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.

What did I do in 2019?

A Review of My Writing Year

During the process of The Artist’s Way Programme, Julia Cameron encourages you to review your Morning Pages. Although she suggests you do not read them back at first, you may get too caught up in your inner critics who chat away at you. After all, the purpose of writing morning pages however inexpertly, is to leave those nasty guys on the page. Near the end of the programme, she asks that you make an overall review. Get your markers ready, it’s time to analyse your insights and highlight your ideas!

Taking stock of my pile of notebooks was a great antidote this week. I was feeling a little glum, I have been stuck in a plotting cul-de-sac for some months. Though I have had burst of inspiration in the last few weeks, the end of the decade dawns and I still haven’t completed that resolution from a few years ago to “Finish the damn draft.” Some people could have given up and I haven’t, slow and persistent plodding through my ideas. But at heart, it’s hard not to feel, like some relations, that this is all a nice hobby.

These critical thoughts and many others are marked in orange, it’s a pastel marker so it still looks pretty but it is a warning sign. Thoughts I have about myself and my abilities, hidden in my journal but still holding me back. Whether those thought originated somewhere else or they are barriers that seem to be in my way, they are hampering the inner Artist. Julia Cameron has a myriad of ways to tackle these thoughts. If you have got actual critics, she suggests ways to put up boundaries and protect your early drafts from those eyes. If your inner Artist is upset or restricted, then she suggests Artist’s Dates and an Artist altar for her.

My ideas, marked out now in a warning colour, spark a thought that in the last six months I have identified over and over the same thoughts that block me. Without giving too much away, a disappointment about wasted time and interruptions feature prominently. Like many things in my life, this can be helped by some productivity ideas so that I use what little time I have effectively.

But in amongst all those things I can criticise myself for are also other insights that she encourages you to write, mantras of self-belief. In amongst two pieces of advice stand out

You have a right to be a beginner, whatever your age”

Because, I often feel I have a lot to learn. Not least, how I can get the balance between planning my work out and let my creativity take the reins. This is at the heart of the strides I have made this year. And let’s be honest, it really isn’t a first draft anymore with so many revisions and moves around so in a way, I achieved something.

The other mantra – now highlighted in lilac – that stands out relates to the tenacity I have shown in carrying on with this and other projects. You have to tell yourself:

I am a prolific writer

Now, there is something in the vision work that someone like Rachel Hollis writes about – to write in the present tense as though it is your present reality. This seems to chime well with the vision boards that Cameron asks you to make. She believes you can give over these dreams to a God who believes in you as a creative. Whether I believe in this, I am not sure, but I can see that my production of work in the last six months has grown.

Thousands of words spent on this blog and in my notebooks. In amongst those books, marked now in bright yellow, new ideas I want to try, poems that have burst out and the start of new work I want to do. These books prove to me that whatever I have or haven’t achieved in my writing, I have been working, ideas have been flowing. Despite everything 2019 has been a great year.

Happy New Year 2020!

Don’t lose your sense of wonder

One benefit of using Artist’s Dates is to spend time each week with your sense of wonder…

Pushing through the crush at the Tutankhamun exhibition was a little overwhelming. There was a chaos of people being carrelled through the exhibit from the first video about the Ancient Egyptian Mythology there was no more structure other than the divide between the treasures and the dig. On the day I visited, everyone was hustled into the next room without much ceremony. There was little to direct you to say what exhibit was first. Perhaps that’s because they wanted you to buy audio guides?

When I said I was going someone asked me if I had taking my son. Well, I can tell you the dark room and crush of people was enough for me to cope with, I would not know where to start making it accessible for someone with sensory needs. But my sensitivity to dark and busy places has been heightened by having a child whose anxiety and overwhelm can lead to painful meltdowns so I went instead as an Artist Date. I enjoyed it greatly even if having a child with these particular needs does make me hypersensitive to crowds.

