Perfection Paralysis: Notion Potion #4 by Jordan Castillo Price

It’s time to rev our creativity engines and fuel them up for our next big project. It could be writing—lots of writers here—or it could be visual art, music, cooking, digital projects or anything else that puts you in that satisfying creative zone. If you’re running dry, here’s a little something to top off your tank—Notion Potion, where this month we’ll tackle the insidious issue of perfectionism!

Are You Ever Good Enough?

I’ve been on a few job interviews in my life. Heck, when I was done with grad school, I’d matriculated right into a big ol’ recession. So I know a lot about job interviews. Still, I’ve always had to wonder, what’s with that question that goes something like this: Given your experience, and your education, and your desire to work for this company…what would you say is your biggest flaw?

I mean, come on. How’re you supposed to answer that one?

a. I’m so attractive that the mere sight of me makes my co-workers insanely jealous.

b. Occasionally my veneer of civility might slip and you’ll all see how much I loathe you all.

c. I work too hard, and I care too much.

So…guess which answer I usually gave. (No, it wasn’t the one about being disarmingly cute, but thanks for thinking so!) It was that I work too hard! Oh, poor me! Poor, poor me!

You know what the creepy part was, though? While it might have been the only thing I could think of to answer a seemingly impossible question, it was totally true. I’m a perfectionist and I work my butt off, sometimes for no immediate or tangible reward. That is totally NOT a negative for any prospective employer—heck, they make out like a bandit when they hire me because I will care more about my performance or projects than any manager possibly could, and I do the work of three people.

In the end, though, guess who burns out and ends up angry and disillusioned? Not the company. Not the boss. Me.


It’s Supposed to be Fun

If you harbor this kind of energy (and you know if you do, because you’ll be nodding your head at this point and maybe even feeling a bit ill) chances are you don’t just leave your perfectionist mojo at the day job. Perfectionism is like that hornet at a picnic that hovers in your peripheral vision no matter how many different tables you sit at. It follows you everywhere. Even when you’re supposed to be having fun. Especially then.

What’s even more confusing is that a certain amount of perfectionism is good for a creative project, particularly if it keeps you reaching and striving to dig a little deeper and be a little better every time, which we talked about last month in Hamburger vs. Steak. But the flip side of having standards that keep nudging you to do better is that those impulses might grow so loud and insistent that they completely psych you out. You give up before you start, and you go watch TV or surf the net instead of creating something, because it would be really, really difficult to fail at those activities where all you need to do is passively consume.

That’s what’s weird about perfectionism. It can stop you completely from doing something, even when doing something sort-of-well is infinitely better than not doing it at all.

It’s like those hoarding shows where people are buried under masses of junk. A frightening number of those people got that way because they held on to an object with the intention of fixing or altering it in some way, then became daunted by their own perfectionism and gave up. So, let’s say a perfectionist hoarder finds an antique headboard at a garage sale. They create a vision of sanding and stripping it, having a stain formulated to match the house’s woodwork, refinishing it and putting together the bedroom…but this becomes too daunting. Instead of taking the project 25% of the way in one afternoon (which would involve dusting the headboard off and attaching it to the bed as-is, and staining it later as a weekend project) they end up throwing the headboard on top of the bed, along with a couple weeks of groceries and a few feral cats, and going and sleeping on the couch in their own filth for the next 15 years.

Don’t let this be you. Since I am with you on this journey (and I’d be really sad to learn you were sleeping on the couch in your own filth) I’d like to offer three ways to look at the situation when your perfectionism has you paralyzed.


Un-Paralyze Yourself

The 90% Rule

Perfectionists attempt to operate at maximum capacity, all of the time. But in a study of Olympic runners, mental coach Robert Kriegel found that by telling the runners to aim for 90% effort, this 10% of relaxation improved their running times dramatically over the instances in which they were told to run full-out and give it everything they had. By reassuring yourself that you don’t have to give it all, that you can strive for 90% effort (rather than 900%) not only might you end up with a creative project that’s quirkier, more playful, more genuine, and a lot more fun to produce…at the very least, you’ll end up with something rather than nothing.

