How to Overcome Perfectionism to Achieve Your Writing Goals

Image: Fortune cookie fortune reading "Do not fear failure".
“Do not fear failure” by Tomasz Stasiuk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Today’s post is by book coach Heather Campbell (@thewriterremedy).

I’d always dreamed of writing a novel, and yet, I could never finish any of my projects. I was frustrated and worried that maybe I just wasn’t cut out to write, that I wasn’t smart, creative, or disciplined enough. However, I wasn’t making progress because I was struggling with perfectionism.

Perfectionism isn’t about being perfect; it’s about the fear of appearing imperfect. This trips up so many writers because we think, “I’m not perfect enough to be a perfectionist,” while at the same time we feel paralyzed by procrastination, self-doubt, and overwhelm.

Those are the real ways perfectionism shows up. As Dr. Brené Brown explains in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.”

To protect ourselves, we shy away from projects that don’t have a guaranteed outcome, and we create habits that keep us from taking risks or allow us to protect our potential if we do make mistakes. For example, we wait until the day before the deadline so if the result is anything less than perfect, we can tell ourselves we would have done much better with more time and preparation—it’s not because we lack intelligence or skill.

That’s also why perfectionism holds writers back from finishing a book; the writing process is at odds with perfectionism. It’s inherently messy and full of mistakes. It requires diligent practice and a willingness to explore ideas or techniques without promise of a good outcome. And writing feels deeply personal, possibly connected to our self-worth.

Ultimately, perfectionists are afraid to risk our potential and self-worth.  

Perfectionism is a fixed mindset

Mistakes and failure are so scary to perfectionists because they feel like a reflection of our inherent abilities. We think this way because of a fixed mindset.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, a fixed mindset is a belief that our talents and intelligence are fixed—that we can’t change or develop them significantly. This leads us to subconsciously believe that we either have the inherent ability to write a book or we don’t. And if we struggle, it’s a confirmation we don’t.

So we engage perfectionist habits to also avoid discovering that we don’t have that supposedly innate ability. We subconsciously believe that there’s a right way to write a book, and if we could just figure it out, the process would be easy. That’s why at the first sign of difficulty, we bail to save face, or we look for other reasons to blame.

Sneaky ways perfectionism stalls writing projects

Often, perfectionism isn’t obvious, and it wears a lot of disguises. The thing that all perfectionist habits have in common is their underlying motivation: to keep you safe from the risk of failure.

The most common perfectionist habit is procrastination or avoidance. You don’t have to find out that your writing skills or ideas don’t measure up if you just don’t work on your book. In fact, you can protect your belief in your own ability to write well if you never put it to the test.

Like procrastination, waiting can be another habit. This is telling yourself that you’ll finish (or start) your novel when you have the right idea or it’s the right time. Your secret hope is that with the perfect conditions, you can write a flawless novel effortlessly.

Indecision also has a sneaky way of keeping you stuck that is predicated on the same idea: There’s a right way to write a book or a right way to tell your story. If you can just figure out the right answer, you’ll finish you book easily. But until you can be sure that your choice(s) will pan out, you stay stuck—and seemingly safe—in indecision.

One of the most surprising perfectionist habits is over- or under-planning. In the case of the former, you might believe that plotting out your novel meticulously before you start will ensure success. If you can just account for every potential problem, you can avoid them all. But then you never get started or you believe the first hiccup is a sign you’ve done something wrong.

On the other end of the spectrum is pantsing, which can work well for plenty of writers, but not for perfectionists. Perfectionists wing it because pantsing doesn’t incur much risk. If we go awry along the way, we can blame it on a lack of planning or the wrong idea. We maintain our potential: “I could write a great novel if I’d just outlined.” But we don’t stick with the messy draft long enough to shape it into a viable book.

These and other habits keep us from confronting difficult work, putting in effort, and making mistakes, all of which we see as signs of inadequacy. But there is no way to write a perfect book, and frankly, it’s nearly impossible to write a good book on the first time out.

The good news is that being a perfectionist is not a fixed personality trait. It’s something you can overcome by establishing new habits and a different mindset.

