By Mandy X. Hu
It’s Friday 10:15. Why this is relevant, you will find out further along in this blog (way to keep you hooked, right?). As you may know by now, my blogs are usually inspired by conversations with PhD candidates which I relate to my personal thoughts and experiences. This time is no different. But I’m going to try something new and write from real-time experience. Because for this particular blog I felt myself struggling with the same theme that so often comes up as a challenge during a PhD: Perfectionism. For me, this concept especially decides to pester me when it comes to creative writing. I’ve had a busy week and today I was particularly struggling with the conviction of having to write perfectly. So, I thought, let’s make this blog imperfect then, and take you through my real-time strategies to overcome perfectionism.
Whatever it is that you want to do: write an article, do analysis, complete an experiment… My first strategy is to just get started. Carve out time in your schedule (I blocked this time period in my agenda last week), spend a little time on thinking about the outlines (I did so while I was getting up this morning) but then simply open your laptop, start up your analysis program, or set up your Petri dishes. Just start. Don’t wait for motivation or inspiration to come to you, rather begin and see whether motivation and inspiration catch up with you. I started with copying a previous blog and deleting most of the content, only leaving the fixed pieces (basically the word ‘Blog’, my name and the contact information below). It seems silly, but not starting with a blank page makes all the difference to writers (you wouldn’t believe the fear we have for a spotless white piece of paper – and it has nothing to do with paper cuts). Next I wrote down the first title that popped up in my head and the paragraph titles. Then I started typing my first thoughts in the introduction. Is it perfect like Beethoven’s fifth symphony? Of course not! I actually find it quite crooked and ugly, but I wrote it down anyway and I will clean it up later. No excuses – start.
Put your phone away. I’m dead serious. And while you’re at it, also turn off e-mail notifications. For perfectionists it’s an avoidance tactic to distract oneself with fun stuff or low hanging fruit when facing a challenging task. So help yourself by making it difficult to get distracted. Right now my phone is out of reach and I closed off my e-mail completely. You may take breaks (I’m not a complete monster), but do so at designated time points for a designated period of time (for instance five minutes after every half hour of work). But other than those breaks, stop luring yourself into your own distraction traps.
As a perfectionist, it’s easy to lose yourself in hesitation and details. Before you know it, huge amounts of time have passed and you’re still at the start making that one sentence perfect or at your gazillionth check-up. So set your boundaries. How much time do you want to spend on this task? How many checks will you allow yourself? When is it good enough? If it’s a new task and it’s hard to make an estimation, it’s okay to give yourself extra time to figure things out. In that case, try to make a rough estimation and multiply that amount of time by two to buy yourself some piece of mind. Usually I take a whole work day to write a blog, but today I challenge myself to write it in 3 hours with a maximum of two read-throughs. Good enough for me means that it’s a coherent and to-the-point story. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece with beautifully chosen words and metaphors. So now it’s 11:45 and I’ve used up half my time to come to this point. So far so good.
Face your fears
Perhaps I should’ve started with this paragraph, because it’s the most important one. However, my personal preference is to end with the most important message (must be my sense of drama). All of the tips above are useful and practical, but the most important question is why we are perfectionists. Why do we spend so much of our time on postponing, fidgeting over details, endlessly checking things before we send them to our bosses or into the world? What are we really afraid of and trying to avoid through perfectionism? It’s rejection. We are afraid to deliver an imperfect piece or task because we fear the scrutiny of others. We are afraid they will criticize, laugh, deem us unworthy. And why would it be so bad if some (or many) people think that we are not that smart, not that talented, not that great? Because it immediately corrupts our sense of self-worth. If I don’t write this piece perfectly, you will deem me a bad writer, and that would make me doubt my okayness. Fellow-perfectionists, does this sound like a familiar narrative? For a long time I’ve lived according to this narrative and it nearly broke me. I had to decide whether this was going to be the story of my life or whether I’d press delete and start over. I chose the latter. I’m going to write this piece imperfectly, you may deem me a bad writer, and I am okay.
13:34 (after two check-ups and a 20 min lunchbreak) – perfect ;)
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