Something is Better than Nothing

The cool thing about having something is that the something can be edited and played with. Or maybe that something needed to be produced simply so you can see how it’s wrong, thereby taking you one step closer to a creation that’s better aligned your intent. When I was in charge of the layout of a company newsletter and the people who were supposed to write the articles choked (I could tell because they would keep procrastinating on the article) I would write an article for them and give them something to edit. Seeing something there, anything, gave them a starting point to begin shaping their ideas. “No, I don’t want to mention that…oh, but I really do want to get into this other aspect….” Of course, sometimes they’d just say, “Wow, you wrote my article, thanks,” and that would be that. But at least it didn’t hold up the production!

When you’re feeling paralyzed by your perfectionism, is there a way you can step outside yourself and make some kind of beginning? Think of yourself as the technician who could care less about your article and just wants to get started on the color separations for the printer, and plow through your first draft that way. Then perfectionist-you can actually start tinkering with a real project, rather than shooting blanks and tweaking a project that doesn’t even exist yet.

Enjoy the Process

Some things you do for the outcome, and some things you do for the process. Most people don’t brush and floss their teeth because they love the feeling of brushing their teeth, for instance. They do it because the dentist told them something scary about periodontal disease, plus right now their tongue feels wooly and they’d rather it not felt that way. Or maybe just because their spouse wouldn’t kiss them. Either way, the process of tooth-brushing isn’t what most folks focus on. It’s the outcome.

When you’re working on a creative project, chances are you’d really like a nice story or painting or song to show for your efforts. But creative projects are special in that the process can be just as rewarding as the outcome. A potter might throw dozens of pots, squashing down the initial attempts and re-using that clay, before hitting on a form that’s just right. The point of the endeavor isn’t the single pot—because, let’s face it, if what you want is a pot, you can hop online and find a pot pretty easily. The whole point of sitting down at the wheel is to sink your fingers in and experience the clay.

Don’t Overthink It

A final thought on perfection paralysis: most of us who suffer from this creativity handicap usually think too much. Way too much. So maybe the best motivation is short and sweet, a new bit of self-talk, something quick and positive. Next time you’re spinning your wheels and starting to freak out, see if it helps to calmly and lovingly tell yourself, “Just get started.”

And hopefully, you will.


Author and artist Jordan Castillo Price is the owner of JCP Books and the author of many award-winning gay paranormal thrillers, including PsyCop and Magic Mansion. Her latest series, Turbulence, is a twisted foray into the Bermuda Triangle. Check it out at


  • Thanks for this. Perfectionism is definitely one of my sink holes. It can be crippling for me in the first draft of a project because I’ll find myself staring at a page for ages trying to find exactly the right word or phrase, which is crazy because half the time I end up throwing out the whole scene in edits anyway. If I can force myself to write it with the half-right phrase and move on, I end up much happier with the final product.

    My perfect is absolutely the enemy of my good enough.

    And how’d you know about that headboard and the feral cats? I thought I was keeping the whole living in filth thing a secret.

    • Oh, I forgot to mention, I have a technique (if you could even call it that) for when a good word or phrase doesn’t come to me and it’s ruining my momentum. I put the closest thing I can think of in square brackets and just keep going.

      I’m more likely to get stuck on the lack of a good word or phrase when I’m mentally fatigued.

      My filth is project filth. All the crap I could make stuff with, like the soapmaking oils and molds, the beer keg…that stuff gets so damn dusty.

      • So good to hear I’m not the only one doing that, although most of what I write in those square brackets will be in Dutch. (for some reason I’ll know perfectly what to say in Dutch, but not in English)

        One thing I will never do while writing a draft is looking words up in a dictionary, because once I start I won’t stop, and I’ll grab it even for those very simple words that I know I know.

  • It’s interesting that I posted this quote today. Kind of applies.

    It notes that writing is a long process, so get something down. You aren’t finished when you get to the end so you can always make it better. Thankfully (maybe?) perfectionism is not much of an issue for me. Maybe my job has taught me that “good enough” is good enough. :-) Right now I’ve got not writers block, idea block? I’ve started two short stories, got to 1000 words and went ehh, that was a stupid concept. Sigh. Guess we’ll see if the next 1000 words are any better.

    • I love that quote. I’ve been thinking a lot about process lately.

      I’ve also been thinking a lot about ideas vs. wordsmithing. (Are you reading my mind, Tam???) I’m thinking the idea part is actually the really hard part, and I can force all the word count out of myself I want, but if the idea isn’t good, all my effort could go to waste.