Developing a growth mindset and new habits to overcome perfectionism

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset, which is a belief that we can develop talents, skills, and intelligence through time, practice, and feedback. Mistakes become a learning opportunity and challenges show us where to focus our energy to improve.

Note that perfectionism and growth and fixed mindsets are all on a continuum. You’re not wholly on one side or the other; you can also be more perfectionistic in some aspects of your life and more growth-minded in others. The goal is to shift closer to the growth end of the spectrum than the fixed, not to be perfectly, fully growth minded.

That’s the fundamental shift you must make to overcome perfectionism.

Changing your mindset in and of itself takes time and effort, and it’s a process of working on your mindset and habits together. Your habits reinforce your self-belief, and your self-belief directs your habits.

For example, if you believe that you are a procrastinator, then when you’re given the choice to start a project right away or wait, you’re likely to act according to your self-belief. Thus, you procrastinate. And the more you procrastinate, the more evidence you create to support the self-belief of being a procrastinator.

You have to work on both aspects to break the cycle. Here’s how:

1. Start with awareness

Before you can change your mindset or habits, you must become aware of the perfectionist habits you currently have and what thoughts are creating those habits. Journaling is a powerful tool for this because it helps us see our unconscious thought patterns. Ask yourself: What do I do that keeps me from writing or making progress on my book? When do I procrastinate on or avoid writing? When do I give up on projects? How do I react when I feel my writing is imperfect? Also, try identifying the thoughts that come up with those habits—what’s motivating you to work against your own interest in writing?

As you become better at noticing your perfectionist thoughts and actions after the fact, it will be easier to see them when they’re happening and redirect yourself. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you can anticipate perfectionist habits before they happen, which allows you to make the conscious decision to take different action.

2. Create a new self-belief

Even though you may now recognize that you’ve had a fixed mindset and you want a growth mindset, you won’t make the switch automatically. You must develop the belief in your own ability to build you writing skills, and you must reinforce that with evidence.

Start by picking one growth-minded self-belief you’d like to have, such as, “I’m the type of person who follows through on writing projects I start.” Create a list of times when you have followed through on past projects. Whenever you find yourself doubting your ability to follow through, your brain will try to prove it by remembering all the times you’ve given up in the past. Override that process with your list of evidence that you can follow through. This, plus your awareness of your perfectionistic tendencies, will make it easier for you to choose the path the supports your new self-belief.

3. Implement structure to develop new habits

A plan, a writing schedule, and a routine can help you show up for your writing more consistently. If you don’t already have these things in place, it’s likely because you’re afraid of effort. You either rely on the muse to come along and make it easy, or you’re scared that if you put plans in place and they don’t work out, it’s because you’re not good enough. Neither of those things are true, but you have to prove that to yourself.

Structure gives you a clear path to achieve your writing goals, it eliminates overwhelm and decision fatigue, and it keeps you accountable. If you give yourself an outline for your book project and schedule your weekly writing sessions, then commit to working on your project consistently, every time you show up and do the work, you’re reinforcing new habits. You’re also increasing will-power and building confidence. Granted, putting this structure in place is going to feel confronting at first, which is the point. You must learn to overcome your fixed mindset objections. But the more often you follow through on your plans, the easier it becomes to resist perfectionist habits and become the writer you want to be.

4. Embrace progress over outcome

One of the ways we get stuck in perfectionism is by equating our self-worth with our accomplishments. This means that unless we have perfect outcomes, we feel like a failure. This is at odds with the writing process, which requires practice and experimentation. We must risk mistakes and learn that they are not a reflection on our abilities.

So, if you feel like a writing session is only productive when you’ve created a “good” product or you’ve hit your word count goal, you’re still outcome focused. In reality, when you’ve created a scene that doesn’t work, you’ve learned something, and you’re much closer to figuring out what does work. Challenge yourself to focus on the incremental progress you make, not on achieving flawless writing.

Finally, remember that overcoming perfectionism is not something that you can do perfectly! No matter how committed you are, there will be times that you slip back into old habits or thoughts. However, the true mark of growth is that you can recognize when this is happening and make a conscious effort to reorient. That will get you closer to your writing goals than perfectionism ever could.

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