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Just do the thing

4 minute read

You as a perfectionist, bing image creator
I have a really bad procrastination problem. I find myself constantly putting off things that I could do right now. And not because I’m lazy or can’t be bothered right now. No, my problem is that I’m ridiculously, self-destructively perfectionistic. I suspect perfectionism is something I’ll come back to in future posts. It’s a very complex issue, and in fact the reason I’ve taken up the challenge of cranking out a blog post every day. But that per se is not my focus today.
I’m writing this blog post after spending an entire day procrastinating. Not because I was in a particularly bad place mentally, or had better things to do, or any of the hundreds of other excuses I could make up. But because I was worried it’d be bad. I have a txt file with over 30 lines of ideas for blog posts. But none of them felt good enough. (Christ man, good enough? I thought you were doing this shit specifically to be okay with not writing “good enough” stuff!) Holding yourself to a ridiculously high standard can be a good thing. When all your chips are on the table, there’s no option for failure, and you’re laser-locked onto a trajectory, standards are the things that squeeze out the bit of extra effort. When the path is set, you’re in a tournament or under a tight deadline, standards are good. But when you have total freedom, they’ll kill you. Worried about making something bad, are you? Try not making anything at all! When you have the option to not commit, to duck out of obligations and give nothing, perfectionism will make you do just that. I suspect that’s why so many studious, high-achieving students fizzle out and do little of value in the real world. Because in school, there’s no alternative. You can’t just sit around on your ass, each day saying “I’m not thinking right today, I’ll do that urgent assignment tomorrow.” But you totally can do that with startups, job applications, and blog posts. So, without someone constantly breathing down your neck, the overachiever looks just like the under-achiever. Both end up languishing in their parents’ basement, unable to bring themselves to do anything worthwhile. It doesn’t matter that one “wants to do stuff, the time just isn’t right.” They’re both losers.
It’s pretty miraculous. I felt totally paralyzed before writing this blog post thinking it’d turn out stupid. But guess what? As soon as I put my fingers to the keyboard, words began to flow. Turns out there was absolutely nothing wrong and I totally could have done this 6 hours ago. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. So what if this post comes out imperfect? A wonky-looking pot is still more useful for carrying water than no pot at all. But this happens to me all too often. Frozen by my fear to make something bad (which is to say, very marginally worse than my “good” things, which are also, incidentally, not perfect!) I make nothing. And so, while I can’t give much specific advice for fixing this kind of imaginary mental logjam (I’m only just working on it now), I can tell you this. Nothing you make will ever be perfect. Your bad is probably only slightly worse than your good. Nobody is looking that hard at the stuff you’re making, so the only one who cares is yourself. And if you just started to Do The Thing, you’d realize you had it in you all along.
And now I feel quite silly about not writing this post sooner, but at least I did it in the end. I think that commitment mechanisms are a good band-aid for perfectionism. For example, 20 minutes ago I had the decision to either start writing my blog post now (bad) or break my streak and disappoint myself (even worse). But it’s only a weak fix. Really, you should overcome the root cause, the mistaken assumption that every precondition has to be met for you to do good work. Schools don’t do this enough. They coddle students, giving them deadlines and commitments galore. But as a result, they never have to face down open-endedness. They never have the option to be lazy, and so they never slay that beast. And it comes roaring as soon as they have some self-direction. So if the beast is still there for you, kill it. Maybe that’s publishing a lot of “imperfect” unedited writing online. Maybe that’s busking in public with your less-than-godly musical skills. Maybe it’s something else. But the point is, if you want to become the kind of person who does stuff, you have to Just Do The Thing.

Published Jan 11, 2024

"But what kind of freedom does one have if one can use it only as someone else prescribes?"