If I ignore a work in progress too long, I start to catch myself avoiding it completely. Perhaps the best strategy I’ve used to fight this is self-imposing deadlines. Of course, as the deadline looms, I conveniently push off each short story until the week of. I know procrastinating is self sabotage. I know my perfectionism is only amplified when my anxiety flares up. I know I’ll work myself into a frenzy until I’m writing late each night even though I work early. That’s probably the strangest thing about procrastination: I know I’m procrastinating but I still do it? Tim Urban outlines why he struggles with chronic lateness in his brilliant article, “Why I’m Always Late” and I’m inclined to believe I fall in that same sort of league (my husband is the first to attest to this) but obviously knowing your shortcomings isn’t the same as fixing them.
My latest bout of procrastination really got me wondering why I walk up to the same hole in the ground time after time and jump in thinking it will be different. I realized it’s rooted in my insecurities as a writer. Perfectionism and I are on a first-name basis, unfortunately, but I’ve been pretty good about keeping things at an arm’s length lately. Writing has been essential in that process. It’s not that I don’t still struggle with my unreasonable expectations -trust, me. I do- it’s that I give myself permission to perform below standard.
Any story I write will always differ from what I originally envisioned. That’s a truth I’ve reconciled over the course of writing about a dozen short stories. The disappointment has decreased overtime as I’ve improved and expanded my body of work, but it’s still there when I read over any finished piece for the hundredth time and think about what I had to cut and how that sentence still reads poorly. That disappointment sometimes leads to a strange loophole: if I never start the story, I’ll never have to worry about meeting my own expectations. The latest story idea I’ve got floating around in my head will always be the most brilliant, humorous yet touching, piece of literature to grace this side of the universe and no one can tell me otherwise if I never bother to write it down. Of course, that logic leads to zero stories and for a writer, that’s pretty no bueno.
Recognize When You’re Procrastinating and Why
The process of procrastination is the aversion of a specific activity usually by completing other activities. It’s an anxiety based process. That part’s important to understanding how the process works. Procrastination can present itself as laziness but they aren’t always the same thing. Look, there definitely are times I fall asleep on the coach with a bag of chips after a sweet video game binge when I should have been writing. For the most part though, I feel a crippling sense of dread causing me withdrawal into a bundle of guilt until I tackle the task. It’s guilt for not being productive enough (whatever that means). See where that perfectionism comes back in? Sometimes that guilt pile gets pretty big, to be honest, but I’m getting better at recognizing how my anxiety manifests. It usually starts as this unexpected urge to run away but I also get stomach aches, short breathing, and even migraines if the anxiety continues long-term. Pay attention to your body and you’ll be surprised by how much it’s telling you.
Knowing when you’re procrastinating is helpful. Knowing why can help you stop. Don’t just think about whether you’re making excuses: think about the specifics of the excuses. There’s the whole, “I’m not feeling inspired” excuse or some other kind of moody malarkey I like to toss out to frame my laziness as artistic mystique. That kinda trash never gets you anywhere except another writing block. Yes, there are a handful of writers that only write when they feel inspired but there are legions more that will tell you creativity is like any other skill: it needs to be practiced regularly. Visual artists sketch and doodle in journal margins, musicians play scales and screw around on their instruments, even potters will sculpt ugly vases just to squish them right after. What if you’ve become disillusioned to the point where you don’t even want to start? You know it won’t be as magnificent as what’s in your head because your skill hasn’t reached that point. Here’s the deal: your only going to get better by practicing. You’re the bosses of your own muses.
Busyness is the most commonly employed excuse for not working on creative tasks. I get it, honestly. Your manager asks you to stay late, kiddos get sick, cars break down. Life happens. But at the same time, life will always happen. If creative tasks help you kick back and relax, think about the last time you took a break and try to schedule one out soon. Chances are, you’re desperate for one and not even realizing it.
If you’re avoiding the creative process altogether, just try to get back into it. That’s a hard enough battle in and of itself. But if you’re avoiding a specific work in progress, start asking yourself the real questions: is it hitting a trigger point of grief you haven’t dealt with? Have you worked yourself into a wall? Are you just not invested in the work anymore? Most of the time, the blocks we hit in the creative process have to deal with our personal issues rather than the issues of the work.
