#14: How to overcome perfectionism

There are a few pesky little habits that many entrepreneurs and creatives develop in the pursuit of their goals. They all start innocently and supposedly for the right reasons but ultimately they stop us moving forward. 

If you are a creative type, as many entrepreneurs are, I don’t think I need to introduce either of them. They are two twin-sins of any creative endeavour, whether it’s an artwork, a piece of marketing or a product for sale:  Perfectionism and Procrastination. 

Perfectionism is sneaky. It hides under the idea of good intentions:

  • It comes out of care for the quality of the outcome
  • It shows attention to detail 
  • It emerges from our highly-developed understanding of the topic or style

However, if we dive deeper and start analysing what forces us to be so particular about how we approach the task ahead, we are likely to realise that, in fact, what we are really aiming to do is to avoid a failure

At this point, of course, the failure is not even a possible scenario. We haven’t done anything yet. We predict a possible outcome, expecting the worst and being afraid of it.

What it results in is 

Here is a good example:

You sit down to create a new piece of content for your marketing. Let’s say, it’s a blog post. You had a rough idea what it would be about, but now that it’s time to actually write it, you start questioning the topic and your own knowledge. 

You decide to do quick research, just to see what other people wrote about it. 

Two days later, you forgot about this blog post as in your research you found a new idea for your business, planned a family trip to Haiti and decided that writing blog posts is not trendy anymore or aligns with your skillset. You ditch writing in favour of video making. All you have to do is to learn to edit, buy a camera and software, take a class on animation- and then you will be all set.

Brene Brown, artfully captured this concept in her book ”The Gifts of Imperfection”:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to do your best. Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: that if we […] act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. […]. It’s a 20 tonnes shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it is the thing that really prevents us from taking flight.”

Brene Brown

Struthless, a YouTuber whose video I share further down this article, summarised the problem in one poignant sentence:

Perfectionism is not the way; it’s in the way. Struthless
The Three Stages of Perfectionism

As mentioned, perfectionism is sneaky and comes at us many times in the course of a project: 

  • At the beginning
  • In the middle
  • At the end 

You will find it showing its ugly head more than once. Just when you think we overcame the desire to deviate from the plan, it strikes again, when you least expect it. 

I’ve had a long-lasting battle with this tendency and over the time I collected a number of strategies that help me to fight that destructing habit, whether it’s for personal or work projects. 

HOW TO GET STARTED:

There is a saying that states the best way to get something done is to start doing it. However, as you probably experienced yourself, with projects that are aimed to be shown publicly or are challenging us in some way,  this is easier said than done. 

The crippling idea of ‘what will people say’, can paralyse us to the point that we can give up way before we even begin. 

One way to tackle the daunting task is to lower expectations.

The Five-Unit Challenge:

I wish I could remember who suggested it first to credit properly, but with so many ideas shared by many people on the Internet, it’s not always possible to track the author. As always, it’s the concept that really matters, so here it comes. 

The concept of  ‘five units challenge’ is based on setting a small, unthreatening unit of actions to get started with. For example, instead of doing a full 60 min workout, when you have never exercised before, you go for five push-ups. Or, instead of writing a whole book to promote your business, you focus on writing for thirty minutes each day.  

This way Before you even realise, you are already “doing” the bloody thing. WIth the help of the law of physic, it’s possible that you wil continue, since “a body in motion stays in motion”.

Mel Robbins’ 5 seconds rule:

Mel Robbins, now a renowned motivational speaker, was a high flier with a loving husband and children until certain events in her life made her almost clinically depressed. It got so bad, she struggled to even get out of bed and take care of her kids. One day, she watched a rocket taking off on a TV which gave her an idea of tricking her brain and taking action before her brain could give her reasons not to. Later, when she researched the concept she realised there is a whole lot of science that backs this strategy and how it helps interrupt an unhealthy habit. Without going into the details, the practical application is “simple, but not easy” as Mel says. You count: “5, 4 3, 2, 1” and move.  

Here is Mel Robbins explaining it herself:

What’s the goal here? What’s my objective?

This might sound simple, but for me was a revelation. Without even being aware of it, I was starting a project with massive expectations of what it should be in the end and what it should result in. 

Because of that, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and the project in question. When I stopped expecting to produce a piece of art that will change my entire life, starting and finishing things got so much easier. 

Here is a list of five simpler and less overwhelming goals I use now whenever I start anything. My goal could be one of the following:  

  • To practice a skill or develop a habit
  • To create something on the day/within 5 mins, an hour (and so on)
  • To test an idea
  • To outline the bigger project
  • To establish a level of expertise 
Aim at 70% perfect

Nothing is perfect in nature. Even nature perfects its own creations by experimenting with mutations. So why should we expect perfections from ourselves? 