It is not just an awareness for challenging environments that my son has taught me, it is also something much more marvellous: a sense of wonder at small detail. As a small child he noticed a stonework lizard climbing at the National History Museum. I had looked past it. On a recent transport adventure, he danced for joy to see a tile with the tube map on. They are hidden outside Vauxhall Station and even the bored looking young man sat on the wall at the time was quite impressed with our find. I think that some of his inbuilt visual skills make it easier for my son to spot these details. It’s a blessing that I am happy to share.

Really what all children can teach us though is to LOOK! Whether your child has natural joint attention and points things out to you or not, they are often fascinated by things that are low down and hidden.

I was amazed by the treasures I saw on that day. Startled by the depth of the colour. The blue. The passion behind preserving these wonders for over 3500 years is awe-inspiring in itself. Both the religious practices that lead to the immense artistry thousands of years ago, the preservation since Carter plundered the grave and the new project that is being developed in Egypt to finally house the treasures all in one place.

Other than the “exit through the gift shop” mentality (the shops were listed as a galleries) this is a must-see exhibition!

It particularly worked as an Artist Date for me because I was so inspired by the truth that runs through the story: in Egyptian Mythology you must say the name as an act of memory. Despite large scale erasure one might say of Tutankhamun: there’s not a child in our world who does not know his name. That is a fascinating reflection on the power of art and history.

If you want to know more about Artist’s Dates, I have written up my own cheap and easy ideas and you can learn more about them in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

Find Encouragement Fast!

Inspired by work on by inner Artist’s strength, I have been writing letters to my encouragers

There are many exercises in The Artist’s Way programme to uncover what holds you back. In week 8, the chapter on finding your strength, Cameron writes about using your jealousy as a map. As much as I found this useful to identify the desires that I hide even from myself, I also find it quite a negative mindset.

Envy is a difficult emotion, in an ideal world we could pursue every dream, but berating ourselves for feeling like this at times is very deflating. Particularly, as I am fond of thinking, if life gets in the way. It certainly feels like we can’t always act on our dreams, even if those dreams are mapped out by our feelings of envy of others.

I decided then to consider the other more positive way of looking at things from her programme and from the week on finding connection by considering those “encouragers” in my life. Early on she asked us to gather compliments we had received on our work. I drew a blank. A couple of comments from my writing class aside, until recently few people have ever read my creative work. Julia Cameron (the programme’s author) actually advises against getting your first draft review. Your inner artist, like a child, must be looked after. Discouragement at an early stage of work is very detrimental.

So, with these wise words in mind, knowing too that I am sensitive in criticism, I decided to start using my morning pages time to write to my encouragers.

The structure of each letter is to first thank them for what they did for me:
“You saw my passion and allowed me to take time on the project” or “You taught me the skills I needed to improve my work.”

I then think about what that help showed me about my work, in the examples given they were teachers from various stages of my education so I thought about what they taught me. For me, I need to take time and develop a sense of depth in my knowledge to feel like I am doing good work. Not everyone advises that spending a long time on backstory is worthwhile and I read this really interesting blog post about this issue recently. Certainly Brenda Hill advises knowing the motivation behind using details from a backstory saying, “If…it’s not very important and isn’t relevant to the story. When you’re writing tight, it should not be included. “

Dear Encourager…

But for me, whilst I agree not to spend all your time on back story, I have to weigh this idea up with how I best develop my writing. By remembering my encouragers dedication to my work, giving me time to research in depth and explore the subject around the novel I was studying, I can see what has worked well for me in the past. It reminded me how powerful research can be for me.


Finally, in my letters, I use my imagination to think how they might encourage me now. This has been harder so I use the basis of the lesson I learnt from reflecting on the help they gave me to construct the advice. The person who enjoyed the amusing details about the run down cottage that I described in a chapter she read might suggest I consider where I could add more colour to certain scenes, for example.

Write a letter to your encourager:


So, if you want to construct some advice and complements from past encouragers follow these easy steps

  1. Choose someone who has helped you with some written work, a teacher may be a good place to start
  2. Think of a few things to thank them for
  3. Review how their action has helped you
  4. Imagine what they might say about what you are working on
  5. Reflect on any advice this letter is giving you and implement it!

Gratitude is a great practice to cultivate and I hope you might find this idea encouraging too.