Biggest blocks to writing: a most perfect look at perfectionism (Part II)

Okay, that was a joke. It never hurts to lighten-up about perfectionism. Let’s just face, from the beginning, that we won’t do this perfectly. And that’s okay.

Let’s pretend for a moment you’re one of my coaching clients, and I’ve given you the assignment to write out your goals in eight different areas of life (i.e., social, physical, spiritual, family, personal, professional, financial, mental), both long-term and short-term. It’s a big assignment – I don’t expect you to get it done in a week. You’ve been working on it, and now you’ve hit a wall. 

One of the first walls people hit is perfectionism. This post is about blocks to writing, but if you suffer from perfectionism, it’s likely to show up in multiple areas of life. If you’re a perfectionist, you might hear yourself saying things like:

What if I pick the wrong goals?

What if I don’t like my goals, or I decide to change my mind?

What if I have another area of life that’s not on the list? Those categories are incomplete – and overlapping. 

Take a deep breath. It’s okay

Perfectionists tend to use their goals as a self-bludgeoning device, whether it’s for the quantity of writing they want to accomplish, the quality of their writing once they start, or the amount of money they want to make from their writing. When I throw eight areas of life at them, they just find more ammunition for self-defeat. (And, frequently, they procrastinate on getting their goals down in writing because they are looking for the perfect time to start, the perfect amount of time in which to do it, and the perfect answers to the questions they’re attempting to answer.) 

You may be a perfectionist writer if you’ve never published.You may be a perfectionist if you’ve been working on the same book for 25 years – and you need some more time to get it just right. You may be a perfectionist if you’ve found that all the joy of creating a written piece or writing down your goals is completely sucked out of the process. You may be choking under an avalanche of I shoulds and I woulds.

Flylady.net is a great resource for people who are perfectionists. Perfectionists tend to have messy homes, ironic as it may seem. They have messy homes because, if they can’t do it right, they won’t do it at all. When company is coming, they engage in marathon cleaning sessions, then collapse in exhaustion when it’s done. Then the place falls into disarray, again, until the next big event whips them into activity. Sound something like your writing process?

First of all, let’s acknowledge that there is a place for perfectionism. Whether it’s life goals or a written piece or housecleaning, the perfectionist’s eye helps to, well, perfectThe editorial eye, the one that picks apart every word, comma, and subtly of phrasing is the one that sets the professional apart from the hack. No one who has high professional standards wants to turn in an article full of errors or awkward wording to an editor or a client. There is also a place to perfect your goals, to put the finishing touches on them that makes them absolutely right for you and your life. 

Second, you’re never going to get rid of the perfectionist in you. He or she is a part of your wiring – perhaps a part of your wiring you’re proud of and want to keep, and that’s okay.

However, there’s a critical shift we have to make in order to keep the perfectionist in its place. The perfectionist will choke your creativity and joy into a limp, lifeless heap if you set it loose too soon.

We all have voices or tapes that play in our heads. They are the voices of editors, parents, teachers, employers. You could do better. You’ll never get anywhere writing drivel like that. If you can’t be the best, why bother trying?

Our creative side requires freedom in which to flow. It needs breathing room. It requires that the editor stop looking over its shoulder, looking for mistakes, for just a moment. We have to find our tools to turn down the nagging perfectionist’s voice for a moment (or as Anne Lamott so aptly says, we have to turn down “radio station KFKD”) so that another Voice can emerge.

We all have a True Voice within us that knows what it wants to do. It knows how to play. It knows what energizes us, and it knows our calling. It knows what we can do better than anyone else, not because we’re perfect but because we are each uniquely gifted and turned-on by different things. It knows that we will have more energy, more passion and more productivity, if we give it some space in which to work.

Okay, so how do I get there, Miss Smarty Coach?

And, being true to coach form, I’m going to turn the question back to you: how do you get in touch with your True Voice? What has worked in the past? What intrigues you to try – even if it scares you a little? 

Because you are not able to answer me verbally here and now, I’ll share some tools that I and other coaching clients have tried that works for them. I invite you to offer your own solutions in the comments below.

Some Tools

  • Walking in nature
  • Journaling, daily (either using a guide, such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, or free-form journaling)
  • Making art
  • Breathing
  • Meditation
  • Music
  • Burning incense
  • Wearing a bracelet that every time you see or touch it, it reminds you to connect with your True Self
  • Pictures in your creative space that remind you of emotional or spiritual cues that take you to a different space

Anne Lamott is a delightful writer, and one who has said what I can’t say better:  I hate simple answers. Me, too. And if you’re looking at this list and thinking, “I’m so much more complex than this. I really need a more complicated and appropriate way to get into my creative space, thank you very much,” please know that I hear you. I have been there, too. I still go there with enough frequency to be humbled on a regular basis.

