Overcoming Perfectionism pt. II

November 8, 2020 • ☕️ 3 min read

I took part in the most recent cohort of Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course. It was full of counterintuitive teachings that challenged the way that I thought about not only productivity, but also creativity. This will be the first in a series of posts outlining my biggest takeaways.

In one of the Q&A’s Tiago shared the following idea

Overcoming perfectionism is about taking on huge, risky challenges.

I immediately wrote it down. I seem to do battle with perfectionism every day and I end up losing more times than I care to admit. So I was open to any suggestions for overcoming it. When I heard Tiago say this, there was an instant recognition of the wisdom to be unpacked there.

Perfectionism isn’t a problem if I have time. If I have time, then I can afford to rabbit hole. I can afford to spend 2 hours on the introduction to this blog post, or a couple of days building the animations for an app that I’m building. What’s more, it’s satisfying to do something perfectly. I feel proud when looking at my perfectly polished product.

Yet that pride instantly evaporates when I come out the other side of the rabbit hole, look around, and realise that I’ve spent 80% of the time I had for a project producing 5% of the work.

Here’s where taking on huge and risky challenges comes in useful. There is simply no time to go on flights of fancy. There’s barely enough time to get it all done if I’m going at a good pace. This makes perfectionism impossible.

Take this blog for example. Usually it’s more painful for me to leave the introduction half finished and move on, than to look up, realise I’m behind schedule but continue working on it anyway. When there’s an infinite time to get something finished, there’s alway an excuse for perfectionism.

So lately I’ve been setting myself the limit of 2 hours to get a complete draft written. This isn’t just a commitment I’ve made to myself, there are clear (monetary!) consequences for not doing it.

The tables are turned and now not finishing the draft is more painful than to letting go of an introduction I’m not thrilled with and moving on.

Maybe overcoming perfectionism comes down to setting deadlines with serious consequences. More generally, an idea that’s been on my mind is that a large part of creativity comes down to knowing the right hacks that force us to drop perfectionism.

Deadlines is just one of these. Taking on big projects that we are uncertain about, making public commitments before we think that we’re ready are others. Taking on more than we think we can handle.

Basically a sink or swim strategy. Now of course this can go too far, no one likes a workaholic. What I’ve been finding though is that I’m not great at calibrating for the challenges that I’m ready for. A lot of the time, not only do I not sink, swimming comes much easier than I expected.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Trying to write this post in an hour is painful. Having to rush and let go of all the interconnected ideas literally hurts. As humans we are extremely sensitive to loss. It’s easy to think that this only applies to material things or loved ones. But I am certain that it applies to ideas as well. There are a seemingly infinite set of ideas that I could link to this topic. I would love to tell you all about it. But then I’d never be done. I’d never ship. So I have to let them go.

Because what I’m realising is that perfection is a mirage. An oasis that’s constantly receding into the distance. I will never get to it because there will always be an extra improvement to make. And the vision is so alluring. Shaping our diaphanous vision in the material world is one of the sources of greatest joy.

I’m not saying that this quest for beauty and elegance is wrong. It’s just important to know that it can lead to paralysis or even burnout. The lesson that I’m trying to embody is that this a balance that I will have to find every day. And sometimes I’ll have to exaggerate the qualities that I’m lacking, even going too much the other way to find this balance.

With that in mind, I’m going to adopt this mantra for the next while:

Real artists ship. — Steve Jobs