writing Makeover program, lesson #19) he said that perfectionism is only weakly linked with procrastination. 

(For procrastinators, the bigger problem is almost always impulsivity — an inability to force themselves to do something difficult when they’d rather be surfing the net, scrolling through Facebook or watching Netflix.) 

Still, perfectionism may be on the rise. The World Health Organization reports that a record number of young people are suffering from depression and anxiety disorders — and some researchers believe these disorders are linked to irrational ideas and expectations —  AKA perfectionism. 

So, if you’re convinced that perfectionism is wrapping its cold fingers around your neck, I have 11 suggestions for you:

  1. Understand that perfectionism is bad for you. Something about the word “perfect” makes us imagine rainbows and unicorns when, in fact, we should be thinking about thunderstorms and dragons. First, perfectionism is bad for your career, because trying to get everything “perfect” means that it will take longer to get any results (and most bosses or supervisors don’t appreciate those kinds of delays). Heck, you probably don’t appreciate those kinds of delays yourself! Second, perfectionism hurts your motivation because it can’t tolerate deviations from a goal. Third, perfectionism is bad for your health. As I said earlier, perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to depression, anxiety and self-harm.
  2. Begin by acknowledging your perfectionism. I work with one client who’s a raging perfectionist and I know he has no idea he is one. He simply believes he has very high standards. And that those standards are necessary. I’ve been trying to screw up the courage to talk to him about it because confronting this issue would change his life (and business) in an entirely positive way. I’m reluctant, however, because I don’t think he’ll ever be prepared to acknowledge this reality. Don’t be like him! If you’re a perfectionist, acknowledge it and start taking steps to address it.
  3. Work towards accepting that progress is more important than perfection. Your work doesn’t have to be perfect, nor does your plan. As Voltaire put it, “the best is the enemy of the good.” In terms of writing, your most important job is simply to get started. It may be the hardest work of your life. And you’ll do it imperfectly. But that’s okay. Content yourself with a crappy first draft. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to make it better later. (Keep reminding yourself that you can’t edit a blank page.)
  4. Set a goal that’s embarrassingly easy. Always start small. Super small. Even five minutes of writing a day can be enough for the first month or two. That way you’ll be able to feel proud and accomplished, and those feelings will buoy you up for your writing the next day, increasing your odds of success. Once you’ve built the writing habit, you can make it more demanding, later.
  5. Base your goals on output rather than outcome. Never set yourself a goal like, “I’m going to write a New York Times bestseller.” Why? Because this goal is never within your control! Other similar goals — such as specific number of views, sales results, number of followers you achieve — are also outside of your control. Instead, focus on what you can manage and measure. For example, you can say you’re going to write for 15 minutes (or 30 or whatever), every day. Or you can say you’re going to write 250 or 500 or 750 words per day. Those are goals over which you have domain. Consistency is the enemy of perfection, so instead of reaching for the moon, resolve to be consistent. 
  6. Prepare for your stress to increase, temporarily. Change is stressful for everyone — even positive change. As a perfectionist, you expect everything to go perfectly and you may be alarmed when it doesn’t. Give yourself permission to live with a little bit of extra stress while you adjust.
  7. Realize that an increase in stress might lead to an increase in anxiety. If you have an underlying anxiety disorder, a change in your schedule might cause those anxious feelings to emerge. Be prepared to take whatever steps you need — counselling, CBT, meditation — to keep your anxiety in check.
  8. Watch your self-talk. If a voice in your head is making unhelpful comments — like, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” or “everything is riding on this”— work to change that toxic script. Instead, you might say, “I’m doing the best I can and I’ll have plenty of time to improve it [edit it] later.” Say these much more helpful comments aloud a couple of times, just for practice.
  9. Experiment with yourself. Test opportunities where you can deliver a piece of writing that is less than perfect. Start with a low-risk situation, such as a post for your own blog. Instead of aiming to get it “just right,” give yourself a deadline and do the best you can within that time limit. (And in higher-risk situations, be sure to remind yourself that the world didn’t end the last time you reduced your standards.) 
  10. Ask for help. We can’t do everything on our own and when we try to, we increase our odds of failing. If you need help to write, ask family and friends for their support. And if perfectionism is a major issue in your life, seriously consider getting professional help from a counsellor or therapist.
  11. Understand that those around you may push back against any changes you make. While many people will support the new writing you, some may complain if they feel they’re not getting the attention they’re accustomed to receiving from you. Remember, they will adjust with time and practice. Don’t give up on the new writing you!

Becoming a writer is not the time-consuming task that many people believe. Instead, it’s a job that requires planning and psychological management. Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. 

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my three-month accountability program called Get It Done. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to write to a short deadline. Or, see the transcriptand consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Are you a perfectionist? How have you dealt with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!