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Beating Perfectionism to Overcome Procrastination

Reading vs. Doing
Image courtesy of ckaroli

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”

~ Mohandas Gandhi

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I was thinking recently about how I have always been a procrastinator, and I started wondering about what it is that makes us put things off, even the things that we really want to do.

Ever since I started painting (around 7 years ago), I have always had a resistance around actually starting a new painting. I love painting, and I want to paint more often, but I still manage to find reasons to put it off.

Only the Best Will Do

Having read an article by Steve Pavlina entitled Overcoming Procrastination, I have come to believe that the main reason for my procrastination is based on a fear that the painting won’t turn out as good as I would like. In other words, I’m a perfectionist, and the idea that I might create something less than perfect is sometimes enough to put me off trying.

So instead of actually painting, I will spend time reading instructional art books, or watching video tutorials, in the hope that I will find the magic formula that will enable me to create a perfect painting next time.

Of course, this doesn’t get me very far. Knowledge alone is not enough to become a skilled painter.

“The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.”

~ Eugene Delacroix

Reading vs. Doing

You can’t learn to speak a foreign language by listening to CDs. You can’t learn a martial art by watching kung fu movies. And you can’t learn to paint by reading about how Da Vinci painted.

The only way to master a skill is by regular practice, even if that means making bad stuff. As Caleb Wojcik says in that article from Expert Enough, there are no shortcuts. The only way to get good at something is to do it over and over again. When you’re learning a skill, you can’t afford to be a perfectionist, or you will never get anything done.

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”

~ Bruce Lee

If you spend two hours painting, and it turns out horrible, that’s ok, you don’t have to show it to anyone, and you will have learned way more than if you spent two hours reading ‘Oil Painting for Dummies’.

For Your Eyes Only

To help overcome perfectionism, you can set aside a chunk of time where whatever you create is strictly for practice only, and you have no intention of ever showing it to anyone.

That way you don’t need to worry about your painting being less than perfect because nobody but you is ever going to see it.

Find the Right Balance

All of this is not to say that reading and learning is a waste of time.

Obviously if you learn a bit about colour theory, then it will make your practice so much easier, because you will have some idea of how the colours will affect each other when you mix them together.

You just need to find a healthy balance between acquiring knowledge and putting that knowledge into practice.

Read books and watch tutorials when you have time, but make sure you are spending more time practicing than learning.

So the next time you find your perfectionism holding you back, get out your paints (or whatever tools you use), and make the decision to create something, even if it turns out horrible. Hey, at least you’ll have something to look back on in future to see how much you’ve improved!

If you need more help with perfectionism, try these 5 simple tips from Alejandro Reyes.

Do you ever suffer from perfectionism? Do you have any techniques that you use to overcome it? Please tell us about them in the comments below.

15 Comments on Beating Perfectionism to Overcome Procrastination

  1. I agree with you Dan. It’s really important to have a healthy balance between learning how to do and actually doing and practicing. Also practicing our weakest skills is a wonderful way to overcome perfectionism and procrastination. It will allow you to be more confident in your skills and thus free, you won’t be afraid of making mistakes.

    Huge thanks for including my article. Keep up the great work!

    • Dan Johnson says:

      No problem Alejandro. A lot of people I’ve been talking to say that perfectionism is their number one creative roadblock. We really need to allow ourselves to be human and make mistakes.

  2. Emma says:

    I find this all the time – it is so easy to put something off, when we have too-high standards and expectations of ourselves. But it’s also amazing how much we improve by putting into practice the things we’ve learnt by just getting on and actually doing a painting or making something – whatever our particular creative occupation is. You are right that making bad stuff sometimes comes before the good stuff and it’s the process that’s important. Thanks!

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Definitely! It’s great to look back at your old stuff and see how much you’ve improved. Sometimes that is enough of a confidence booster to get me started.

  3. Charlie says:

    Nice little blog Dan.

    Yeah, I think all amateur, student and pro artists can relate to this. Procrastination is perhaps a comfort zone, a safer place than taking risks.

    Our art teachers advise the use of the sketchbook to remedy this situation, where anything and everything is plonked down in it. Even your private thoughts as a type of journalling. My teacher Garry (who says he was taught alongside Sean Scully WOW!) always says this “Doing is Thinking.” These sketchbooks can be just cheapo books bought from a pound shop to resist ‘preciousness’ with work. I like Hahnemuhle sketchbooks the best though.

    My tips to ease procrastination.

    1. Start off with plenty of preparatory work.
    2. Analyse and synthesise from other artists
    3. Start off with 30 second sketches and go through different drawing techniques to encourage concentration and discourage apprehension.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Great tips, Charlie. Regular sketching is definitely a good habit to get into, particularly if you keep your sketchbook private so that you don’t need to worry about showing your sketches to other people.

  4. Colleen says:

    As a writer, I’ve found I must have a file somewhere that’s just me playing around. When I’m in the throes of writing marketable fiction, I have so many little things to remember about style, grammar, and the finer points of plotting. But sometimes, I need to step back and remember why I write in the first place. Hence, the play file. Sometimes I write parodies of song lyrics. Sometimes I write silly fight scenes, just because I can.

    But it definitely refreshes me and keeps me from worrying about perfection. After all, if I produce such bizarre and un-saleable things when I write for fun, how much better must my work be when I’m being serious about it?

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Sounds like a great idea Colleen, we should definitely take time out to stop worrying about the quality of what we are creating and just have fun with it!

  5. Conni says:

    We are so schizophrenic when it comes to perfectionism! We think it’s a great thing or an awesome excuse, but at the same time it keeps us from doing what we want to do! It’s insane really…

    The best advice I ever come across, was to just do the creative work without stopping, no editing, no nada! Just keep going for a set amount of time. WriteWriteWrite, DrawDrawDraw etc…. It totally unblocked my creative juices and kept perfectionism at bay.

    Screw you, perfectionism!

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Good advice Conni. Sometimes you just have to dive in and not even give perfectionism a chance to rear its ugly head.

  6. Anne says:

    OMG! This is what I do! It’s like I have this little drum roll that continues in my head as I continually stare at these great new vintage components on the corner of my table, yet I don’t touch them, I don’t put them into a new design, I simply leave them sit and take up that little part of real estate on the corner of my work bench…the little drum roll continues to pitter patter as I fill orders and make the same great selling designs, but I yearn inside to have some “creativity time”, yet I stare at those new components night after night!!! You’ve answered my question as to why this silly performance repeats itself in the world of my studio over and over again!!! LOL But it’s so stupidly gratifying when all of a sudden it’s like a magnet and I stop midway in a design and I reach for those components and my mind becomes so darn focused and I create this new and wonderful piece, hang it on my vintage dress form and stand back and I feel so pleased and relieved and then like an aftershock, I get this little voice that says “Why in the heck did you wait so long to do that???!!!” Happens every time, like old recording….

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  8. JAIME ZAPATA says:

    Perfectionism hiding procrastination: what a theme! I´m so sorry to comment on this so late…
    This is one of the backstage monsters in every artist life. I think that it´s basically fear what tends to keep as stuck and static in all aspects of life, and in art especially, because it limits the freedom our creativity need to get accomplished. The best recipe I found is joy. Enjoyment in my art activity and techniques are like child toys playing. Joy is the opposite of fear.
    Congratulations Dan for the great blog and discussions.

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