Perfectionism and productivity

Sometimes you have to acknowledge you are what holds you back

If you looked at my messy hair and sometimes messy house, you wouldn’t think at all that I suffered with perfectionism. Increasingly we see a world where we are surrounded by perfect. Whether it’s facetune or show- home-style houses, I have probably seen a hundred images to show me perfect in the last day.

Even though we are savvy to the filter of social media influence, it still does effect our perspective on what we believe is achievable. These are really just a few ways that we say to ourselves, perfect is possible. Some weeks there are just small things I do to keep my head above water (and that was before this global crisis.)

I was writing recently about goals and how for some people it is freeing to say “Dare to be average”. What I understand David Burns means by this is not actually do a poor job, instead do the job as it needs to be done. So rather than procrastinating because we cannot do it perfectly, we get the job done well enough. Compared to a job not done, average is suddenly above average!

I think this relates well to one of my creative blocks. Realising that perfectionism is hampering my productivity. To the point, at many times in my life I haven’t written at all. Though it was a passion as a young child, two short stories were rejected at 20 and I didn’t write again until I was 30. That’s a pretty devastating consequence of perfectionism.

Brené Brown writes that perfectionism is a way of avoiding anyone else’s judgement. This has been a real revelation for me. We actually try and protect ourselves using perfectionism as a tool to mitigate shame. The shame for me is I will never achieve my ambition, or I will achieve publishing something and it will be terrible or even one person will read my work and think it is terrible. The worst piece of writing ever written. Or, they will laugh when it’s scary, recoil when it’s funny. And if all these thoughts preoccupy my imperfect morning pages, it’s a wonder I start at all!

The whole point of Mum, Write NOW in shouty capitals is to remind me, today is as good a day as ever. It doesn’t always work to motivate me. But it reminds me to plod on, to tackle my perfectionism with the work.

Do you think perfectionism holds you back?

Don’t ask me if I am writing

The pressure to feel productive gets too much at the best of times!

I snapped at a friend this week who asked if I was writing. They were making kind enquiries and didn’t expect my reaction I am sure. It’s smoothed over, but I think my sharp response is probably a sign that I haven’t come to terms with the fact that I am not writing. Or only just a little.

The usual problems of time and interruptions are in addition to the unusual issues of living through a global pandemic, managing my anxiety and getting through each challenge day-by-day. The sense that I have is that the current normal, which is likely to continue at least until the end of the next month ( where we are all at home, all working, all doing school) is perhaps not just a tough situation but a relief too. I can forgive myself for writing so little.

Maybe it’s just an excuse, but I have had for a while thought that there is a cult of productivity or demonstrating that you are productive in the Writing Community. Bear with me if you think I am trying to offend you, please. It’s just that I have seen a lot of you “you should be writing” memes and such which impacted me negatively if I am not in the right headspace to work. More productive than I are producing work and I am not, and it is discouraging to me. Well I suppose that’s my problem!

I have been reading a few articles about identifying your core values, such at this. It’s a new way of thinking about what drives and motivates me. In completing the exercise Ivan Martin recommends, I noticed as well as diligence and concientiousness, I came up with words such as peace, calm and comfort and ease. These competing values or ideas about how I want my life to look, probably explain why I have such a strong reaction to seeing others productivity. I won’t always put myself into discomfort to work through in the same ways others would, because that is not in my make-up.

I have been rereading the excellent “What I Talk about when I Talk about Running.” Having read this at the beginning of my writing journey, no wonder I think that writing is all about being able to write everyday and having hours to give to it. Murakami’s book is a marvel and so inspirational but on this reread it was so clear to me that I cannot work with the same method. Though with even a tiny bit of Murakami’s commitment and dedication would be a great improvement.

I am not a marathon runner, but completing a novel or long-form work is a marathon. But pushing myself to the extremes of my body or mind’s capabilities, that was never how I could run it. I haven’t the stamina. Nor have I the luxury of time and energy that it takes to get into running a marathon – to extend the metaphor to breaking. Murakami first wrote after his bar closed into the early hours. His commitment to anti-social hours is so admirable but also completely unrealistic in my life. While he inspires me with his discipline, he also teaches me about my own energy levels.

