The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
Dude, Pacifica, it’s just a blog. Write whatever the hell you want, whenever you want. You don’t have to be so precious about it ALL of the time. Just write something, it doesn’t matter if it sucks. Put it up anyway – it’s YOUR blog – for FUN, remember? Sometimes, sure, why not, spend a day (IF you ever have a whole day of time to yourself again…!) working on a long involved post full of carefully chosen and formatted photos and a variety of related themes or researched information. But it doesn’t have to be like that every time!
I know that at this point you have a whole ridiculously long list of ostensibly awesome ideas to write about that you feel you couldn’t possibly do justice in a short post, but I’m sure you probably also have plenty of other half-baked ideas that you could jot down a few notes about and call them a post. Throw a random question, an idea, an undeveloped thought up there – it doesn’t have to be fully digested and worked through. You don’t have to be FAIR. You don’t have to go and try and find as many sides of an issue as possible and you don’t have to tie it to a bigger and bigger theme. It can just be tidbit, a nugget, a kernel. Write a paragraph and press the publish button – it doesn’t have to MEAN anything. You could even JUST pose a question and not even try to answer it at all. This is a free format and there are no mistakes. It is not permanent, it is not printed, it is JUST a blog. THAT was the point when you started – to have a place to play with ideas and to just write and not worry about the outcome. So when did you forget? Seriously chill out. It’s better to post and have it not be incredible, than never post at all. It’s a BLOG – decent sometimes is good enough. Go for decent and maybe you’ll surprise yourself. Just go for something. Just write. Stop thinking about it and just do it.
P.S. Don’t you DARE “edit” this stupid letter to yourself. That’s not the point!
Several people this week have pointed out something that I was already acutely aware of – that I have failed to post ANYTHING in this space for ….FOUR months. (!) Sigh.
I think about writing a new blog post literally every day. But I always come up with a reason not to do it, mostly having to do with convincing myself I don’t have enough time.
But this blogging procrastination is not your garden variety procrastination – it’s perfectionist procrastination, a much more insidious and neurotic strain. Mind you I am very good at both varieties of procrastination but generic procrastination is more what I do when I am putting off things I think I will NOT enjoy – like heavy-duty, highly obscure statistical research for some boring article I have to write on some obscure, boring subject . With that sort of thing, of course I wait till the very very very last minute to actually complete the task, all the while stressing out every minute before I actually start, worrying that I’ve probably already put it off too long and I really should have started it earlier. Then in order to distract myself from the discomfort of these concerns I obsessively check facebook, news headlines, my email inbox and exchange rates. And then finally when I start the thing that is so very boring, it is a massive struggle not to stop every few minutes to again check facebook, news headlines, exchange rates – and ANYTHING else that is SLIGHTLY less boring than that thing I’m supposed to be doing. (9:35 AM: click xe.com, 9:36 AM click facebook, “that person I haven’t seen in 10 year is cooking dinner, cool” 9:38 AM click xe.com “Wow…how interesting – the dollar/euro exchange rate has moved from 1.3521 to 1.3519 in the last 3 minutes…wow…hmmm!”; 9:42 AM – click gmail – inbox: 1829 unread messages, 9:44 AM click gmail inbox: 1829 unread messages; 9:46 AM click Facebook “Hmm that person I met that one time is on their way to Florida…hmm”; 9:48 AM click gmail – inbox: 1829 unread messages; ) THAT is the fine art of generic procrastination.
Perfectionist procrastination happens in the following way. When I get a fresh exciting idea, all I want to do is drop everything else and delve into it – cut class, forget work, not buy groceries, not make dinner, etc etc in order to get started and WRITE. But usually I don’t drop anything – instead I try to wait for some “free time” to write, a time when I am relatively unburdened by other more pressing responsibilities. As I wait, the idea starts to expand, and multiply, like a bacterial culture, growing organically and linking up with other themes or ideas. Suddenly an idea that I thought was going to just be a few anecdotal paragraphs becomes a complex, many tiered essay-ish idea that will require a lot of time and effort, and maybe some research, photo editing, and fancy formatting, to get it on the blogsite in the way I imagine it.
And there is no turning back from an immense idea, no going back to the nice simple, fresh, innocent initial thought – it’s all or nothing. And so – at least lately – more often than not it means I do nothing.
And the longer I wait to write a new idea the harder it becomes – the more I feel indebted to it, like I owe it a chance or something. And there is also a pecking order – I owe more to the older ideas because they’ve been waiting longer. So all the NEWER new ideas get put on the backburner until I find the time to write the older new ideas (which ultimately shrivel into old, unwieldy ideas).