Creative practice is incredibly, insultingly simple. It flies in the face of the perfectionist, the editor, the intellectual. It requires play. Even when we’re working, it requires our playful, open  minds to be engaged so that we are receptive to the out-of-left-field, intuitive spark of creativity that doesn’t respond well to brow-beating and and a driving pace.

There’s a counter-intuitive principle at play here. Sometimes, we have to step away from our work to be more productive. Sometimes we have to let go of our stranglehold on a goal or a writing project for us to really own it. Sometimes we have to create five pages of garbage to get one truly brilliant paragraph. 

Essentially what we need is permission. We need permission to fail. To be amateurs on our way to mastery. To turn our attention to a seemingly random thought that paws at our imaginations like a kitten with string, and to play with it, rather than brushing it away.

With the insultingly simple list I provided above (and to which you can add your own tools), you and others are able to come back to a calm eye in a storm of I should, I could, I would. And from that calm place, we do 

Lastly, those tools are practices. One of the biggest mistakes I have made over the years is to add tools like these to my task list so that they become yet one more thing to get through, one more thing I can beat myself up with because I didn’t do them, or I didn’t do them well enough.

The tools are like repairmen. Their job is to look at the connections within us and to help us reconnect the broken junctions of our hearts, our spirits and our bodies with everything else we do: our work, our family and social relationships, our self-care. They don’t just stand there and say, “Yup, you’re broken.” They get to work. They reconnect all the disjointed parts of ourselves so that they work in integrity. In this sense, the simpler the tool, the more easily it flows between the cracks of our daily awareness, the more effective it is. 

The antidote to perfectionism is good enough. Can you give yourself permission to do good enough work, good enough goal-setting, good enough creative practices just a little bit

Give it a try, and let me know your thoughts.

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Biggest blocks to writing: Procrastination, Perfectionism, Fear & Overwhelm (Part I)

I coach writers on a daily basis. I know very well that  it’s important to know your goals, your genre, your audience; to build your brand, your website, your business model. It’s important to learn new skills and to organize your time. You have to market, network, set up our accounting systems, form our LLC or C-Corp or S-Corp. All of these things are great, and they’re critical to a functioning business of writing. And, of course, we need to do the actual writing! Most writers I work with, however, face the specters of their own inner workings as they attempt to accomplish the outer work. The first one we’ll look at together is procrastination (and in later posts, we’ll work with its roots: perfectionism, fear and overwhelm).

Procrastination is a great place to start. It’s the most visible, outward indication of our inner workings. We see it: it’s the Facebook page open in front of us instead of our word processing. It’s the load of laundry in our arms instead of our laptop. It’s the email we’re staring at instead of our task list.

We can find a lot of advice about time management on the internet and in books. Those tools are all helpful, but they often sidestep the fact that the roots of procrastination go beyond those tools: those tools attempt to chop the head off the dandelions, when we need to dig out their source from the bottom-up.

Some key questions to ask ourselves about our procrastination follow. Take time with them (now!). You have to understand the weed and its nature before you can effectively destroy it:

1. What do I procrastinate on? Make a list. Notice if it’s just the dreaded stuff of your life, or if it also includes the positive, life-affirming stuff. Get to know yourself here.

2. What is the cost to me of procrastinating in these areas of my business and life? Write it down. If you want to change something, you have to find your motivation for doing so. If the costs add up to more than you’re willing to pay, you’ll have the motivation you need to change them.

3. What would my life look like if I didn’t procrastinate in these areas? This question often leads to some interesting information. Yes, your life might be more peaceful – but would it also be a little boring? Yes, you might move at a more steady pace, but is the shot of adrenaline you’re getting from last-minute work covering your underlying fatigue?  Would you be unable to work without it?

Now ask yourself one more question, and answer it honestly: is this something I want to change, or am I happy enough, productive enough with it in place? If the answer is that you’re fine enough, don’t go any further. It’s not always the time to fix everything, and if it’s working for you, why change? Just because someone, somewhere thinks you should isn’t a reason enough to do the hard work of changing habits and their causes.

If you do want to change, and you’re ready to do the work, it’s time to look at the roots. Our next topic will cover perfectionism, one of the most common roots of procrastination.