Sometimes what we think of as lack of productivity can be really an attack of perfectionism. When I find myself not making progress, or as much progress as I would like, I always resort to comparing myself to other's who are far more prolific, or labelling myself lazy.
Perfectionism as the Enemy of Productivity
Recently, I read this book that made me realise often my stalling progress can be linked back to too high standards on my part, and fear that I won't be able to meet those standards. The book: Hillary Rettig's The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. In it she describes the signs of a perfectionist attitude, and I recognised in myself many of them. She also describes a process for getting through writing a book, which I think can be applied to other projects as well.
I have a tendency to think as a writer that I should write one ok first draft, one much better second draft, and one final, well-polished third draft. Rettig dismisses this theory, and states that we should go through "as many drafts as it takes". And the proper procedure is to write one terrible draft, make the next one slightly less terrible, and so on, until you are happy with the outcome. This approach basically allows you to suspend the anxiety associated with approaching your project, and you find yourself getting closer to the finished product much quicker, thanks to reduced procrastination and fear. For each draft she suggests tackling the obvious flaws, and moving on, which is similar to dealing with the low-hanging fruit first, something I discussed in a previous post.
This concept reminded me of computer programming, and especially a concept known as iterations. In the context of programming, you basically repeat a part of a program on a loop, till you get the desired result. In the context of work, it means to do a specific step in your workflow over and over, each time improving it slightly, getting it closer to the outcome you want. App developers do this all the time, releasing updates, with each version solving a few more bugs, adding a few more features.
Applying Iteration to My Work Process
I read about an author sometime back approaching her work the same way (I can't remember who it was at the moment), and I decided to apply this approach to an aspect of my work - designing a cover for my second self-published book. For "Will the Real Albert Speer Please Stand Up?", my book about Albert Speer, one of the members of Hitler's cabinet, I knew roughly what I wanted for my cover. Once I found an image I was happy with, I decided to apply the several versions approach to see if that made it easier and less stressful for me.
Around the 6th or 7th version I was so frustrated, I was ready to just go with one of the several versions I had produced, none of which were any good. Then, while waiting for feedback on the version from my mom, I discovered a different software I could use, and quickly created another version, which I was finally happy with it. That was the version I uploaded with the book, and was my cover for about a month.
However, a few days ago, I had an idea for tweaking the cover slightly, and created the 10th version. This is the version I am going to keep as the final one, and here it is.
Deciding in advance that I was going to have several versions allowed me to crank out 9 versions in the space of a couple of hours. Usually, I would create one, get stressed that it wasn't perfect, feel the urge to procrastinate, and put off completing it for a while, maybe even a few days. Knowing that I had several chances, and that I was willing to accept an almost outcome allowed me to get quite close to a good cover, and I got done much quicker.
I have now been applying the iteration mind-set to my current writing projects, and I have noticed its much easier to get through the process of revising knowing I can always have more drafts to fix what I am unable to fix right now, and I move right along to the next section.
What project are you procrastinating on right now that you can bring the magic of iteration to?
Update: I have updated this cover again - in March 2016, and I am now really happy with it. I guess that just proves the advice above - keep tinkering and keep taking action.