It is true I am short on time at the moment; on top of my job and everything else I usually have going on here, I am also taking an intensive French course at the local university plus a number of dance classes – so I’m in class, on campus (for the ridiculously long, languorous French lunch breaks…!), or in transit a total of 35 hours a week (plus there’s homework). So finding the time for complex blog posts is kind of impossible. And even when I DO have a free day – the hypothetical unwritten blog post will have to compete with all the letters I should have written, chores I should have done, errands I should have run, books I should have read, and other miscellaneous tasks I should have accomplished.
But still – I should definitely have the time to write a blog post every few weeks, even given all that.
But it’s the perfectionism that keeps getting in my way…
I procrastinate from doing the things I love because I want to do these things better than I realistically am able to do with the time I actually have. A heady cocktail of perfectionism and procrastination and guilt can almost entirely immobilize me for days on end. And it affects not only something like blogging, but many other things – like for example writing letters to good friends.
When one of my friends writes me a letter this is the precise process I go through almost every time.
1) I am probably looking at my email only in order to distract myself from some important task that I am trying to avoid. I get very excited to see new mail, and doubly so to see that it is a REAL letter from a REAL friend.
2) I hastily open their email and I read through the whole thing even though I’m supposed to be doing something else really important. Then I feel the pang of guilt and stress, and I feel my responsibilities urgently beckoning me. So – since I can’t realistically respond to my friend right then, what with all the other things I’m supposed to be doing, and probably already was supposed to have finished – I mark it as unread so I read it more thoroughly and carefully a second time, and then I star it, so that it will grab my attention and I will be reminded to respond to it.
3) I’ll spend that whole day, distracted, thinking about all the things I want to write to that friend, and all my responses to what they have said to me. I will wish that I didn’t have anything else to do so I could sit down right in that moment and compose a long response.
4) That evening when I am more free and maybe I’ve gotten my work-work done for the day, I will inevitably have a list of other things written in my planner to do that I probably was supposed to have finished the day or maybe the week or the month before so I realize I just don’t have the time to write my dear friend like I wish I could do THAT evening. So I put “write (insert name)” in my WEEKLY planner so that I will be sure to do it THAT week.
5) Every day that I don’t write that friend I think of more things I should write them, and the time I think I will need to allot to the writing of their letter grows. In the meanwhile I am guiltily fretting about all the other friends that I have planned to write long emails to, whose emails I have “marked as unread” and starred. I realize that I can’t possibly justify setting out a chunk of time to reply to the most recent email, if I still haven’t written the friend whose name I have had sitting in the “To write” section in my planner for 2 months already.
6) Each day I go through a mini-struggle like this where I put off the new things I want to do because I feel like the older things I was planning to do days, weeks, or months before should take precedence. But when will I ever have the time to write them that 25 page email that I have now composed in my head?
7) If I ever do manage to actually sit down to write a letter to a friend that I have put off over-long, generally speaking I am so frozen by guilt and self-loathing that I am unable to know how to start. And all those fine ideas I wanted to put down seem like old sad vegetables that have been sitting in the fridge way way way too long.
And the cycle goes round and round. I imagine my unresponded-to emails layering like rings on a tree or layers of earth, a whole history of stilted communication. Ok – I AM better than I used to be about this – I do manage eventually to pick up where I left off with my friends – I USED to just start avoiding them! All because I wanted to talk to them so much. Ridiculous. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. No ok, it’s still pretty funny…
At least now with facebook, almost no one’s really talking to each other anymore anyway, so it makes me feel a little better. But that’s not really the point. I mean – the point is I LOVE writing letters to friends and receiving letters from friends…and I want to get BETTER at this, and be a better friend – especially since a majority of my friends are hundreds or thousands of miles from here, scattered in every direction. I want to learn to occasionally write short letters to friends so they REALIZE how much I’m actually thinking about them (probably at least once a day if I owe them a letter), even if I can’t actually write down ALL the things I wish I could tell them or ask them if I had all the time in the world for letter-writing.
And I love writing in this blog. The problem is that I particularly like making posts that feel crafted – interesting and maybe beautiful to look at as well, and on a unique subject matter if possible. But if I am always aiming for that level, I am going to seriously block myself up. The longer and more intricate my posts have gotten, the more I feel like I’m letting myself down or letting SOMEBODY down if I write something more casual and unedited, or fluffy, or short and not profound.
I need to let myself be a little more relaxed about the whole thing – and push through the part of me that says I will never get a post good enough, or wow I really shouldn’t post that it’s too boring or stupid or obvious or self-absorbed. I need to be willing to make a mess of things. To write and not make sense, to write and not make a point, to write something really stupid that I totally don’t agree with later when I’ve thought about it more. I have to give myself the permission to write incompletely.
I know I can’t promise myself to do better from now on – those promises always lead to failure and self-loathing and ultimately probably less writing than ever due to guilt-induced writer’s block. The best I can do for now is be cognizant of the pattern, try and work through it moment to moment, allow myself to keep failing and trying again, and HOPE for progress, albeit slow and clumsy.
Wow this post is way longer than I first intended…sigh…typical.