So, I have to consider what sort of runner am I? I conclude it’s what I knew already, I’m a jogger. A slow, plodding jogger who makes frequent stops to catch my breath. It’s not the most flattering depiction but, nonetheless, it reflects a realistic picture. And so no, I haven’t been writing of blogging much at the moment. It turns out, when you’re living through unprecendented times, you have to forgive yourself if it leaves you out of breath.

Have you found inspiring books about writing help your practice?

Create a collage

Feeling bereft without Artist Dates, I started my day with some craft.

Last year when I embarked on The Artist’s Way programme, I was struggling to fit in my weekly Artist Dates that Julia Cameron recommends. A chance to nurture yout inner artist, she prescribes two hours a week as a designated date. It was hard to give myself the time to do it and I felt like it took longer to go to a museum or exhibition. To encourgage myself and others, I made a list of cheap and easy things to do as an Artist Date. Novelty and curiosity are the main things I need.

Well since then I haven’t been diligent at observing the practice, I admit. The main thing I have tried is cooking new things but I haven’t pushed myself. And all of a sudden, with my options limited by social- distancing rules, I am feeling a little bereft of creative outlets.

We were discussing in our work support group this week that there are many ways to give our brains a break from the collective trauma we are living through. Being creative may be one way to help your mind adjust to the extreme shifts of life most of us are going through. I have no psychological training so I won’t prescribe creativity if you are really struggling. But if you do feel well enough, trying your hand at something creative may help.

As well as origami, I have seen these ideas on Pinterest of cute animal collages. It was so interesting paying attention to my inner critic. I am not a visual artist though I enjoy craft. I journalled after and felt intrigued about how many emotions came up for me. I worried for example that it was a childish activity, and that the results were poor.

A playful Artist Date

But if you can overcome thoughts that distract your art. Here’s a how to for a collage cat.

Materials

  • Four types of paper, a page ripped from two publications and two different lined notebooks
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Markers or maybe paint

Using basic shapes I created a cat based on this Pinterest tutorial.

I drew the shape on one sheet, then using those as a template copied the shape onto one other of the types of paper.

Playing around with the order of the shapes, I stuck them together on a dark background

To finish I used a highlighter pen to colour my cat in. Then, and this was the hardest bit, drew in the features.

Tackling the inner critic

Sharing my work, (which I don’t particularly rate though think it’s cute), has brought up my inner critic to the fore. One good thing about playing in a different medium than you’re used to is your standards for what you expect of yourself are much lower. And so almost,(almost) I can feel less fear about sharing. In fact it may even be more useful to observe what holds you back when you try something completely new. You hear very quickly the inner saboteur voice, her opinion is much louder and less insidious when you have little expertise. She will tell you what you have done wrong clearly, rather than blocking you from writing.

I found this such a productive Artist Date, I am definitely going to insist on this time in the coming weeks. And when we are safe again, appreciate more the chance to go further afield.

Where I write

A year ago I wrote I had nowhere to write but my productivity has improved this year so where do I write?

In my bedroom mainly, in my messy house. This is not where I want to be working. I have many dreams of aesthetically pleasing book nooks, or a book-lined library and an antique writing desk. Or maybe also an attic. I mean I got actual palpatations watching Jo March spread out her work page-by-by in the old Alcott attic in Greta Gerwig’s brilliant Little Women. My soul soared to see such a loving reproduction, or an attic, for space and for all night to write.

How amazing are these portraits on Modern Met

But I do not have this. I have forty minutes of childcare and a comfy mattress and a laptop that is getting warmer on my lap as I type. I have silence in the house for now but in my eye line is the busy-ness of a cluttered surface and I won’t be able to stay like this for long without making some adjustments.

