How to stop perfectionism from getting in the way of your creative work
People often ask: “how can I stop perfectionism from getting in the way of sharing my work?”
I still struggle to let out any creative work that I’m not totally happy with. It actually used to be easier to just make something and share it, but as time goes on, I find that my own standard of how good it needs to keep going up (even though most other people don’t really care!)
Having high standards sounds like a great thing for artists and designers – of course, we want to make awesome work. But when that tips into setting the standards so high that we can’t meet them anymore (aka perfectionism), it gets in the way of creativity.
If this all sounds a bit too familiar, here are some suggestions to play around with...
A creative warm-up can help
Whenever I run, the first 1K or so is difficult. Even with a habit of running regularly, I still have to dust off the cobwebs, get my shoes on and head out the door, whether it’s cold or raining or whatever. But about 1k in, I get into a rhythm and the rest of the run feels easier, even enjoyable.
When you’re about to start a lettering piece, maybe the blank page feels overwhelming, or your mind’s already jumping five steps ahead to how the finished thing will turn out. If it’s not going to be a masterpiece, what’s the point?
In every book I’ve read about creativity and productivity, procrastination or overwhelm, the one thought that comes through solidly in all of them is: just start.
You could play around with some brush textures, draw some weird-looking shapes, or write out the whole alphabet... something simple you already know how to do, with no pressure for it to be perfect.
I often like to start by putting in the background. It needs to be there anyway, it’s not hard, but it’s still warming up my creative muscles. It helps me get into the rhythm for something a bit more complex.
There are loads of ideas on YouTube or Skillshare for creative warm-ups: doodling, making marks, and little exercises to try. See what works for you.
Go with some ‘bad’ ideas
Sometimes people ask: “But what if all my ideas are terrible?”
Do it anyway. Whether it’s a cliché, or a clashing style, or you find yourself thinking “Ooh, this could look good with some Comic Sans...”
Sometimes bad ideas are just seeking attention. You know it’s not going to be good, but you just have to give it that little bit of attention first. Then it goes away happy, and you can focus on a nice cool idea.
Average ideas are allowed too
Once you’ve got those terrible ones out of the way, what’s left might not feel ground-breaking. We often worry about getting past bad ideas, but a run of brilliant work can actually build up the creative pressure. That’s when people get stuck perfecting Instagram posts, but never posting anything.
It’s kind of like bands who have had two great albums, and now they have to make another one under the shadow of all their success so far. Maybe you’ve had some lettering hits, and you’re scared to release the next one in case it flops.
It’s easier said than done, but lowering your expectations can help you get more work out. Not every project can be special. And the pressure for each piece to be better than the last isn’t really sustainable.
Those bands that release a not-so-great third album might go on to make an awesome fourth one – but only if they keep producing music.
Tap into a flow state
Perfectionism sets up lots of fears about the finished result: will anyone like it, what if it’s rubbish, what if I don’t like it, is it all a waste of time..?
Flow state describes that feeling of being ‘in the zone’, so immersed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time. You’re totally focused and enjoying the challenge. (It’s also the only time I stop thinking about food.)
When we can get into that state, those critical or questioning thoughts about the work itself naturally switch off.
So how do you get into a flow state? Some creatives use a series of cues or steps: it could be as simple as making a coffee before sitting down to start lettering. Or listening to music, perhaps a specific playlist on repeat.
Getting rid of distractions is really important, especially email and social media. I’ve definitely never found a flow state with those two elements.
Even working on the iPad can be a problem – it’s always connected to the internet, so there’s a temptation to check Instagram or YouTube. Or I’ll suddenly need to charge the battery or the Pencil. And there’s an undo option!
With analogue methods, it feels very different. Painting is the best one for me, whether lettering onto a skateboard or painting a mural. It takes time, it requires concentration, and I can’t multitask while I’m doing it.
You can’t always guarantee a flow state, but keep an eye out for those activities that are more likely to help you ease into it.
Struggling with perfectionism in your work?
- try a range of warm-up exercises
- allow some bad or average ideas
- limit distractions
- figure out what helps you find a flow state
Unfortunately, there’s no short cut to overcoming perfectionism, and it’s probably going to look a bit different for all of us. But don’t wait for the lightning bolt to strike. Start somewhere (anywhere!) and you might be pleasantly surprised by what emerges.
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