Let’s have a little chat about creativity and getting the work done, shall we?
This has been a bit of theme of mine, off and on, over the last couple of years. I keep coming back to it, because doing creative work is some of the hardest work we do. Whether that creation is professional or it is personal, it goes well beyond punching a clock and going to the office (virtually or otherwise). You are putting part of yourself into creativity. You put yourself on the line. You take risks, invest energy and give of your passion and enthusiasm.
While this kind of investment can be what leads to doing some of our greatest work, it also can be the most significant source of fear, anxiety and doubt. That raises the stakes significantly.
Anything that you do has the potential for criticism. There is always the risk that someone will find fault. This can be problems with the TPS report, questions about your expense claim or nit-picking about the specifics of your latest status report. Few people like criticism of their work or questioning of what they have done, no matter how well meaning the feedback or immaterial and inconsequential the criticism might be in the larger scheme of the universe.
When it is work that you have poured your heart into, though, criticism—or the potential for criticism—can be devastating. Now it’s not just the work that is open for judgement. There’s a piece of you inside that work. Maybe a big piece. That creates not just the risk but the expectation that when someone critiques the work, they are actually judging and finding fault with you. Criticism of the result gets received as criticism of the person.
There are a number of relatively counterproductive behaviours that emerge as a direct response to this mindset. Perfectionism is an obvious one. It’s also one I’ve invested more than my fair share of energy and attention towards. Perfectionism starts with a vision of what an exceptional result would represent. On its own, there is nothing wrong with this; in fact, doing so is praiseworthy. Having a clear picture of what success looks like is a critical factor in being able to deliver a result that matters.
What complicates the process is that we often have hypersensitivity to faults and a warped perception of whether the work we do measures up to the vision that we began with. We can be too close to the work to gain reasonable perspective, and too sensitive to the flaws, holding anything less than absolute perfection and faithful adherence to our picture of success as a mark of failure. High standards become a proxy for setting hurdles that are nearly impossible to clear.
This is certainly a place that I have lived for an extended period of my professional career. Interestingly, though, I didn’t start there. In fact, my high school experience (as attested to by many report card comments about living up to my potential) was defined by doing what was necessary to get by. As I began my career, though, early encounters with clients with their own ridiculously high standards and outwardly critical demeanours (no doubt inspired by their own insecurities and anxieties about being good enough) built enough of a sensitivity to negative feedback and the finding of fault that I became pretty much obsessed by perfection. The goal became producing a flawless deliverable up front that would brook no criticism. This is, of course, both unattainable and a fool’s errand. That in no way stopped me from trying.
A related but different mechanism for shielding yourself from negative feedback (and a bit of a theme for my writing this month) is procrastination. It is an incredibly popular proclivity among many, and a pretty insidious one. The essence of procrastination is that it is a double-edged sword, finely honed and guaranteed to draw blood in pretty much all circumstances. The overt motivation for putting off work is very often that you think you need to wait for the right time, where the stars are aligned, motivation is high and you are in the zone to get things done. The perverse consequences of this bias is that lower priority work often takes precedence as you try clear the decks and make space to focus. That might mean clearing the to-do list, cleaning your office or attending to every other personal priority first so that when you finally start work, you can theoretically give the task its full and proper attention.
What procrastination ultimately does, however, is undermine the entire enterprise. By deferring creative work that is arguably high value, high visibility and high consequence, you set the stage for impending failure. Margins of error shrink or disappear altogether. Tolerance for errors craters at exactly the time mistakes are most likely to occur. Worse, progressive deferrals in the face of looming deadlines means that the work itself gets progressively compromised. You deliver less of what you intended, to a lesser standard, with a much higher likelihood that the overall results are inadequate. In other words, the results that you theoretically fear and are striving to avoid become a virtual certainty.
Do this often enough and different patterns of dysfunction emerge. Procrastination evolves into full-on avoidance of doing the work, for fear of never being good enough and always found wanting. You eventually risk inhabiting a reality where you are sabotaging the outcome before you ever begin. The work that you theoretically value and take pride in is what you most undermine.
What all of these behaviours are doing is giving credence to your inner critic. You know the one. That persistent voice at your core that is never satisfied, always judging and regularly discouraging. Every one of us has one. For some of us, they are more prominent. But they are never not there. The personal detractors lie waiting, ready to mock your work, question your competence and discourage you from moving forward.
This is not to say that your inner critic doesn’t have value. That inner voice is there for a reason. As human beings, we have evolved to consider risk and anticipate potential challenges. Whether you believe it or not, your inner voice is trying to protect you. It is envisioning all the way that things could go wrong, and raising the alarm bells before that happens. The problem is that evolution has also primed us to pay a little too much attention (not listening to your inner voice used to be lethal, rather than just potentially embarrassing). Rather than calmly listening to what it has to say and making a reasoned judgement call, we hear the alarm and tend to run screaming away from danger and possible harm.
