Perfectionism, Burnout, and Finishing What You Start

I don’t know about you, but I love to start new projects. It’s almost like a high I get from some drug. I see the whole world through a different lens. It’s not just me that feels inspired. Everything looks different to me. Anything seems doable.

At first when you begin a new writing project it really does feel different. But this is the way with everything. The important thing to see here is how writing is not fundamentally different in this way from other habits or activities.

Honeymoon phase

When you start writing and you feel this force of inspiration behind you, the fact that you are writing can feel completely transparent. It doesn’t feel the same as other writing. You have the sense of doing something amazing. Things come easy, everything is golden. Ah, it’s like being in love. You don’t feel pain, difficulty. Finally, you feel, you have landed on this project. Like an amazing lover, this new project is just the best thing ever.

Waning gibbous-ness

At some point things begin to look different. Your writing starts to feel familiar. Oh, this is the thing I always couldn’t stand about writing. This feels just like all the other times. I really hate this.

Let’s look at two options for how to proceed.

  • I need to change my approach to this project
  • I really have no choice but to work on something else.

I’m going to tell you what you are afraid I’m going to say: You need to finish the damn project. Depending on the time involved in doing so. It’s true that each decision should be handled case by case. But if quitting is your habit, then you aren’t going to get anywhere by letting your bad habit run the show.

Unless you finish the project you stay stuck.

I mean, if it turns out that your project will take a hundred years to finish, that’s something. And there is always that possibility of a wrong project taking the place of some element of work that really is essential for you.

But that it the exception, by far. One time out of a hundred, maybe.

And since we like to believe that our situation is the exeption, then maybe I should say “one out of a million.”

But you get the point.

Confronting your perfectionist

The prospect of finishing something can be very confronting.

Specifically, when you follow through and finish the piece, you confront your inner perfectionist. It can feel like torture. This part of you just cannot bear the excruciating feeling of plodding forward with such a miserable and problematic project.

How dare you, says your perfectionist.

“I choose to” might be your response. A triumphant response, because you are winning the battle.

It may not feel like relief, but that’s just to acknowledge that you’re still in a battle. It’s not time for rest just yet.

And anyway, rest is not really the ideal motivator. If you are working just to get done with it so you can rest, it’s likely that you aren’t seeing what you love about your project, and you aren’t bringing the best of yourslf into it.

In this way it’s a bit like a mature relationship. No longer in the phase of pure romance, what does it feel like for your partner to show up for you mechanically or out of a sense of habit? It’s almost like what is present is not even them, and you wonder where the rest of them might be.

So I’m really raising the bar on you here. Not only am I saying you need to finish the project, but you need to actually find joy in it.

When the whole of you seems to be screaming to avoid the whole thing, to just go and take a bubble bath and have a beer…

At this point your perfectionist might be in full angry-toddler mode, kicking and screaming. “You can’t make me! I haven’t consensed to this. I might agree to making some progress, but I never said I would smile. You can’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel.”

Precisely, the invitation is not to force yourself to feel something, but to be real with the feelings that are there. And the fact of the matter is that things have not fundamentally changed for you since you began the project.

A very big part of you really wants to finish it. To be a completer, and to move towards a self-definition as someone who definitely does see things through. A wholly effective person. The repercussions for the rest of your life and for your future as a writer are actually huge.

What part of you makes the choice?

You can either do like I did for a couple of years, going back and forth strugging and starting new projects, overwhelming yourself to avoid facing the fact that your book is not perfect but you want to finish it anyway… Or you can— yes — finish it.

And I won’t try to convince you that your draft is better than you think it is. Maybe it really is every bit as messy as you fear. Maybe it won’t all be magically done when you reach “The End.”

But it will be infinitely more workable than if you dawdle around and never finish it.

Now is a time for self-acceptance. Suspend your judgment until later. Not only until after the book is finished but after it has been polished.

Use that inner critic as a tool to sharpen your voice and revise your material. But first, finish it. Let the life of the project shine through its imperfections.

You do not need to worry about the whole, or certainly how to appraise it. Just about what comes next.

Follow the Joy

Like a salmon swimming upstream, what does your sense of joy have to show you in this moment? You can look back at what motivated you in the ferst place with the project. But it is even more powerful to simply feel into what lights you up when you give yourself space to feel into it right now.

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