Essay on the issues of perfectionism, writing and procrastination
The past two weeks, I’ve invited you into a process designed to help you overcome your academic perfectionism. The first step was acknowledging the costs of perfectionism, including self-inflicted misery, lower productivity, and fewer publications. The second step was to understand how the cycle of perfectionism works and pinpoint the moments where disruption is not only possible, but highly effective. If you’re still following this series, it’s because you know you want to change and/or your experiments with last week’s strategies prepared you to dig even deeper. So this week, we move into the third step of overcoming perfectionism by focusing on the area of faculty members’ work where it most frequently occurs: writing.
Academic writing has the greatest potential to inflame perfectionism for several reasons. First and foremost, writing is the one area of a faculty member’s work that has no built-in, daily accountability (and by “accountability” I mean if you don’t do it, there will be negative consequences). For example, if you don’t show up to class, there will be immediate consequences. If you stop attending meetings, turning in departmental paperwork and/or attending events, you will find yourself in trouble fairly quickly. But if you don’t finish the article you promised yourself you would work on this month, nothing happens. There are no immediate consequences, and nobody notices. In fact, I have seen colleagues go for years at a time without being held accountable for their research and writing productivity (or lack thereof). As a human being, it’s perfectly normal to orient your attention and behavior to the things that you will be held accountable for on a daily basis (teaching and service) and pay less attention to the things with delayed accountability. However, this tendency can lead you to procrastinate writing for days, weeks, months, or even years – right up until the time you will be held directly accountable (i.e., in a third-year review, tenure and promotion review, or post-tenure review).
The second reason writing triggers perfectionism is that academic writing takes time to conceptualize, develop and mature. It’s not like a blog post, e-mail message, or essay. The truth is that the road from the spark of a new idea to the submission of an article, grant proposal, or book manuscript is a long and winding path. It involves reading and understanding the existing body of knowledge, clarifying our innovative idea or question, doing the research, analyzing the findings, and communicating them to the scholarly community. There are many normal twists and turns along this road that can trigger perfectionism and those moments are only exacerbated if you are collaborating with co-authors or a research team.
The final reason that academic writing exacerbates perfectionism is the nature of the knowledge production process. When scholars generate a piece of research and circulate it publicly, they are guaranteed to have their arguments and findings interrogated, challenged, and judged. This is how we test and refine our work and the more innovative the work, the more thoroughly it will be evaluated. When scholars feel confident about their work, such engagement is invigorating! However, perfectionists live in constant fear that their work will be found intellectually lacking and that under scrutiny they will be revealed as not good enough. From that perspective, the best insulation against criticism is to keep holding on to your work until it is beyond reproach (i.e., perfect). Unfortunately, the quest for perfection is impossible and often leads to avoiding critically important early stage feedback, excessive rationalizing of procrastination, and holding on to manuscripts longer then necessary.
Given the lack of built-in accountability for writing, the fact that academic writing is a long and difficult process, and that the nature of knowledge production guarantees criticism, we should not be surprised that procrastination and avoidance behaviors occur far more than actual writing for perfectionists. If that sounds familiar, there are three things that you can do to make sure you don’t fall into the typical perfectionist writing traps: 1) get real about your writing process, 2) commit to a daily writing practice, and 3) build a team of readers for each stage of your process.
Get Real About Your Writing Process
Every time someone describes their writing process in the following way, I want to vomit: "I think about an idea, then I write a complete draft in one sitting, and then I submit it (without revisions)." Once I regain my composure, I always ask: "How many times have you actually done this?" The typical answer is one or two times, most of which involved last-minute graduate seminar papers or conference presentations. So if this is your process, congratulations! You are among a handful of human beings on earth who can birth perfect work wholesale.
