When I think about perfectionism and creative work, the first thing that comes to mind is writer’s block. For most of us, it’s caused by this desire to avoid failure at all costs, which in turn makes it impossible to even get the words on the page. Perfectionism is never being able to finish a project. It’s endless tweaking and a sense of never being satisfied.
For the longest time, I thought that I had beaten back my own perfectionism because I knew how to finish. But perfectionism doesn’t just dictate the final product. It also dictates every step to getting there.
This week I read an article in a financial newsletter that talked about something called “0-100 thinking.” It refers to a type of perfectionism that causes people to have an all or nothing mentality when it comes to their goals. For example, if I set a goal of writing every morning before work but one morning I wake up late and only have twenty minutes to write instead of the hour I’d originally planned for, and this derails me psychologically to the point that I just give up on the endeavor altogether, then I am a 0-100 perfectionist.
Y’all, I am a 0-100 perfectionist and I didn’t realize it until now.
In my twenty-seven years, I’ve experience so many things that have literally beaten into me how unpredictable life is, how little we actually have control over. Teaching has forced me to be flexible, my long-term relationship with my partner has shown me the importance of being able to grow and change. Did I often seek out opportunities to control as many aspects of my life as I could? Absolutely. But did it derail me when things didn’t go exactly as planned? I didn’t think so.
I thought that I had learned how to go with the flow. How to fall on faith. How to take things as they come.
But in my work, I am still struggling with this beast called perfectionism that I thought I had slain long ago.
That example I mentioned earlier? That happened to me Thursday morning.
See, I was on a high last week from DVPit and all of the agents who had requested my full manuscript. It lit a fire under me to make even more progress on the rough draft of the companion novel. Waking up at 5AM to write is not new for me. I often do it at the tail end of projects or when I’m trying to build up momentum. So I decided I would work that extra writing time back into my routine, starting on Monday.
Monday through Wednesday things went really well. I woke up early, got ready, ate breakfast, and had between 45 minutes and an hour to write before heading to work. Then Thursday came around and I accidentally woke up at 4 instead of 5. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay there, exhausted.
That exhaustion followed me out of bed, slowing me down every step of my morning routine. My writing time dwindled down to thirty minutes. I was so discouraged I couldn’t even begin.
Then Friday morning I checked my email (which I really shouldn’t have done before getting my writing in) and there was this article all about the 0-100 mindset. I thought about how I’d totally self-sabotaged Thursday morning and then I thought about all of the other times I’ve done the exact same thing.
This 0-100 mindset has robbed me of so much progress. Of so much growth. The very things that may have fortified my confidence and given me the strength to push through my own perfectionism. The perfectionism I didn’t even think was still a problem for me.
But it is a problem. A BIG problem.
Luckily, it’s a problem I actually know how to fix. Not overnight and not all at once. That 0-100 mindset is poison even when we think it’s helping us find solutions. Instead, this is a problem I can only fix twenty minutes, ten minutes, five minutes at a time.
Friday I had exactly twenty minutes to write before work. But instead of saying, screw it, that’s not enough time, I opened up the Word document and dove in. For twenty minutes. I revised four pages of the manuscript. Four pages. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s four more pages than I’d done the day before and it’s four pages closer to the end.
That is what’s most important. The End.
If I can’t get there, I can’t do this professionally. But I know I can get there. I have gotten to the end eight times before with eight different novels. The question I have to ask myself now is how. Am I going to get there in weekend binges that may get wiped out by other plans? Am I going to get there by only writing when conditions are absolutely perfect? Or am I going to get there using any means necessary and with whatever time I can find or steal, whether that’s an hour or five minutes?
You can create as many versions of the perfect routine as you want. But there is no such thing. Life will always get in the way. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still do the work. Just like we have to embrace when a story takes an unexpected turn, resulting in something we never saw coming, we must also embrace a “writing routine” that is less routine than we’d hoped.
It’s okay to carve out time to write, to set boundaries, to have goals. But every time we let disappointment drive us off the path, we get farther and farther from our original destination. Whether you have all the time in the world to write or almost none, your identity as a writer does not change, and you can still make meaningful progress towards the things that matter. Telling the stories you long to tell.