How to Get Things Done When You’re a Perfectionist

Actually Getting Big Things Done is a series of guests posts on how to make things happen from those who know how to… well… actually get big things done. Today’s post comes from Erin Feldman whose blog, adorable drawings and recent ebook, Write Right continue to inform and delight.

I’m sometimes asked how I get things done even though I struggle with perfectionism. I actually write about perfectionism on a semi-regular basis, but I don’t know that I spend a lot of time writing about how I push past or against the perfectionism in order to accomplish things. I do, however, think about it from time to time.

Does that lack of writing mean I have no method or secret to overcoming my perfectionism? I don’t think so. I think it’s more that I haven’t dedicated myself to recording the steps and processes I use. I’ve also learned that what works at one stage of my life doesn’t always work at another one, a harsh reality for a perfectionist. Perfectionists like order and rules and tidiness. They want to be certain of the desired outcome before making the attempt to achieve that outcome. They want to be in control. Control and order and tidiness are at odds with the creative life; they are at odds with life in general. How, then, do I get things done? How do I take control of my perfectionism rather than let it control me?

  1. Accept “perfect” does not exist. Even on my best writing or drawing days, my work is never going to be perfect. While I must and should aim for that mark, I also have to accept that I’m not perfect and neither is my work.
  2. Accept failure as a reality. Failure is necessary to growth. If I’m not failing, I’m not trying. If I’m not trying, I’m not doing what I’m meant to do. Which is worse? Failure or not doing what I’m meant to do?
  3. Set deadlines. Part of this is the controlling nature of perfectionism; part of it is my combative strategy. If I set deadlines for projects, I have to meet them in order to move onto the next project’s deadline.
  4. Break projects into their smaller components. My e-book was in the works long before I started the actual work. The work itself was compartmentalized. I set aside a weekend for the text, a few weekends for the drawings, a weekend to pull the text and images together in InDesign, and another weekend to review the e-book.
  5. Prioritize projects and components. Remembering I’m human plays a role in prioritizing tasks. If I stretch myself too thin, I create opportunities for my perfectionism to wreak havoc. I prioritize tasks and give them the most realistic time frames I can. I also recognize which tasks will require more time – often because of things outside my control – or will require more from me (usually the scarier ones, such as starting a video series or submitting a session idea to SXSW).
  6. Document projects and time lines. I may be slightly obsessive compulsive when it comes to tracking ideas, projects, and time lines – I use paper, white boards, and Evernote – but it keeps me on track. Documentation helps to combat the perfectionism that says I’m not working hard enough or not accomplishing enough quickly enough.
  7. Don’t look back. By the time I finish one project, I’m already preparing to move onto the next one and am setting up the steps necessary to accomplishing it. Continual movement prevents some of the obsession over whether a project is “perfect.”
  8. Extend grace. This is an area I continually address. My natural tendency is to devolve into a cycle of negative self-talk when I don’t meet my perfectionism’s standards.

While all those steps play a part in my ability to get things done, perhaps the real answer is that I don’t give myself any excuses. My perfectionism is not an excuse for not creating. My battle with perfectionism is not an excuse, either. I think Rumi, a Persian Muslim poet, expresses my understanding of what it means to create despite everything, including my perfectionism:

Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

Thus, I create when I feel like a failure. I create when I am hurt. I create when I’m fighting my perfectionism. I create when I am free. I keep creating because, at some point, I will be “perfectly free” if I only can get past myself with all my own issues and my perfectionism with its loud, accusatory voice.

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12 Responses to How to Get Things Done When You’re a Perfectionist

  1. Hey Erin. Great topic. Life is messy is the best way I can interpret what I think about the creative cycle. Being brave and not letting yourself stop is admirable. I covered creativity today too certainly from a much different perspective.

    Thanks Michael for hosting Erin. A great addition to your roster. Cheers folks!

    • Thanks! I try to cover the topic of perfectionism every so often at my site. How could I refuse a request to write about it here?

      I saw your post in Triberr but haven’t had a chance to visit just yet.

  2. I’m not a perfectionist, but I do struggle with procrastination. Lists help me get things done, too. Today, I got eight things done on my list, which is about 5 more than most days and it is only 4:42! Not that it is important, but some of the things I was dreading, like laundry and gutter cleaning, which have both been crossed off. Getting the gutters done was a particular triumph.

    Great post!

  3. Most of the writers I know can relate to this on multiple levels. I sometimes turn in work that I hate but it is good enough for the moment. Good enough meaning it is good, I had limited time and it had to be turned in or the job wouldn’t be finished.

    But I hate those moments more than I can say.

  4. Thank you so much for this. I’ve struggled with my own bouts of perfectionism and it was only recently I realised it was against creativity so I decided to accept imperfection as a state of perfection.

  5. This post reminds of the perfectionist in me. In fact while I was trying to implement GTD, the perfectionist consumed me completely at one stage, until I got present to it. I wrote a helpful article> for those who might be struggling to implement GTD.

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