Get in Line
Usually when I’m actively procrastinating, I’m substituting progress on the undesirable task for other productive behaviors like cleaning, organizing, working on my finances or cooking. The tasks that tend to get done first are the ones that are most time sensitive. If I’m hungry now, I’m probably going to drop whatever paragraph I’m working on and figure out a way to get food. Might as well unload the dishwasher while I’m in the kitchen. And then, and then, and then. One interruption isn’t a huge deal, but it’s never just one interruption, is it?
Fact for Procrastinators: tasks that can be done whenever will actually never get done. All the tasks with deadlines will always come first. Think of it this way: It doesn’t matter how long you hang out in the back corner of a coffee shop. If you never bother to get in line, you’re never going to get coffee. At some point, you have to assign priority to your creative tasks. This can be in the form of a personal deadline for different aspects of the project. Maybe you set aside specific time on a routine basis to work on your project. Regardless, you have to prioritize it if you actually want to do it.
You have to let go of your expectations and get to work. Get to the finish line however long it takes. Limping counts. Practice will help you improve as an artist, but I don’t think anyone picks up a guitar hoping to be the best scale player this side of the tracks. Finishing holds you accountable to the entirety of the project. I have dozens of beautiful, out-of-context paragraphs I’ve jolted down in journals while winged muses sang over me and the light shined down at an idyllic, forty-five degree angle. The moments that challenged me as an artist? The moments I’ve grown the most, though? Those have been sitting on the couch, cup of cold, forgotten coffee by my side, staring at the screen while the hamster wheel in my brain is struggling to move forward when the characters don’t want to. That’s what’s grown me as an artist.
Once you get to the end, you’re not necessarily finished. Your medium of creativity is the biggest determinant of the polishing process. Music: you can practice all you want and splice things up in the studio but if you botch a live performance, well, there’s always next time, buddy. If you snap a sword when quenching it, there’s a good chance it will never have a strong blade. Pottery? You can squish that vase and reform it a few times but it’s pretty permanent once it’s fired. Painting has a bit more leeway. Cover that smudge with a tree. Make a few happy birds.
Out of every creative medium, writing is perhaps the most flexible for change.
That’s good and bad. On one hand, you can always go up after the cruddy first draft. The whole purpose of a first draft is for it to exist. There’s this amazing process called editing that will take literal steaming piles of refuse and transform them into stories your mother might actually want to read, so don’t stress if your first draft actually makes her cry. On the other hand, it’s much harder to ignore the glaring faults of your brain child when it’s staring back at you on paper. A major pitfall writers tend to fall into besides not writing is to never finish editing which is honestly just as bad as never ending the first draft. Your unfinished work is unfinished regardless of where you’re at in the creative process.
Maybe you’ve postponed working on that story because you know it won’t hold a candle to what’s in your head. Maybe you haven’t released your latest the piece because you’re disappointed in it. Your work will never meet your expectations. It just won’t. But that doesn’t mean it should be locked away in a drawer for no one to see. Art isn’t just about the artist: it’s about the audience and your work will speak to others in ways you never anticipated. I’ve had other people tell me ways my stories have impacted them that I never could have imagined. Once you put your work out there, flaws and all, it belongs to the fans as much as it belongs to you. Regardless of how flawed or how late-arriving your work is, so long as you make art with meaning, it will have an impact. I’ll take my meaningful work, flaws and all, over the picture perfect story in my head any day.
3 Replies to “The Unlikely Relationship Between Perfectionism and Procrastination”
Procrastination as a form of self-sabotage really hits home for me. I don’t think it’s only for writing or for creating other forms of art, though, because I’ve definitely felt this urge to be perfect (or a fear of failure) in a lot of other projects I must do, or even when studying for exams. In the end, starting late just means we’ll end up finishing it at a later date, or worse, not finishing it at all. Thanks for this article. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.
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Procrastination is definitely a way of life and it bleeds into everything we put our hands on. Glad to know you enjoyed the article! Moment of silence for all the other procrastinators currently under the gun for whatever project they just now decided to work on.
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“Your medium of creativity is the biggest determinant of the polishing process.” I never thought about that before, but that’s so true! Great post!