Writing

Confessions of a … procrastinating perfectionist

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching these past few weeks after spending the summer in a funk despite hoping I’d make significant headway towards my writing and publishing goals—which, as it turns out, were nothing but vague dreams. This time last year, I was coming down from the high of having smashed out the first draft of a 65,000-word manuscript in nineteen days (read about that experience here)—and yet, twelve months later, I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be on its second draft. Despite this, over the summer I was regularly choosing to binge on Netflix and Stan rather than add another word to my manuscript, which only made me feel like I was drowning in guilt and self-loathing.

Discovering the cause of my procrastination

But then, I had an epiphany. Scrolling through my Facebook feed—yet another way I chose to procrastinate—I came across a quote: Procrastination is a symptom of anxiety and fear. Wow, I thought. Maybe I wasn’t just being a lazy, pathetic wannabe writer. Maybe the cause of my procrastination went deeper than I’d considered. Promising myself I’d research that concept later, I went back to watching Outlander on Netflix.

procrastination is a symptom of anxiety and fear
Image text: procrastination is a symptom of anxiety and fear

Realising I need to “show up”

Only days later, I came across an article by Keith Cronin, On Getting It and Showing Up. It highlighted the importance of “showing up”—also known as Butt. In. Chair. Hands. On. Keyboard—in order to achieve writing success.

Yes, I realised that I most definitely need to put in the effort if I ever expect to be a published author. But why am I not able to “show up” consistently? Ever since I started writing seven years ago, my motivation and drive have hit spasmodically. I get inspired to work on a project. I throw myself at it, dedicating copious amounts of time and energy to it (did I mention I once wrote 65,000 words in nineteen days?). And then I hit a wall and go months without writing a word. I decided I couldn’t do this alone. I needed help and guidance to overcome these barriers to success. 

Researching my barriers to success

Searching self-help books for writers on how to overcome procrastination, I came across Hillary Rettig’s The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: How to Overcome Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. Now, I want to add here that I’ve always considered myself a perfectionist, but it wasn’t until I started reading this book that I realised how debilitating and toxic this state of mind was for me as a writer. It was as if Rettig had seen into the deepest, darkest depths of my soul, had called me out on my ridiculous expectations and half-hearted writing practice, and was giving me the kick up the backside I knew I deserved.

7 Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig
Book cover image for 7 Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig

How perfectionism has affected me

Rettig states that:

Perfectionists hold unrealistic definitions of success and punish themselves harshly for perceived failures.

Hell yes! Deep down, I’ve always believed that to truly succeed as a writer, I need to be published by one of the Big Five and have my books on the shelves of book stores and department stores across the nation.

Perfectionists are grandiose. [They think they’re] special and/or don’t have to follow the normal rules governing productivity and success.

Again, yes! Despite having seven years of writing experience and working as an editor, I still believed—until reading Rettig’s words—that because I knew how to craft a well-written sentence my first draft should be pretty darn-well polished. 

Perfectionists prioritise product over process.

Uh-huh! When I write, I agonise over making each sentence perfect and then punish myself when my word count for the session is dismal.

Perfectionists over-rely on external rewards and measures of success […]

… such as their book selling quickly in enormous numbers, earning them legions of fans, a huge income and fabulous reviews from the best literary journals.  

Hmm, this one isn’t me so much. Instead, I fear what will happen post-publication: pathetic sales numbers, bad reviews, no devoted audience …

Perfectionists deprecate the ordinary processes of creativity and career-building, [believing] they should be able to write and build successful careers easily.

Yep! I’m a lifelong reader turned writer and editor; I know what makes a great story. And I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to build my author brand. It’s fair to expect that success should just fall in my lap, right?

Perfectionists over-identify with their work […] meaning that they see it as an extension of, and reflection on, their deepest soul. 

This is me too! No matter how cool, calm and collected I am when I start a new project, I soon start to believe that my whole writing career is hinged on the story’s success, that if the story fails, it’s a reflection of who I am.

My mission to succeed

Having now finished Rettig’s book, I feel incredibly enlightened. Turns out I’m not an exception to any rule—I’m not going to magically produce a bestseller … especially if I don’t bloody “show up” and write! And so I’m putting a plan in place and taking active steps to follow Rettig’s practical advice for overcoming procrastination and perfectionism. This is the journey I’m now on—a mission to overcome my perfectionism, to stop procrastinating and become a productive writer … and ultimately, a published author.

Do you suffer from perfectionism? How has it stopped you from achieving your dreams, goals and/or aspirations? Have you taken steps to overcome it? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

Join me next time for Confessions of an unproductive writer, when I’ll share how I discovered just what was holding me back from being a productive writer. Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter!

As always, thanks for reading!

4 Comments

  • lily malone

    I am luckily not a ‘perfectionist’ in many things Libby… which is probably why my baking is always such an adventure. I do know though, that you won’t be alone in being a procrastinating perfectionist! Good luck though with the next steps forward, and well done for identifying how wanting things perfect can slow you down!

    • Libby M Iriks

      Haha, I love reading about your baking adventures, Lily!

      Thanks for reading and for your support. If publication is the light at the end of the tunnel, I feel as if I’ve turned a corner and can now see the light, while previously I was crawling around in the dark. Now it’s just a matter of slowly moving towards the light, one step at a time. 🙂

  • Lynda Harrington

    Hi Libby, I really get this! Tony is constantly saying to me that I’m afraid of making a mistake (insert , needing to be perfect , or at least my interpretation of perfectionism) !
    So my fear of failure stops me from even starting,!
    You know you can do it. I know you can do it. You’re taking the right steps and educating yourself about what’s holding you back. Good luck Lib xxx

    • Libby M Iriks

      Yes! Fear of failure is a debilitating symptom of perfectionism. One thing I’m working on at the moment is finding the courage to fail. It’s hard, but I think it can be done. It’s about developing an awareness for perfectionist thoughts and retraining your brain.

      As always, thanks for your support and encouragement! With people like you in my life, I know I’ll have the strength to achieve my goals. <3

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