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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What I did when I was 7 – it’s what I do now

The Adventures of Boba Fett Star Wars

The Adventures of Boba Fett comic book

It’s obvious to me now. Obvious that in the work you do you should build into it what you enjoy doing and what you’re good at. Today I spend my days creating brands and books for experts, giving talks on creativity and branding as well as writing and performing my songs.

But it wasn’t always that way. Or was it? Actually it was. It just took me a long time to realise it.

If you look on my website you’ll see a few of the books I’ve written for sale. But they weren’t my first books. Not by a long way. My first was called ‘Daleks in Vain’ written in 1978 when I was 7. It was bound like a book and had a cover which my teacher showed me how to laminate. I produced my own monthly magazines and created countless comic strips (about Doctor Who or Star Wars, the most extensive saga being the Adventures of Boba Fett). They too were produced as actual books with quizzes, facts, subscription information and dates and prices. I was doing back then what I do now.

English exercise book

My English exercise book with 12/10

I loved writing stories, whether I was tasked by a teacher to write them or not. Two of my English exercise book stories when I was in class 1M were given “12/10 Excellent!” By the teacher. This means just one of two things: either I was a literary genius, or my English teacher wasn’t very good at maths.

By age 12 I’d devoured The Lord of the Rings and was writing my own fantasy stories. Some took the form of those Fighting Fantasy ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books (“do you want to use the potion, turn to page 44” etc). Again, they were produced as complete illustrated books. My industrious work prompted the teacher to write a letter to my parents. It said, “We need to stamp out this indulgence of his with fantasy”.

How many of us have had a (sometimes a well meaning) slight or damning report on our creativity? How many of us have had our creativity and excitement snuffed out, our passion extinguished? I had no further support with my writing and drawing. It was slowly put to one side, deemed by everyone to be an unimportant diversion and a distraction from proper things like Chemistry, Physics and Maths. (Even though I was best at Technical Drawing and Art).

For good or ill I pursued an education in science and by some miracle got a degree in physics and physical science. But just as the degree came to an end, something happened that would change everything as I unwittingly made a decision that would bring my expertise full circle.

I ran for office for the Students’ Union to run the student magazine. Then, it was an 8 page newsletter that 8 people wrote and just about 8 people read. I turned it into a 48 page magazine that had the highest number of student contributors to a student journal before or since. We had 60 student contributing to it in some way each month. I was an editor, a designer, a writer and a performer (I hosted shows, did stand up comedy and performed my songs at events). But the job was about something else. It was really a question of motivation (and I suppose, leadership). I managed to inspire people who would never have got involved in such things to come to my office. “What are you good at?” I’d ask them. “What do you like doing?” One fellow replied that he liked writing poetry. “Great” I said, “You’re the poetry editor” (He went onto become a good friend, my deputy and later on, took the editorship himself.)

TLE the last edition Oasis Definately Maybe Oxford Brookes Students' Union magazine

TLE issue 305, October 1994

A girl came to the office. She said she was interested in bands and music. I knocked up a badge with the magazine logo on it (TLE – The Last Edition) and told her to take it to the Venue and they’ll let her in to review the bands. Take it to the record shops and they’ll give her singles to review. She came back a week later to report that it had worked. She’d done an interview with one of the bands and got some photos. It looked great, although I’d never heard of the band. She said they were going to be huge so we put them on the front cover. The band was Oasis and we had published an exclusive just before they hit the big time.

With that job, which lasted two years, I’d created an Eden, the perfect job where I was using all my skills. When it ended and I had to get a real job, it was a real jolt to the system that I was put in a corner and told to use such a small part of my skills and experience. I counted the days (which amounted to six years) until I had enough nerve to set up on my own and recreate that Eden again.

So here I am, doing the same things I was doing when I was 7. Sometimes we think our dreams are somehow ‘out there’ and distant from us. I’ve realised that mine we here all the time. It just took me such a long time to realise that my hopes, dreams and passions were with me all along.

Are you victim to the voices of decent that have manipulated you into thinking what you should be doing, not what you could be doing? has your creativity been dulled and dumbed down, your passions diverted? Or are you building into your working day who and what you are, what you’re good at, what you enjoy? I hope so.

Drop me a comment with your experience of self re-discovery.