For everyone else this is an incredibly dangerous perfectionist fantasy that leads to the unhealthiest of all writing behavior: rationalized procrastination. In other words, you need to keep thinking about your work, reading other people’s findings, and/or having endless conversations before you can write. For those of you who have to produce consistently, predictably, and at a high volume, you need to get real about how YOU move from an idea to a finished manuscript. For most writers this involves a process of initial drafting, editing, sharing, discussing, revising, presenting, more revising, and submitting. If you can get clear about what your actual process looks like (not the perfectionist fantasy, or how you managed to procrastinate your way through graduate school) then you can start to have realistic expectations about each stage of the process and your timelines for finishing manuscripts. Realistic expectations lead to a more consistent performance and feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction on a daily basis.
Commit to Daily Writing Practice
Writing every day for 30 minutes is a surefire way to break the procrastination-perfectionism link. Our center recently hosted a 14-Day Writing Challenge for 225 faculty members, postdocs, and grad students from around the U.S. The challenge was to write for 30 minutes each day, Monday through Friday, for two weeks. The challenge is just a trick we use to get procrastinating perfectionists to experiment with daily writing, supportive community, and daily accountability. Guess what? People who haven’t written in months found that: a) they can find 30 minutes in their day for writing, b) they could get a shocking amount of work done in 30 minutes, c) touching what they love on a daily basis not only added up over time, but sparked creativity, innovation, and new ways of looking at their projects, d) working in a supporting community is fun, and e) daily writing meant that they could take the weekends off -- free from guilt, shame, or worry – because their writing was getting done in a consistent and sustainable way.
These outcomes were unsurprising to us because the power of daily writing is well-documented in the faculty development literature (for example, see Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members). But oddly enough, perfectionists never believe the power of daily writing until they try it.
Expand Your Team of Readers
In addition to understanding your writing process and developing a daily writing practice, I suggest perfectionists build a dynamic network of readers who can provide feedback throughout the writing process. If your goal is perfection (induced by a fear of exposure) and you find yourself losing perspective on the quality of your own work over time, then a clear intervention is to bring other people into your process.
Just imagine what would happen if you reliably identify a manuscript as being in one of four stages of completion: 1) 0-25 percent, 2) 25-50 percent, 3) 50 – 75 percent, or 4) 75-100 percent. And what if you could draw upon a group of readers at each stage of that manuscript’s development so that you’re regularly getting feedback. At 0-25 percent, readers are people who know you well, whom you trust, and who won’t judge your cognitive capacity based on an early stage draft. When a manuscript is 25-50 percent of the way complete, you could share it with campus colleagues, writing group members, and/or a developmental editor. As a manuscripts approaches 50 – 75 percent completion, you could present it at a conference to gain a different kind of feedback. And by the time a manuscript is 75 – 100 percent complete, you could share it with senior people in your field and your copy editor to polish it up before you send it out. As you can imagine, this means that by the time you submit that article, grant proposal, or book manuscript, you will have received lots of feedback and the fearful part of you can be safe and confident that you’re putting out the strongest possible document for review. It won’t be perfect, but it will be your very best work.
The Weekly Challenge:
If you’re ready to overcome academic perfectionism in your writing, I challenge you this week to:
1) Take 15 minutes to sketch out how YOU move from an initial idea to a finished manuscript. If you need some inspiration, try reading Michelle Boyd’s Writing as Birthing.
2) Write every day for 30 minutes.
3) Do whatever it takes to move past your fear and get started writing (I recommend Write or Die).
4) Contact someone to read your current manuscript and give you stage-appropriate feedback. Ask for exactly what you want. For example: "Could you take 20 minutes to read a piece I’m working on that’s at a very early stage? It’s only 10 pages and I don’t need you to copy edit or even think about the writing; I just want to know if the idea is interesting, if my assumptions are correct, if I’m using the best possible data set, and if my plan for the piece sounds promising.” (Fill in whatever makes sense in your discipline, and whatever directions are appropriate to the stage of your manuscript.)
I hope this week brings you the courage to try something new, the relief that comes from giving up perfection as a viable standard, and the confidence that emerges from a closer connection to the your writing projects.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore