Do you want to boost your writing productivity?
Then ask yourself if any of the following apply to you:
- You’re very hard on yourself, especially when things go wrong.
- You spend more time than you should on a task because you want it to be done just right.
- You have extremely high standards, and will sometimes sacrifice your own well-being to complete a project perfectly.
- You’re the first to find errors and correct them, knowing that finding mistakes in a completed project will drive you nuts.
- You tend to ruminate over past mistakes and always vow not to repeat them.
If you found that two or more of these described you, you tend toward perfectionism. If you related to more than that, you may be a full-blown perfectionist.
Now don’t panic. Perfectionists sometimes get a bad rap, but there are good as well as bad things about this trait. You are probably a determined, hard-working person, for example, who is always trying to improve. Your completed projects are most likely of high quality, and you’re probably good at editing your own writing, because you actually enjoy finding flaws and fixing them.
But there’s no doubt that your perfectionist personality is also likely to make it difficult for you to open up time in your schedule to write. Here’s why, and what you can do to boost your creative productivity.
3 Ways Perfectionism Kills Your Writing Productivity
Most writers struggle with time management these days—it’s just hard to find ways to squeeze in writing time with all the other things we have going on in our lives.
Perfectionists struggle more than most for three main reasons:
1. They spend too much time trying to get every project just right, which makes them less productive overall.
2. They fear failure, so they resist starting a project until they feel “ready.” The term for this is procrastination, and it will keep a perfectionist from ever completing a book or other creative project.
3. They are always critiquing. They edit their work as they’re writing it, which makes it difficult to get into a rhythm of creative output.
These three factors slow the perfectionist writer down at every turn. They not only stall his progress on his creative projects, they also slow him down on everything else he does in life, creating an unbearably long to-do list and the feeling of always being behind.
Perfectionist writers often compensate by working harder and longer to make sure everything is perfect, from their next novel to their next blog post to their next email to their children’s homemade lunches, to the point that they eventually buckle under the demanding load. The result can be exhaustion and depression or even a serious illness.
This side of perfectionism isn’t fun—ask those who suffer through it. If you’re one of them, you may be all too familiar with your own tendencies to grade yourself on everything, ruminate over even small mistakes, and resist letting a project go until you’ve beaten it to death.
None of us can really change our innate personalities, though, so what are perfectionist writers to do? Are they doomed, or can they adjust just enough to make more time for their creative work?
7 Tips to Help You Become a More Productive Perfectionist Writer
First, remember the positive side to being a perfectionist. You don’t have to feel badly about this trait. The important thing is to learn to work with it so you can get more writing done. To do that, try these seven tips:
1. Find areas where you can let up: Perfectionists tend to want everything to be perfect. Try to identify projects that don’t matter as much, and practice allowing them to be sub-par. Remember that you want to make time for writing and your other priority projects, so make a list of less important things that don’t need to be perfect and practice spending less time on them.
You’ll probably never feel comfortable letting some projects go before they’re “ready,” but you can get better at it.
2. Realize that your standards are super high: Step back for a moment and realize that it’s likely your standards are super high. There’s no real definition of “perfect” for most of the things you do in life. What’s the difference between a clean bathroom and a perfectly clean bathroom? You can probably tell, but most people can’t. Simply remembering that can help you go easier on yourself.
When you think something is “okay” but not yet “perfect,” realize that “okay” is probably good enough in most cases.
3. Practice being productive: Studies have actually shown that perfectionists are less productive than others. (Read more about productivity in C. S. Lakin’s post, “Boost Your Productivity: Getting to the Core of Your Distractions.”) When you’re agonizing over one project, you’re slowing yourself down and stealing time from the other things you planned to do (like writing).
Make productivity your goal instead, and let your perfectionism work on that for a while!
4. Carry a timer around: One way you can practice being more productive is to carry a timer around with you (or use an app on your cell phone). Give yourself a time limit for each project you take on during the day. Fifteen minutes to write that important email—when the timer goes off, send it! An hour for that work report. Thirty minutes to make dinner. An hour to clean the house.
Push yourself to work more quickly, and adhere to your allotted time. It will be painful, but the more you do it, the easier it will become. Go go go!
5. Forgive yourself: Perfectionists are super hard on themselves, ruminating over every mistake. This can create a stressed out mind, which is horrible for your creativity. What you need is to practice forgiving yourself. That typo in your query letter? It’s not the end of the world. That forgotten soccer game? Your child will forget about it (eventually). Your favorite phrase should become, “It’s okay!” Particularly when you’re writing, allow yourself to be just who are you are on the page, flaws and all. You may find it so freeing that your stories become even more imaginative.
(Find a fun way to get past your own perfectionism when writing in Mary Jaksch’s post, “How to Make Writing Easy: One Nifty Tip to Sneak Past Perfection.”
6. Practice fooling yourself: If your perfectionist tendencies make you likely to procrastinate, find ways to fool yourself into getting started. Tell yourself you’ll write for only five minutes, or that this isn’t the “real” draft, but just a “practice” one. Set a timer and don’t allow your fingers off the keyboard until it dings.
Do whatever you have to do to get past that internal editor and start writing.
7. Make failing a game: Perfectionists fear failure. They work to get everything just right so they don’t fail. Make it a game to see how many mistakes you can commit. Not by faking it, but by trying new things more often. Send out more submissions. Query more agents. Try out more types of writing that are unfamiliar to you. Submit your work to more contests.
Gradually, you may start to have more fun with the whole thing, and failure won’t seem like such a big deal. You may also surprise yourself at the successes you experience!
Boost Your Writing Productivity
Managing Perfectionism is a Lifelong Process. Your perfectionism is probably not going to go away. Remember, it’s okay! In many ways, it can benefit your career. To limit its potential destructiveness on your writing time, try changing just one habit per day. Baby steps are key to gradually allowing yourself to step away from the need to be perfect, and get closer to “good enough.”
As American writer David Foster Wallace said:
If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.
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