Are you a creative perfectionist procrastinator too?

The Last Edition, TLE, Oxford Brookes Students Union Magazine 1993-1995

My TLE magazines, 1993-95

Have you got something creative that you should be getting on with but are putting it off?

It was when I was running the student magazine, The Last Edition (or TLE for short) at Oxford Brookes University that I first found myself operating at a wholly different type of time and project management level.

And not because I wanted to.

There was simply too much to do and way too much information to take in. I had to learn to speed read and speed act to get everything done. I realised that I could no longer be a perfectionist, or more to the point, I could no longer be a creative perfectionist procrastinator.

Being a creative perfectionist procrastinator is a really unproductive position to be in. Most creative people fall into one or more of its three traps at some point. It’s a situation of inaction categorised by ‘not being ready to act’ due to these damning conditions:

  • Not wanting to begin a task right now because you know it will take more time to complete, or at least to get stuck in to, than the time you think you have available now. What’s frightening about this is that sometimes we can write of whole days due to this feeling and yet each day has the same number of maximum hours.
  • Not wanting to begin the task because you don’t feel like it at the moment. The conditions don’t feel right, you’re too tired or not motivated. We try to convince ourselves that we might feel like it later on in the day, or that evening, or after a cup of coffee or after some other postponing condition.
  • Not wanting to begin the task now because you don’t have all the information, skill or equipment to get going with. This often leads into some irrelevant research which, although useful, isn’t good for motivation because at the end of the day nothing appears to have been achieved. This feeling is also a great trigger for spending both money and time looking for and buying extra resources and equipment in a vain hope that the new inventory will feel like progress has been made. It never does.

What happened when I was working on the magazine meant that I could no longer indulge in the luxury of those feelings.

When you have a task that is not creative such as physical jobs like digging a hole or administration tasks like tidying up, filing, reading emails, watching tv or surfing the internet, you don’t have to make qualitative decisions. Any decision that you may need to make with be fairly didactic, yes or no, stop or go etc. That’s why these tasks can still be performed when you’re mentally tired. Sometimes we call them ‘mindless’ tasks which is a bit erroneous but in a sense sets them as the opposite to mind-full tasks that require a different level of concentration and consciousness. Writing, drawing and designing require this different level of mindfulness. It’s a state of mind we don’t often find ourselves in so we treat it as special and feel it requires special conditions (cue the three traps described above).

So when it came to designing the cover for the magazine, writing the editorial or doing some illustrations for it I wanted, really wanted, to evoke those three excuses. But I couldn’t. The time pressures of print deadlines meant that if I waited until conditions were ready and right, there would be no magazine. Instead I had to allocate time to each task and get to it and get on with it. Oh how I longed to do more research, more practice, more considered effort. How I longed to re-do the illustrations or re-write the articles. But there just wasn’t time.

The result was a four-weekly 38 page magazine that I edited for two years and 19 issues.

If I had not managed to use the time I had, to do the tasks whether the conditions felt perfect or not, to write whether I felt like it or not, there would not have been a single issue.

If you want the result, whatever the creative project you are embarking upon, make sure that any delay is based on real tangible problems that need to be solved, and not one or more of the three creative perfectionist procrastinations that we can all to easily fall for.

The best advice is a cliché: Do it now. Do it to the best of your ability, but do it now.

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I’ll Do it Tomorrow

“I’ll do it tomorrow” – the greatest labour saving statement ever uttered, because as the cliche goes, tomorrow never comes. We’ve all been in that situation. We all have things we need to do, things we must do, even things we actually want to do and yet we don’t do them? What’s the matter with us? The prognosis is that we’re suffering from a deadly brain disease called procrastination. So what is it and what’s the cure?

Firstly, it is not laziness. Procrastination does not mean inactivity, quite the opposite. It requires a great deal of exhaustive effort directed at any, usually irrelevant, task other than the pertinent quest at hand.

Secondly it’s not through ignorance or lacking something. It is not through lack of a good plan. It is not through lack of good advice. It is not the lack of ability. It is not lack of intelligence. Neither is it lack of time nor money.

Thirdly, and most oddly, it is not because we don’t want the outcome.

Why, when we know what to do, do we still not do it? Why do we fall short? Why the sabotage?

The answer is quite mundane. We all operate on a basis of taking a course of action that leads to the least hassle. We’re all familiar with the scenario: if today is Monday and we’re aware of a certain job that is needed to be completed by Friday morning it would be quite likely to be perceived as a lot of hassle to do the job now. However come Thursday night something interesting happens – we’re suddenly aware that they’ll be more hassle if the job isn’t done. So we do it.

If we break down our motivation even simpler it leaves us with this conclusion: every action we take is designed to lead us to pleasure or to move us to avoid pain. The avoidance of pain (or hassle) is usually stronger than the desire for pleasure. This is why we tend to fight stronger to hold onto something we already have rather than to strive for something better. We associate more pain to acting than to not acting.

So what can we do about it?

If you’re not acting on something and you know you need to or want to but simply don’t, you need to change one of three things about yourself. First you must accept the concept that if you keep doing the things you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting the things you’ve always got. Something’s got to change and it isn’t an external thing either. We have to take responsibility for our in-actions as well as our actions.

Your life is your emotions. There are three forces that control your emotions. The first is physiology that is your biochemistry and the movement of your body. The second is your language, the questions you ask, the metaphors you use, the stories you tell yourself and others about yourself which all re-enforces the third force which is your beliefs and values.

Change one of these three emotion controlling areas, your emotions will change. When your emotions change, your life will change. If you can’t control your emotional state then you must be addicted to certain emotions. You literally could be addicted to the hormones and neurotransmitters that are released when you’re in that particular emotional state. In fact that’s all any addiction is, only instead of an artificial stimulus to trigger the endorphin release such as a drug, you’re doing it with your physiology, your language and your movement.

It’s possible to be addicted to depression, to negativity and to sloth. The good news is it’s just as easy to be addicted to joy, to optimism and to positive action. The choice comes to what you do with your body – do you sit around slouching or get up and move around? With your language – do you repeat the same phrases, use negative terms and dismiss things? Do you believe ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘this always happens to me’ or other global self-defeating phrases?

Just change them. It’s easy to change them. If you’re dismissive of that fact and think it’s hard to change them – watch out! You may have to consider that you might be addicted to cynicism. Consider what affects that addiction may have on future opportunities.

The only thing that prevents you from having what you want is the story you tell yourself which says you can’t have it.

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