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?

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.

How to organise a messy life

Being a hot mess sometimes, I have learnt a few ways to simplify life…

Hold meetings with your partner

It has been a tough few weeks and little things always get missed, dates in the diary creep up on me or I forget to email back. When life gets messy I know I have to be a bit more structured to help me through the chaos.

Diary management is the touchstone of an easier life. After many times where I have been wondering where my husband got to, he now gives me a rundown of his whereabouts each week on a Sunday. I would do the same back to him if I ever went anywhere. While we are combining our calendars, I jot down meal ideas on a food planning pad and make the shopping list.

This may seem like a simple step to be organised but he knows if he wants a shopping list and to eat during the week, I need to know how many meals are to be made. It’s not a difficult thing to do but I find whenever we wing it, things go wrong.

Listen to your body

I have become very mindful of my need to rest. I’ve been more tired with changes at work and a few busy weekends and sometimes that means I need time to zone out. Although I see escapism as a sign that I am not coping well, there has to be a place for trash tv or rewatching an easy comedy.

I have a certain amount of pain, in addition to surviving on little sleep. Forgiving myself is important because like many people I have bought into the idea of productivity. If you want to achieve, you have to hustle. That may be true, but if I fail to listen to my body then I know I won’t get anywhere.

Keep it routine

The need for cleaning my place on a schedule has become paramount to my well-being. I know which days I do certain tasks so if get through these things as well as my daily routine, I can feel on top of things.

Leaving the odd post-it note of what I need my partner to do is not a bad idea either. What I find is if the basic stuff gets done around the house, I am much more likely to pick up the faffy jobs that need to get done. It’s a form of self-care to at least achieve those set things and I often find I do more by starting the basic tasks.

Write a Little

There is no limit to how little you can do. On weeks where I am just keeping the basic stuff together I might only dip into my work-in-progress a little. But I do something. I have written before about the importance of Morning Pages for my creative process. So on some days I just write these but end up highlighting something that is a new idea.

On other days I manage to type up something on my phone. Or I see a snippet of a story in an ordinary day. A man running full pelt behind an oblivious teenager who had dropped her card; parents trying to get their toddler to walk along, though their legs kept crumbling beneath her. If nothing else, watching people around me, keeps me curious.

And I suppose in all these ideas for simplifying life, I am saying sometimes you have to let go. Lower your standards!

This is the opposite of advice I see all the time to increase productivity, how to write everyday. I am not dismissing these ideas but in a tough week I say KISS (keep it simple, sweetie).

How has your week been?

The Simplest Things

Despite the creative block, sometimes it is small hacks in life that make me get back to the page. If you have been struggling to sit down to work, what are the small things you do to get your creativity flowing again?

What made a difference this week?

Cold extremities. The office is cold, the house is cold; storm Ciara has left us mercifully unscathed, where I live, but still Winter’s last blast is here.

The Spring flowers I photographed just last week are a distant memory as the sharp wind beats my cheeks in the playground. But despite the chill that permeates the house, it has made me nostalgic for the times I hunkered down to write. If I don’t want to go anywhere else, I may as well absorb myself by creating something. Whether I like it or not, the time I spent as a student was both my least efficient and my most productive . It must be a sense-memory, but as my hand flies furiously across the page, I associate a desperate need to complete work with this peculiar sense that the air is cold around my nostrils. And like the muscle memory of athletes, my inner student is making me work harder, and suddenly I have more new words than I have had in a while.

Cosy socks. I find slobbing out in comfy clothes not just necessary in this weather, but an inspiration to enjoy the hygge sensations of blankets and pillows by dressing in the warmest fabrics. And in this cosiness, I imagine myself other places. Like my characters, inside looking out on bleak surroundings. Or imagine trying to take off the socks and insist on being barefoot in the woods. The sensory appeal of soft clothing, firing up these thoughts about how my characters are feeling.

A Good Book. I have started a thriller and was so absorbed on my way to work, I almost forget to get off at my stop. A page-turner can be inspiring whether or not it is in the genre you are writing. Whether it inspires you to try your own hand at writing, or it just sparks ideas for a work-in-progress, I have been glad of time to read on my commute this week.

Old Photos. I found an old photo of myself as a child. Looking a little extra, trying on my Grandmother’s pearls, I was inspired not just by the girl I once was – much more spirited than I am now. I was also inspired to delve deeper back into the past of my characters. Though the work I have written may not make the final cut, the depth to which I know my characters now is clear as it flows easily.

Also I think a lot about my childhood ambitions, as I have said before, I do believe in dreams. They have changed a little, but one of the exercises I have been using writing letters to my encouragers in my journal, I wrote to my Grandparents this week, inspired by the photo and by the joy my visits there always brought me.

A Blank Page. The final thing that has really helped me this week has been a blank page. Rather than fill in gaps in my work-in-progress, I have allowed myself time with a notebook or a blank Word Doc. This is an indulgence as I know that having been making progress by fleshing out the first part of my novel. But if it get me working again, it will be worth the type-up time.

I’d love to know what you have done to get back to writing this week?

How’s that work/life balance?

Work has been on my mind and writing has taken a back seat

I have been too busy to do anything, including write on my blog. I have not been even keeping to my usual schedule and so still haven’t faced my fears of polishing my draft for a friend to read and help me. Even though I know her door is still open, it’s starting to feel too long since she offered. Life is getting in the way.

I always find January hard. I am effected by the short days and feel sluggish in the post-holiday slump.  The wind dug sharp against my cheek as I walked home from work yesterday and I realised how happy I was to be outside. I suppose I am getting my annual blues because I haven’t been out enough although I forced myself out to see a movie, go to the gym – the dark has left me weary from the early evening onwards.

But I also noticed something else: I was thinking about work. Instead of leaving it at the door, and letting my mind wander to the work-in-progress, I was worrying about changes that were happening. Equally work worries keep showing up in my Morning Pages too (you can read more about why I use this method here). Everyone has to deal with work changes, in fact I once worked in a “Transformation Team” which was really a euphemism for saving money. You don’t have to be at work for long before you realise two things: the only constant is change and it’s always about saving money.

I accept that the changes will happen and I have a choice to be happy with them or move on. I also accept that I can see my place in the team is not being devalued but re-evaluated. All of this does not help with the frustration. Because, although I want to work there, I also really want a day job.

Did you ever just want a day job?

For years, I worked as a temp in offices and often I would find it amusing to see the politics of the place. I thought for a while I might write about my experiences and I am sure that there will be parts that pop up in my writing. I felt like I was a little detached from it all. But, before I knew it I would start to care about the comings and goings and have opinions on staff who sat around doing nothing all day just like everyone else.

You see, I just can’t do it. When I was at my last job I wanted to get involved in the charitable activities, here there are projects that are sort of my role sort of not. I fear I may just be a busy body. When I was at school, I even got a prize for being a “doer”. I think that probably tops most academic prizes I failed to win because it speaks more of my personality. And apparently I haven’t changed much all these years later. I’ll interfere wherever there seems to be something vaguely to do with me.

I think sometimes I would like to switch my brain off a bit. But I do want a job that has challenge or keeps me busy, but that I can walk away from. That uses some brainpower, but not too much. Fussy I know. It’s a constant balance I am trying to find and I need to find a way to get my headspace back for my creative writing.

In the meantime, I am trying to find times of the day when I unplug from the stresses of my job or my son’s education. It’s a work-in-progress too but one I hope I can work more on in February.