How Writers Can Beat Perfectionism

True confession time: I put off writing this blog post because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect.

I find that hilarious now, but I used to be sooo much worse than this: I would put off writing because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect and then NEVER get back around to my work-in-progress.

At this point in my life, I’ve done the work to own my own B.S. and I can see myself coming, so I pay attention whenever I start to get those procrastination signals and I can typically turn myself around fairly easily.

Here are my best tips for beating perfectionism in the New Year. The bonus here is that if you do the hard work to beat them once, it gets much easier with time.

How Writers Can Beat Perfectionism

1. Pay Attention to Your Thought Signals

If you’re anything like me, procrastination sends you some thought signals before it cosies in and settles down to stay for awhile. Noticing these signals takes some practice, but just learning how to recognize these can potentially transform your writing life. (It did mine!)

It starts with a thought, just one thought, about my current writing project. It’s ALWAYS a negative thought. I never think “Wow, this novel is going to be brilliant!” and then procrastinate. Oh no, it’s always something like “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “This book is a steaming pile of doggie doo-doo” or some other thought that amounts to beating up on myself for no-good reason.

Begin paying close attention to your thoughts, and when you hear negative (potentially self-abusive) thoughts like this pass by in your mind, respond with “STOP” or “CANCEL” and replace it with another thought. Try on a few positive thoughts to see how they feel, such as “I’m learning how to write a novel and the process is exciting” or “My writing matters to me no matter the outcome.” 

Switching up your thoughts is a 3-step process:

  1. Notice the negative thought.
  2. Say “STOP” or “CANCEL” immediately.
  3. Replace the negative thought with something more positive.

You’ll have to work on this -- I’m not saying it’s magic or that it happens overnight. It takes time and trial, like most worthwhile things. (Including writing!)

If you’ve been struggling for a while, you might find that immediately moving to replace negative thoughts about your writing with purely positive ones doesn’t feel right and your mind rejects it.

I think this can happen more often with writers because at heart we’re truth seekers, so when we tell ourselves something we don’t quite believe (or don’t believe yet) our mind will reject it. So if switching out a positive thought about writing is hard for you at first, try for a neutral thought replacement.

Instead of thinking “I’m no good at this and if I finish this book everyone will find out” (I feel ya, honey!) you can try out the thought "Finishing my book is teaching me how to finish things" or “Writing consistently is a way to enjoy some time alone.”

Another option is to replace outcome-based thoughts, like “This will never get published” with process-based thoughts, such as “I’m writing to remind myself that I’m a writer” or “The world needs more people who pay attention.”

Find a thought that is true enough for you, and use it whenever something negative about your writing process or project floats across the screen of your mind. (You can take action on this right now by brainstorming a list of neutral and positive replacement thoughts.)


2. Try Mindfulness

I used to think I wasn’t a meditating kind of person. During yoga class or guided meditation, I was the woman mentally re-organizing her To-Do list. At the time I felt smug and superior about it too: LOOK AT ME, I’M SO PRODUCTIVE I CAN'T EVEN YOGA! 

I began noticing that the people I most admired, and the writers I most admired, had a certain quality about them. They seemed calm, centered and true to themselves in the face of an insane contemporary culture. This was fascinating to me, and spending time with these people led me to understand that they all had some kind of centering or grounding practice -- such as meditation, or regular nature walks (a kind of moving meditation).

I’ve been meditating regularly now as part of my morning routine for about 18 months and it has substantially shifted my thoughts, but even more than that it’s really shifted who I am.

Mindful of the zealousness of reformed smokers, I’ll refrain from telling you to meditate every morning if it’s not already something you’re doing. But I do recommend a meditative exercise at the start of each new writing session. 

Here’s how I do it in my own writing life and how we do it in The Writer’s Flow Studio:

  • At the start of each LT session, light a candle. This gives the process a sense of ritual that helps take some of the focus off outcome and re-orient toward the process.
  • Set a timer for 3 minutes.
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. (Deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Placing my hands on my belly as I do this reminds me to breathe using my diaphragm -- an old choir trick.)
  • When the timer goes off, immediately begin writing.


3. Aim for Optimal 

As my First Book Finish students know, I’m a fan of the Harvard academic Tal Ben-Shahar’s work on perfectionism. (Definitely recommend you add his book “Being Happy” to your 2020 reading list!)

Ben-Shahar works in the field of positive psychology and he contrasts Perfectionism with something he calls Optimalism. I’ll leave you to dive into his work more deeply for yourself, but I think it is helpful to ask ourselves what an “optimal” writing life looks like, rather than setting ourselves up for failure with very high standards.

If you entered 2020 with a whole looong list of writing resolutions an you review that list to ask yourself what optimal might look like? (Hint: the definition of optimal is what is best under the circumstances.)

I used to think that having compassion for myself and not over-striving with my goals was settling for a mediocre life. I used to also get stomach ulcers, lose sleep at night and go months without writing. I like my optimal life much better than my trying-so-damn-hard-to-always-be-perfect life.

Learning to overcome my perfectionist tendencies has been a long road for me, I admit -- and I’m still in recovery. But I’m also enjoying the process! This is something we go deep on in my First Book Finish program, because so many writers struggle with this in ways that keep them from finishing.

The more I can accept reality and have some self-compassion for my failures, the easier it is to embrace the joy in my writing life and (paradoxically) be more productive. Weird how that works, eh? :-)


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