Here’s the thing: you aren’t going to get rid of your inner voice. It is a part of you, it wants to help—even if you don’t quite see it that way—and it isn’t about to shut up now. That means coming to terms with its presence. Given that the voice is there, and expressing its concern, the polite thing is to listen to what it has to say. Consider the perspective, but do so reasonably, calmly and cautiously. Healthy skepticism and a realistic outlook are entirely appropriate here.
Once you have listened, decide what—if anything—you need to do with that information. Much of what you identify will be histrionics and catastrophizing. You should probably feel free to ignore that, or at least downplay the consequences. Buried in there, though, is likely to be a kernel of truth and useful insight. You need to sift through the noise to get to whatever issue lies at the centre of the current panic. From there, you can sort out what is reasonable to pay attention to.
Above all, however, you need to move forward. Don’t let your inner critic derail your intentions, and in particular don’t let procrastination and perfectionism sabotage getting work done, or even getting work started. Getting something to done—even if done winds up being the functional equivalent of first draft—is still better than obsessively prevaricating. Do the work. Get it out there. Let it be seen. Get feedback. Course correct as necessary.
Putting your work out in the world and getting feedback is far more important than perpetually pursuing perfection and never letting the results see the light of day. Some reactions will be positive and constructive. Others will be negative and critical. That’s just life. But if you censor your work before you even share it, you will never know what was possible and the world will lose out on potentially good ideas—or at least promising first starts.
This can be hard to embrace, and harder to follow through on. But as an interviewee on a podcast I was listening to this week observed, “The path towards excellence travels directly through sucking.” You can’t get to optimal if you aren’t willing to work through sub-optimal first. Getting obsessed about perfect, and believing that you need to hit that mark over and over again or you have failed, is an easy shortcut to avoidance and perpetually failing to deliver on your potential.
Lai Yong says
Great article. Absolutely concur with the same challenges, doing less priority work to get the big block of time for higher priority and important creative work. Then you find that you run out of time and ended up with lower standard of aspired work.
I’m improving though by using the mantra, “just do it” ti start and improving and asking feedback along the way to get a higher standard of final work.
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks so much for the feedback.
That idea of “just do it” is actually a useful one. Or at least a variation: “Just get started.” Research has shown, and I have found, that if you commit to do 15 minutes and then see how it is going, you often get engaged enough to keep going. And on the days that you can’t, recognizing that and stepping away is better than wasting the day and resenting yourself for doing so.
Welcome to the site, and thank you for sharing!
Michael Hilbert says
You once wrote, “The value of better comes from a willingness to explore, discover and try, to accept what we do as good, but continue to strive towards better.” (PM.Com Feb 24 2020). If we strive to at least get started, with “good” in mind, better will come in time. Easier said than done I know, however there are situations where you just may need to accept “good enough” and move on. Getting started, is more than half the battle.
Thanks for the insights…
Mark Mullaly says
Thank you, and total respect for you being able to go back and cite what I said two years ago. (And a cautionary tale to anyone: be consistent in what you say, and when you stray or deviate, own up to it).
The quote, in this context, is absolutely bang on. Because you need to do the work. But mostly, you need to get started, knowing it may not be complete, finished or perfect. That is okay, though, because it lets you get perspective, feedback and input, and then course correct from there. Start with good, and work towards better. You may never get all the way to best (and if you do, someone else will supplant that anyway, so don’t get too comfortable).
Starting is everything. Continuing is awesome. And getting something out the door that is good, relevant, appropriate and hopefully in some way usable and able to be built on is an awesome goal to aspire towards.
Thanks as always for the feedback!
Michael Hilbert says
The quote was easy to find as it hangs in my office so I can remind myself (and my team) each day, that we ARE good, but we can always be better, if we try!
Laura Lagendyk says
Great article. One of the strategies I use to get started is borrowed from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. (I know you know…). He suggests naming the Next Action. I find if I make the next action small enough, doable enough, I can convince myself easily to do it. Put that on “repeat” and it’s amazing what you can get done. Another strategy I learned when writing my thesis is to set a timer for that 15 minutes or whatever length of time is doable. And just as you say, so very often when the timer goes off, I am in the zone, and do not need to reset it. Apparently I am not the only one – what’s it called? Pomodoro technique?
Mark Mullaly says
Great to hear from you, and thank you so much for the feedback! You are absolutely correct: defining the next action can be an incredibly useful way to get started, and if it is manageable we can do it, and then move on to the next after that, and the next after that. So often we hit inertia because something is big and entangled and we aren’t sure where to start. Finding the thread of the one thing that is next can be huge.
The Pomodoro technique is the “twenty-five minutes on, take a five minute break” approach. Useful to remember to pause. But that first fifteen minutes of “just do something” can be just what is needed to keep on going.
Hope you are well! Keep in touch.