      When I had a day job, I had a lot on my plate but I still managed to be a real stickler. I think I was good at triage, figuring out where I could half-ass something and no one would notice but me, and where my attention to detail would really make a difference.

  • Man, this post is well-timed. I’ve been feeling especially burnt out this week, because I’ve been doing that putting in 900% thing and then getting frustrated when it turns out my output is not so good when I’m exhausted! :crazy04:

    One thing I have learned with writing, though, is that the best technique for me is to just bang out a first draft and then obsess over it when I revise. It’s so much better to have the raw material. (And I do a lot of [scene about blah blah goes here] if something isn’t working or coming to me immediately so that I don’t get stuck. I am for sure a planner, not a panster, so I’ll have a six-page outline done by this point and can be on my merry way.)

    I work as an editor, too, and that crazy, anal-retentive perfectionism is a good trait in an editor (to a point) but it sucks for a writer, because it can be totally crippling, and maybe you’re like me and have a book coming out NEXT WEEK and are having a small meltdown about how there’s that one scene that still maybe isn’t quite right, and yeah. It’s hard to let go. (Although the best writing advice I ever got was from one of my thesis advisers, who, upon seeing that I was finishing my fifth draft, ordered me to go to the copy shop and have it printed to submit. “You have to let it go. Otherwise, you’ll keep editing forever,” she said. Truer words, etc.)

    Thanks, Jordan, this was a really great post. I’m going to try to take that 90% advice to heart.

    • I’m so glad the post is apt for what you’re dealing with at the moment! I really love that study about the runners, reminding myself of that 90% rule really helps me relax.

      Whenever I outline, I end up writing nothing near what I’ve outlined. It seems like I have my best luck having an ending in mind, then alternately writing and journaling toward it, refining my plan as I go. So I have an overall plan. Then my more detailed plan would only extend forward a chapter or two. It’s like I can only see as far as my headlights.

  • Very interesting post, Jordan.
    Some of the things you mention sound so familiar.

    It immediately reminded me of what my singing teacher taught me this afternoon during lesson. Sometimes I focus too much on wanting to do it well. When I do, I forget about tone, about intention and emotion, and she can hear it in my voice.
    The moment I stop thinking is when my singing flourishes.

    I think it’s the same for writing.

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Great post. NaNoWriMo managed to break me out of the perfectionist habit and got me to use the brackets trick as well. Instead of rewriting a sentence ten times, I just type [gah! this sentence suck! rewrite!] and keep going.

    • Tips are kind of strange, you can read the same tip a few different times and only really “see” it if you’re in a spot where you’re ready to understand it. That’s how it works for me, anyway.

  • What an awesome post, Jordan! I think Kate McMurray put into words a lot of what I had to say, especially that part about getting the raw material into place and then you can obsess over the draft and polish it up.

    I guess the best thing to do is to be able to shift gears between two mindsets. Your first mindset is to just sort of cough up that rough draft even if it has brackets to fill in (or, in my case, I turn on the markup version of Word and leave myself comments in the margin on what I need to fill in later — that way my own notes don’t inflate my word count), or is super derivative and crappy. Just be stubborn and yet sort of open-minded and get that structural integrity into place.

    The second mindset would be the perfectionism and the polishing and improving of that initial rough draft once you have the scenes and ending in place. This is my favorite part by far. I think it’s probably most people’s favorite part, though some writers really enjoy the open-ended exploration that can come with writing that first rough draft.

    • I write in Scrivener and there’s a “notes” area where I can cut and paste everything that’s just not working. I find I usually don’t even need those parts, that they were starting to head the wrong way and that’s why they didn’t feel right. But it’s comforting to be able to keep them just in case you want to use one of those sentences later.

      I love the idea of two mindsets, two phases. I think I like the generative phase of writing better, because that’s where I’m seeing the story take form for the first time. My excitement from editing is more about being closer to sharing the story with readers. Unless I have a big a-ha moment during edits, which doesn’t happen too much. Not unless my first draft is really not working.

  • What an interesting post! I have a couple of craft related hobbies which by and large I have really enjoyed, however at times they have caused me angst and disappointment because you know, why am I spending all this time and effort making something which doesn’t pass my own high standards? My partner tries to cheer me up by saying that little imperfections show that it’s handmade instead of assembly line machine work. Grrr.