Nothing is perfect in nature. Even nature perfects its own creations by experimenting with mutations. So why should we expect perfections from ourselves? 

If starting feels so daunting because you worry you will not get it done at 100%, consider going just for 70%. The trick here is to interrupt the inner critic, which will no doubt want to make you feel bad for not being “the best version of yourself”. Struthless, an illustrator and youtuber, identifies four reasons why this approach works:

  • It lowers the barrier to entry (in other words to start)
  • The Law of Diminishing Returns
  • It helps you finish
  • It reinforces the truth

Here is Struhless himself  where he elaborates on these concepts (from 4mins into his video):

THE MIDDLE OF THE PROJECT:

So you started? Congratulations! 

Here is a new challenge. Most projects do not take 5 minutes. Some take a couple of hours, some a few days. Some projects will not see compilation for the next few months or even years. 

Perfectionism can slip into us at any moment and stop us moving forward and in the worst situations, even abandon the project altogether. The middle of a project provides a plethora of opportunities for overthinking and worrying if what we do is good enough. 

So how do you get yourself to continue without being too critical of your actions? 

To keep yourself on track, remind yourself of the objectives.

Go back to the objectives

Based on the objective you set for the project, there will be automatically something you won’t be able to do. 

There will be matters that you simply cannot work into if you want to achieve the broader goal:

  • If my goal is to develop my skill or a habit of doing something, then what I produce does not have to be perfect, it just needs to be done to the best of my ability as of now
  • If I need to create something within a specific time, then that time will determine the length or the scale of the final result 
  • If I need to just outline a project, then I can only focus on the main themes, I don’t need to know all the details yet
  • If I aim to teach something then based on who my audience is (Beginners, Advanced or Experts?) I have to omit some information 
  • If my objective is to produce something that will make people want to work with me, then I can only over “that what and why” and omit “the how”

And so on.

TO FINISH AND MAKE IT PUBLIC

After starting many projects myself, I am starting to realise that to finish a project is an act of strong will and self-discipline. To make the project public is an act of courage. 

This goes for beginners and people who already have had massive success.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” a story that became a number one bestseller and was turned into a movie starring Julie Roberts, was crippled by the success of her book. So much so that after spending all the time to start, complete and finish her next book, she binned it just before sending it to the publisher. 

Here are some of my ways to overcome that: 

Close your eyes and hit ‘Send’

I tried that more than once. From sending a proposal email to a potential client, to submitting a funding application to doing my first ever Live video. Each time, I had to force myself to stop the overthinking and allow others to be the judge.

Aim for the rejection

For every group of rejection, there is a proven statistical probability of getting the ‘Yes’, making a win, hitting the jackpot. 

That goes for everything: 

  • If you ask 100 people to go out with you, one eventually will say yes. 
  • For evert 100 frogs you kiss, there bound to be a prince/princesss.
  • If you apply for 100 jobs, you can expect a couple of interviews. 
  • If you speak to a hundred potential clients, one will be in the position to invest and work with you.

This is how I worked through 90 email addresses (I aimed at 100 at first), I collected from different networking groups in order to re-establish the relationships. I emailed each person asking for a one to one meeting. To a seasonal sale expert, this might sound like daily activity, but to me, each email sent came at the cost of an emotional fight with myself with the main song being: “what will they think of me?”. What helped was to create a list of rejections and tell myself that rejection was what I was going for. 

The outcome of the campaign were several really pleasant conversations, an opportunity to be part in a giveaway and grow my email list and a new client. 

So track your failures and rejections and congratulate yourself for each of then, They would not be possible without you starting and hitting the “send/publish” button in the first place!

Again, remind yourself of the objective

Ironically, writing this blog post has triggered my perfectionism like none of the articles I produced since I started my 100 days content challenge.At this point, I’ve been working on this blog post for almost five (!) hours. Each time I was sure I had the main points covered, I thought of another idea or remembered a piece of content that I could reference to make the article even better. 

The only way, I’m able to force myself to finish and publish the blog post is reminding myself of the objectives on the 100 days content challenge I set for myself: 

  • To develop my writing skills through daily practice by writing and publishing a decent (but not perfect) piece of content in a day, without it taking over my whole day. 

With that in mind, I had to give up on and give myself permission not to:

  • Writing a whole book on the topic
  • Writing everything that it’s possible on the topic
  • Writing the best ever article on this topic. 
  • Creating additional graphics that would no doubly improve the reading experience
  • Not worrying that I write too much (brevity will be the next objective)

Going back to objectives, took me back to the very idea that fueled this creative challenge in the first place: to write something, put it “on the hook” and say: Here, I’ve made something for you.

Here, I’ve made this post for you! 🙂

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