Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? It’s a character trait often associated with writers, myself included. In fact, I used to consider it a compliment. These days, with two children, a business, and novels to write, I have been forced to relinquish such tendencies but during times of stress, my ‘high standards’ still cause me to procrastinate.
Perfectionism, defined as the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection, is commonly referred to as procrastination in disguise. A 1984 study showed that individuals with higher scores in the perfectionism scale revealed more academic procrastination in comparison with individuals with lower scores.
While it’s understandable we want to produce great writing, it’s important to recognise when perfectionism is hindering our progress. Psychotherapist Amy Morin lists nine warning signs to look out for in her Forbes article including expecting perfection from people around you, struggling to complete tasks in a timely manner, and avoiding doing things that may cause you to fail (like writing a book).
If you’ve been putting off writing a book for years or you’ve been working on something for so long but can’t get past the first few chapters, or you’ve written something but it’s never seen the light of day, procrastination, - usually caused by fear - could be at play. And that’s normal, because putting your work out there can be terrifying. Yet, I truly believe there is a place for everyone’s writing and you are doing yourself (and the world!) a disservice by not writing and sharing your book.
So, here are a few tips on how to break the perfectionism - procrastination cycle:
Step 1: Recognise the cycle
Being self-aware is the first step. For example, when I start writing endless to-do lists (instead of working on my novel), this is usually a sign for me to slow down and organise my thoughts about why I’m procrastinating. I’ll usually journal or talk it through with a friend and this is sometimes enough to get me back on track.
Step 2: Accept that your first draft is likely to be poor
Most successful authors will write many versions of their book, so as a new author it’s important to understand that your first draft is likely to be poor. As Terry Pratchett says, “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Remember, your goal should be finishing a first draft, not perfecting it. That will come later. In the meantime, accept that some writing sessions will be brilliant and full of inspiration and sometimes, you’ll be tearing your hair out thinking your toddler could do a better job!
Step 3: Lower the bar on your writing goals
The perfectionism - procrastination cycle is at its strongest when we feel overwhelmed. Writing a book is a huge undertaking and the only way to approach it is to break it down. If you’ve committed to writing 500 words a day, now is the time to reduce that to 250 words a day. If you’ve committed to writing for two hours every morning, reduce it to thirty minutes every morning. By lowering the bar on your writing goals, you’re taking the pressure off, giving yourself some breathing room but still maintaining a regular habit. Slow, steady, and consistent is much more likely to lead to a finished manuscript.
Step 4: Find support
Writing is an isolated pursuit and when we only have our own minds for company, our thoughts can spiral out of control. Whether it’s hiring a book coach or finding a mentor, getting objective feedback will be much more helpful than judging your own work, which is likely to be skewed. A coach or mentor can also remind you that what you see on social media (which often feeds into our perfectionist anxieties) is the finished product - the new book release or the writer who just got a publishing contract. We don’t see the years of hard work, rejection, and disappointment that have usually come before.
So if you’re a perfectionist and giving yourself a hard time, know that you’re not the only one. Give yourself some grace and a little time to understand what lies behind it and always remember that it’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, I would say it’s necessary - how else would we develop our editing skills?:)
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