    The 90% rule sounds like good advice. I will have to ponder on that.

    • My perfectionism has definitely caused me to miss out on some fun things — for instance, I’d never participate in sports because I knew I’d be the lousiest player in the game. But luckily now that I’m older, I realize no one cares because we’re doing things for fitness reasons rather than competition.

      I think I need to write “90%” on a post-it and stick it somewhere prominent.

  • I hear you, Jordan. Loud and clear.
    Sadly, I’m just that kind of perfectionist, tend to write, then rewrite, start again…and never seem to get a first draft done. Not even Nanowrimo helped me work through this. Now after reading your post, it occurred to me that maybe I just love the doodling around with what I already got too much. Like someone who decides to make cookies and then snacks on the dough until it’s gone – and then has nothing left to actually make cookies with.

    I’ll try to take your very good advice to heart!

    (btw, I tried to get my hands on scrivener after you first mentioned it somewhere, but I seem to be unable to come by it on the ‘net. Do you happen to know if it’s only downloadable in the US?)

    • OH, I love the cookie dough analogy. I wonder if putting things in brackets so you can come back to them later would work for you? I know I have to be in the right mood for it to be effective for me.

      Have you ever played Jenga? When I’m overtired and all I’m doing is taking phrases and moving them around and I have zero forward momentum, I call it playing word-Jenga. When that happens, I know I’m probably better off doing something else and coming back to the writing later.

      I think you can download Scrivener internationally, but its URL isn’t very obvious –

  • Excellent advice, Jordan. My perfectionism stopped me from writing for many years – I was scared it would never be good enough. It’s been so freeing to just write and give myself permission to bang out a fairly crappy first draft. Actually, they’re not all that crappy in the end, but by giving myself permission for it not to be perfect, I enjoy the writing process so much more.

    And I’m another project hoarder. It’s so difficult to get rid of things that might be useful one day, or that you can see restored to glory in your mind’s eye – even if you know you don’t have the time or skills to make it that way.

    • When I feel stopped, it could be a lot of things, too. Not just perfectionism. It might be that I don’t have a good handle on the characters’ motivations. Or it might be that my idea is just not ready. Or it might be that someone said something nasty to me about my writing and my mood tanked. It could be so many things.

      I got rid of a bunch of project stuff I’d probably never use to my friend’s teenaged kids, who love to make things. Yay!

      • Oh yes, those kind of things can stall me too – more than the perfectionism these days.

        One of the reasons I love Freecycle is I can get rid of all that “useful” junk without feeling guilty that I’m sending it to landfill.

        • I haven’t Freecycled in a while. I gave a college kid all my vinyl LPs and joined Rhapsody instead. Really freeing. And then one of my old friends freaked out and said he would have driven up from Chicago to take my collection, ha ha!

          It’s a little extra effort but it is a lot easier on your soul to think that someone gets to enjoy your unused stuff.

          • Definitely. Any time I have a pang about getting rid of something like that, I tell myself it’s much better for something to be used rather than sitting around gathering dust!

  • Those perfectionists who are only just admitting to their problem might want to ease back to the 90% gradually. I have reduced my ‘certainty’ level to around 90% but it has taken several years. If I think I can do something I can now say ‘I can do that’ without a qualifying ‘probably / maybe / should be able to’ if I’m only 90% certain that I can achieve it. This is a massive improvement on the 99.5% I used to operate at! Lower the barrier slowly and avoid panic. :smile:

    I’m waiting for the next Potion. I’m another one who has used NaNoWriMo to get past that creative hurdle and write.

    Now I am stalled on the editting process because I’ve misplaced my good-enough sensor. I can work through a lot of the simple things, but then still stick on those parts that weren’t good in the first draft.

    As a pantser I am happiest when the first draft hits the good-enough line and fixing the typos is about all it needs before submission. (Hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant – my things that have gone to second or more drafts just don’t seem to have the same pace and energy.)

    • That doesn’t sound arrogant to me at all! I write a fairly polished first draft. That means I tinker a lot though with my sentences rather than getting my ideas down and fixing them later, so my daily word count is fairly low.

      I’m working on being gentler with myself about that. It’s like I need to overcome the idea that something I didn’t struggle for might still be good.

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