Kill Your Inner Perfectionist: Crafting a sustainable routine for writers

Admit it, writers of the world: we all share the same fantasy. We revel in it at night as we drift to sleep. In the morning, stumbling to the coffee maker, we drool at the very thought of it. Day in and day out, our lust for it knows no bounds. You know what I’m talking about: The Perfect Writing Routine.

This mythic routine is the schedule that will streamline your days and ramp up your productivity to astronomical levels. It’s the heaven-sent bevy of habits that will banish writer’s block and cure imposter syndrome and finally get that weird spot in your hair to lie down correctly. It’s also a grim fantasy will haunt you mercilessly unless you can understand what you really need to meet the challenges of a career as independent writer, artist, or freelancer.

I’ve arrived at the recent conclusion — after years of unseemly cravings myself — that perfection is a myth. And unlike unicorns or Bigfoot, this myth hurts. It erodes self-worth, inhibits artistic expression, and deludes its believers into thinking that there’s some glorious future waiting in the offing where the work ends and joy begins.

In a nutshell, perfectionism keeps me from actually writing, and just as importantly, enjoying it. I bet perfectionism limits you in the same way, try as you might to frame it as “holding yourself to a higher standard” or “encouraging yourself to succeed.” The truth is, perfectionism is a maladaptive coping mechanism, the love child of codependency and shame. Life is filled with disappointment, failure, and even criticism; to try to armor yourself against these things with perfectionism is to tread where you’ll find only madness lies.

So, when I see people hawking their pet productivity strategies on this website and others, I try to steer clear of anyone promising perfection. Biohacking, microdosing, brainwave optimizing, Tony Robbins-ing — all the tips-ing and tricks-ing under the sun means nothing if I can’t just accept that some days are diamonds while others are rocks. In other words, I don’t just need some life-hacked, supplement-jacked, influencer-backed schedule, I need the kind of resilience that allows me to accept things as they are rather than obsess over what “could” be.

That being said, I’ve also discovered that routine is important to me. While part of this is because holding myself accountable is important, a routine is also, surprisingly, a good defense against my inner critic. It gets really hard to call yourself lazy trash when you’ve crossed every item off your to-do list. I mean, I’ll probably still do it, but I least I know to apologize to myself after.

“Bukowski held down a full-time job, drank and womanized like it was his actual full-time job, and still churned out literary greatness. What’s your excuse?” — Me to me, in the recent past.

So here’s a quick rundown of how I organize my freewheeling, freelance lifestyle. Think of it as a machete to help clear a path through the jungle, rather than the path itself. I can’t tell you which way to walk, but I might be able to hasten your progress toward developing a sustainable and productive writer’s routine.

I can’t express how important it is to learn how to meet yourself where you are as a writer or creator. The gap between where we are (say, writing a few days a week, or even just plotting out stories in our heads) and where we want to be (logging 10+ hours of sheer genius creative output on the daily) is often vast. It will do you no good to keep hurling yourself like a ragdoll across the chasm. There are a million steps in between, you will have to take each and every one of them.

Think of this gap not as an obstacle to be leaped, but instead as space for growth. An ideal writer’s routine not only enhances productivity, but allows for adaptability and flexibility. It allows you to meet the needs of any given day; it allows you to converse with, rather than contort, yourself.

Often, when people think routine, they often also think schedule. “7 AM: wake-up. 8 AM: leave for work. 9 AM: arrive at work. 10 AM: attend meeting that could have been an email. 11 AM: bang head on desk.” This method of organizing one’s day has become so ingrained in modern office culture that it can be difficult to even conceive of alternative routines that might be better suited to the life of an independent writer or freelancer.

At least, I know the transition was difficult for me. When I left my painfully empty government job in 2019, I tried to bring this schedule with me to my new, self-managed life. I immediately crashed and burned, missing my start time almost every day and then doing nearly nothing the rest of day because of how mad I was at myself for “failing” right out the gate. My primary goal wasn’t to start work at the same time every day, and yet I was fixated on the mocking tick-tock of the clock.

So, instead of choosing a time to begin my day, I came up with other ways to cue myself that it was time to get rolling. In other words, I’ve trained myself to respond to a combination of activities and environmental elements rather than the clock itself. Currently, my cues are: a cup of coffee, my desk lamp switched to the warm setting, and a glance at the day’s to-do list, which I always write the night before. Look, I know there’s nothing particularly inventive about these cues. They could just as easily comprise a brisk jog and some Coltrane. The simplicity, however, is why the cues work.

Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash

On a related note, I recommend finding an “end of day” routine as well. My evening cues are just as basic as my morning ones: I close my laptop and hop on my yoga mat. Downward dog means I’m done, baby. Some people might feel like they’re thriving as the dividing line between work and life blurs to a smudge. Our shared cultural stories imply that true geniuses perpetually burn the candle at both ends, sacrificing their bodily and mental wellness to the muses. But truly, this way lies further madness. Remember: you’re a human first, and a writer/artist/ground-breaking visionary second — whether you like it or not.

So you’ve followed your cues, and now you’re sitting at your desk (or maybe, in a bright post-pandemic future, you’re snuggled up in the corner of a cheery café) waiting for inspiration to strike. You did it!

Well, you kinda did it. You’re a writer, not a desk-sitter. So how do you get going with the day’s work, and how do you know when you’ve done enough (especially on your own, uncontracted projects with self-established deadlines)?

I know I’m not the only writer that initially tried to establish a daily page output and use that as a metric for productivity and success. On its face, the idea makes some sense; tangible goals are great, and this kind of goal feels familiar, like an English class reading assignment or a research paper. In this way, setting a daily page goal feels comfortable and concrete.

It can also feel like a jail cell. What do you do when you fail to meet your output metrics one day? You might stay up until the wee hours of the morning, continuing to grind out sentence after sentence of sleepy filler, only to wake up the next morning and face the same grueling slog again, only this time saddled with fatigue and dry eyes. You might promise yourself that you’ll make it up the next day, turning your to-do list into perpetually mushrooming nightmare.

You might even just give up entirely.

None of these strategies are particularly sustainable, and they all fail to account for the nuances of individual projects, which can vary wildly in terms of mental strain and emotional drain. Needless to say, my own days of tallying pages are done. Instead, I break my day down into “work blocks,” which consist of 50 minutes of focused work, followed by a 10 minute break. Loosely based on the Pomodoro Technique, this pattern keeps me reasonably fresh and focused, with plenty of opportunities for snack breaks, settling housecat quarrels, and sidebars with my husband (#wfhlife).

If you try the same 50:10 ratio and find your mind wandering, don’t fret. Even if you can only handle 20 minutes of focus at one time, you’ll get more done working in smaller blocks than if each longer one is inevitably interrupted by a search for “Animal Crossing cottagecore inspo” or “post-quarantine haircuts 2021.” Remember: always meet yourself where you are, and reject the allure of perfectionist fantasies (except the ones a capitalist raccoon tries to sell you… those ones are pretty neat).

So you’ve got your cues and your timer, and you’ve relegated your perfectionist inner critic to her proper place. But where are the words?

I’m not going to spend too much time on the nuances of writer’s block in this article, but I will say that, with regard to your writing routine, having a couple solid brainstorming habits in your back pocket will go a long way toward keeping up your day-to-day momentum and productivity.

Freewriting isn’t a particularly unorthodox tool, but it is a powerful one. My first experience with it was in 2008, when Baby-Me attended the California State Summer School for the Arts. The instructor asked us to pull out our composition notebooks and start writing, interrupting only to lambaste anyone who dared glance around the room. We were allowed to write anything — even “I don’t know what to write” — but we had to write something. What resulted was almost always a combination of hand cramps and inspiration. In other words, it worked.

Don’t be afraid to write garbage. In fact, I suggest you learn to recognize that fear as another manifestation of perfectionism. There’s no avoiding the inevitability that you will write something terrible, so embrace it as part of the process rather than wasted time or energy.

Other than trying to generate ideas in the moment, another brainstorming tool I’ve recently adopted deals with capturing ideas as they arrive of their own volition. Once a long-term sticky-note devotee, I’ve now switched to digital notetaking, which has cleared up desk space and luckily not crashed the stock price of Post-It. As someone who is drawn to the tactile experience of writing with pen and paper, digital notetaking has been a huge quality of life improvement for me. If you’re fine tapping away in your phone’s notes app, then by all means do so. The point here is finding a simple way to capture ideas on-the-go rather than engaging in the struggle of belatedly reconstructing your thoughts.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Pictured here: A writer after spending too long agonizing over a forgotten idea he had while trying to fall asleep one evening.

It’s worth reiterating that no routine — rigid or flexible, clocked or cued — is worth much of anything without your own emotional resilience to back it up. Dropping your attachment to perfectionist fantasies is an excellent start, but if you find yourself getting thrown off track in the middle of the day (say, for example, by some negative feedback on your last draft, or by a helpful Instagram notification letting you know that your archenemy’s career is positively thriving), you might have more work to do yet. And that’s ok!

In fact, it’s better than ok. Good writing — really good writing — requires self-awareness. It requires an understanding of how to grow and change and put a little more effort into life than waking up perfect each day.

Practice makes us who we are.

screenwriter and script analyst. www.stephanieschellerup.com

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