I do not share this to garner even a shred sympathy, (even if that were available) because I am so lucky. My home is warm, I have many things and I have many benefits of modern life. But I also have a problem with this comfort. I mean I am glad I don’t have to write for candle light, but I also wonder whether the discomfort helped. Fuelling creativity through pain? A romantic cliché. Although I wouldn’t mind my own writing room, even if it was chilly.

I have been secretly eyeing up the shed since we have all been inside. Never mind that it’s got a drawer of zoflora, some spare soup my husband thought we might need and several spiders. Certainly on a softer day, I’ve sat in our grey backyard and tried to write though the shady spot is not quite warm enough.

I suppose I am thinking about all this to say to myself, you can write anywhere. Yes, even here: busy, cluttered house. Yes, even now: busy, distracted mind.

Where would your dream writing spot be?

Writing With a Distracted Mind

If you are finding it hard to be productive, you’re not the only one…

You know how if you had all that time, you’d write your novel? How’s that working for you? Ha! If you’re like me then your distracted mind is struggling. I think it’s clear from my posts in the past that I don’t do great creative work when life is too much. And it’s all a bit too much for me at the moment

We are in the lucky position of still having work that we are trying hard to do at home with our son alongside. A privilege because even as a keyworker, I am not on the front line and a relief because we don’t have quite the worries that other people have around finances. So believe me, I am thinking about others in a lot worse positions than us when I write this. All this extra time at home and I am still too distracted to write.

Not me but…mood.

It’s frustrating. But this time in isolation is unique in its character. I am on an emotional rollercoaster. Right now, blogging on my phone while my son is on the laptop I am enjoying sitting about in comfy clothes. No school run stress. No demand to dry my hair then pick if I do makeup or eat breakfast today because I didn’t leave time for both. (That’s my usual week day) So I am even feeling good enough to write. But later I might try and read and manage two pages before I want to nap.

In this hour by hour existence, I have been thinking about my son’s mind. His neurodiversity means his attention can be very short if he isn’t motivated. And anything remotely schooly for him has to be of interest to engage him, particularly if he finds it hard to do something. The thing that his dyspraxia and attention make it hardest for him to do: writing. The physical act of writing is very complicated. He gets intense support for this at school. It takes time. And he’s got to be interested.

It is not without irony I realise that I am battling to help him do any writing while school is closed. And I think looking at his highly distracted mind can teach me something about how to approach any work I can do while this is our reality.

How to Help Your Distracted Mind Write (or A Seven-Year-Old Learn)

  1. Keep it short. Don’t expect to stay on topic a long time. I have been using a free Skillshare login to do some courses and quick writing exercises. This has led to a short story. Maybe this isn’t the time for long form! Don’t expect too much of yourself.
  2. Make it interesting: while I won’t pretend to be reading a lot, I have been indulging my obsessions in audiobooks and podcasts. Just as my son has been indulging his Minecraft interest, I have been enjoying tales of antiquity. Mythos by Stephen Fry and podcasts such as Myths and Legends. These stories are short and inspiring. And delving into something that really interests you may keep your mind engaged a little longer.
  3. Use time limits. Often it doesn’t feel like you have done much if you have only sat for 10 minutes. But you have to accept if you have done that, you have achieved something. A time limit is a great way to remind yourself to do nothing else in that time. And I have surprised myself with what we have achieved in a short time.
  4. Use a task list. My son gets stressed by timers as he has to watch it count down. We use a list of three tasks he has to achieve instead. This is also a good way to approach work, for me it’s about polishing some work with a few questions in mind: get information across, let the characters move forward, leave early enough. These are all things I learnt in writing classes that I can tick off when I revise work. And an achievable set of tasks to do with maybe a scene or a story.
  5. Reward any effort. You might be giving yourself more treats anyway but the thing that keeps me motivated might also be a little sit in the backyard. It doesn’t have to be much but if you did anything towards some writing you need to do, reward yourself!

So these are my distracted thoughts on getting work done...how have you been managing to write?