Perfecting Imperfection

2 February 2019

Do you take pride in calling yourself a perfectionist? With cut corners all around us, surely it’s a good thing to care about quality. To sweat the details. To have high standards for what you produce. To insist on doing it right.

These are worthwhile goals. But here's the thing: not only is perfectionism not the way to achieve them, it's in direct opposition to them.

Perfectionism is fear in disguise. It’s more likely to lead to procrastination and failing to even begin, rather than sweating the details that take something from good to great.

Stephen Guise makes a persuasive case for this in How to Be an Imperfectionist. He dismantles the supposed benefits of perfectionism one by one and advocates an alternate stance of imperfectionism. I found myself highlighting like a first-year psych student and have included some of my favorite excerpts here.

In general, the idea behind imperfectionism is to not care so much about conditions or results, and care more about what you can do right now to move forward with your identity and your life.

Here I'll be sharing some techniques for overcoming perfectionism, both from the book and my own practices. Let's dive in.

Get comfortable with discomfort

When’s the last time you did something new, in front of others, that you knew you'd be terrible at? I'm betting it's “not lately”.

Performing poorly in front of others, or even ourselves, is uncomfortable. But I doubt there’s any quality more predictive of success than being comfortable with that type of discomfort.

Perfectionism makes you stay home, not take chances, and procrastinate on projects; it makes you think your life is worse than it is; it keeps you from being yourself; it stresses you out; it tells you that good is bad; and it ignores the natural way in which things work.

The good news is, this is a skill you can build like any other.

I'm far from a natural artist. Being colourblind, my art-related memories from school are mostly of the "why is the sky purple" variety. When I switched to pencil shading to avoid colour, it was "grass shouldn't be grey". I got into photography as a teenager (including some green-skinned portraits) but left the paintbrushes and pencils alone.

So I surprised myself when I signed up for a painting class last year, and dreaded it so much I almost didn’t go. After a brief look at the basics, we set our easels up in a circle and started to paint. No practice and no undo button, in full view of a dozen others.

It was uncomfortable and downright embarrassing at times, but I survived. As much as painting, it was a lesson in how to be imperfect in front of others. It turns out it's okay to be not-so-good, as it allows others to relax and be less self critical. We got used to making mistakes and encouraging each other to keep trying.

If you're procrastinating, there's a good chance that this type of discomfort is to blame. So my advice is to pick something you’ve never done before that involves a group. It could be an art class, a team sport, improv, or anything else. Show up and be terrible. Realize that it’s not going to kill you to reveal yourself as less than perfect and that there's no need to keep holding yourself back.

Motivation follows action

One of the book's themes is that the only way to overcome the root fear of procrastination is to get moving. We've all experienced a rush of motivation that caused us to take action. It's a good feeling. But here's the secret: action creates motivation. If you wait for inspiration to strike before acting, the only thing you'll make is excuses.

People who have successfully changed their lives have figured out that when you start doing something, your emotions follow suit.

There are a few techniques you can use to achieve this action-before-motivation mindset.

Cut a slice, take a bite

Break up your project into small tasks. Then break those up. Get clear on exactly what you can do next, preferably with tasks that take 10 minutes or less. Then start.

Care less about doing it right. Care more about doing it at all.

By focusing on one task at a time, you avoid being overwhelmed by the project and the many ways it could turn out wrong. You take it from an ideal, imaginary state and turn it into real (if imperfect) actions that you can take now.

Daily habits

Every time you take the jump from thinking about doing something to actually doing it, you get a little better at overcoming resistance. Do this daily and you'll be surprised by how fast you improve.

Your best chance to reach your big dreams is through small goals in quantity.

I've found that the best habits are the simplest. Write for 30 minutes. Take a photo. Sketch a household object. Practice an instrument for 20 minutes. Meditate for 5. Do this every day and watch how it adds up.

There are apps for this and I know you're tempted to spend an hour researching them. Let me save you the trouble: it's best to track the habit on a piece of paper stuck to your fridge or next to your desk. You'll see it all day and making a check mark with a pen is much more satisfying than tapping a button.

And don't worry about being perfect (see a theme?). Missing a day is not the end of the world or an excuse to stop trying. Do the best you can and see if you can beat it next week.

The shitty first draft

Creative work is 10% making and 90% editing. But before you can edit, you need something to edit. This is where what Ann Handley calls the 'shitty first draft' in Everybody Writes comes in.

Take one of those tasks that you identified earlier, set a timer for 10 minutes, and work as fast as you can. Do everything you can to turn off the critic in your brain. If you're writing, don't go back to correct typos or grammar. Don't look for the perfect word.

Pay more attention to keeping your fingers moving than on writing anything coherent, nevermind eloquent. Then pat yourself on the back, take a short break, and come back to the less scary task of improving it with each revision.

Your brain on imperfectionism

There are a few common thought patterns to watch out for. When you catch yourself thinking one of these, question if it's really true or if there's a more useful thought you could substitute in its place.

"This is going to be the best ever."

Focus on the work, forget the results. The more you think about the final product in all of its glory, the harder it becomes to take imperfect action under imperfect circumstances. Which is the only action you'll ever take.

Perfectionists are driven mad or frozen in place by the chasm between desire and reality, which impairs their ability to progress and enjoy life.

It's more helpful to think about what you can do right now, however unimpressive it might be. Know that you'll have plenty of opportunities to improve it later.

"What I do is a reflection of who I am."

You are not your work. It's easy to get attached to what we create and assume that others are using it to evaluate us. And when you believe that, it's understandable that you're frozen in place, afraid to take imperfect action. You could get found out.

If you think people expect perfection from you, take comfort in the fact that most people don’t care what you do.

Oddly enough, the more you detach yourself from the work the more free you are to put your full effort into it. No one is measuring your worth by your work and neither should you.

"I'm almost ready to get started."

I enjoy taking courses, reading books and articles, and soaking up new knowledge. But over time I've realized that most of what I call preparation is procrastination.

Those who constantly seek information might have a confidence problem.

It's very easy to fall into a trap of believing that things would go smoothly if only you knew a bit more. But the reason they're not going well is that you insist on knowing more instead of getting started.

Learn to learn as you go. You need enough knowledge to take the first (imperfect) step and nothing more.

Now what?

Pick something you've been putting off, identify a small first step, and do it now. Close your browser. Put away your phone. Set a timer for 10 minutes and start. Focus on the task at hand rather than the end result, forget what others will think, and don't make excuses about how unprepared you are.

Take a small, imperfect step forward. It gets easier with practice.