How to Beat Perfectionism & Finish What You Start

How to Beat Perfectionism & Finish What You Start

“Look around you, the evidence is everywhere: People don’t finish. They begin ambitious projects with the best of intentions, but then they get stuck in a mire of insecurity and doubt and hairsplitting… and they stop. So if you can just complete something—merely complete it!—you’re already miles ahead of the pack.”

I love this quote from Liz Gilbert.

It sums up so much of my own experience in filmmaking (and other creative endeavors). And I've seen those same behaviors in countless other filmmakers since I've started this site.

So let me ask you some tough questions... and be honest here.

  • Do you find yourself constantly waiting for the perfect circumstances or resources before you embark on a project?

  • Have you ever spent months, even years, trying to get every last line in your script to be perfect?

  • Do your films tend to stall out in pre-production because you can't find the perfect location? Or you can't raise the amount of money you need to perfectly craft your vision?

  • Do you find yourself shooting 27 takes of some scene when everyone knows you got it on the 5th take?

  • Do you spend weeks at a time cutting and recutting the same scene over and over, somehow making everything worse in the process?

If any of this sounds familiar, you my friend might have a gnarly case of perfectionism.

And trust me, those tendencies aren't just delaying your work, they're holding you back in your career.

So that's what we're tackling in this episode of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast. We're going to explore why perfectionism is not a good thing, and how we can systematically beat it.

The episode features snippets of my conversations with Chris Sakr of ShoHawk, Noam Kroll, and Zack Arnold from Optimize Yourself.

You can also listen and subscribe through iTunes, Stitcher, PocketCasts, Radio Public, Spotify, and the Google Play Store.

If you enjoy today's show, it would mean the world to me if you'd leave a rating and review on iTunes. That's the best way to support this small indie show and to help new filmmakers find it!


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Practical Takeaways From Today's Episode

Wait, perfectionism is a bad thing?

So I can already hear you asking, "why is perfectionism such a bad thing?"

After all, I'm sure you've heard countless stories about folks like Kubrick and Fincher and Tarkovsky being perfectionists. So why shouldn't you be one?

Well for starters, it might help to define perfectionism.

In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by “a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”

In other words, to a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable, and if they can't meet those impossible standards, they beat themselves up about it. Plus, they worry incessantly about how others will judge them for their imperfect work, adding an extra layer of anxiety into the mix.

By that definition, those famous filmmakers don't really fall into the category of perfectionism. They might have insanely high standards, and go to great lengths to impose those standards on their projects, but at the end of the day, they ship and hit their deadlines. They put their work out into the world, perfection be damned.

And that's a super important distinction to make. High standards are necessary for filmmakers who want to get ahead. As a general rule of thumb, you can't get noticed in this world with subpar content.

But realize that the line between high standards and perfectionism is extraordinarily thin. And if you're not careful, high standards can very easily morph into perfectionist behavior rather quickly.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. We'll get back to how to spot and stop perfectionism later, but for now, let's take a step back and talk about the havoc perfectionism can wreak in your projects and career.

Why perfectionism is so detrimental to filmmakers

Here are some of the core issues that perfectionism can cause for filmmakers (and creatives of all types).

  1. For starters, being a perfectionist often leads to hardcore procrastination. And procrastination, if it's allowed to continue unabated, will ultimately prevent us from doing the work that needs to get done. And to take it one step further, if the work doesn't get done, a productive fulfilling career, and life, can't be built.

  2. Perfectionism causes us to waste time that could be much better spent. Perfectionist tendencies will push us well beyond the point of diminishing returns. We spend inordinate amounts of time on small details that ultimately no one besides us will care about. Don't get me wrong, living up to your standards isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when you're creating work that's meant to be consumed by an audience, it's wise to spend as much of your time as possible doing work that will maximize their enjoyment of your project. In that sense, indulging in nitpicky obsessive perfectionism isn't just a waste of time, it's selfish.

  3. Perfectionism undermines your ability to collaborate with other people. When you have excessively high (or impossible) standards, you don't just try to hold yourself to those standards. You try to hold the people you work with to them as well. And not surprisingly, this causes a ton of conflict within collaborative relationships. If you're too much of a perfectionist, you'll eventually find that people won't want to collaborate with you anymore.

  4. When we allow our inner perfectionist to run the show, we end up unhappy and never satisfied with the work we've done. And that's tragic, because filmmaking should be fun and interesting and fulfilling, even when the outcome isn't the best. By allowing the perfectionist in your head to win, you're taking the joy out of the process, not only for yourself, but for the people you work with.

So that, in a nutshell, is why we must be aware of when we start seeing and feeling perfectionism crop up in ourselves. If we're not careful, it can run the show and have some pretty unfortunate consequences.

How to spot perfectionist behavior in yourself

Alright, now that we understand why perfectionism is such a bad thing, let's starting doing something about it. But before we can get into solutions, we've gotta figure out if we're dealing with perfectionism or not.

Because remember, it's not always readily apparent that you're a perfectionist. You can have high standards, but not be a perfectionist. That line is thin.

So here are some behaviors that will help you make that distinction. If you recognize any of these in yourself, it's a surefire sign that you've got a gnarly case of perfectionism that's holding you back.

Waiting for perfection

The first telltale sign is is that you never officially start projects because you're waiting for the perfect resources or circumstances.

You're waiting for the right idea, the right collaborators, the right equipment, the right location, the right amount of funding, the right cast, or any number of other factors to come together perfectly.

This behavior tends to stem from a belief that if we can't make it perfect, it's not worth making. And that belief generally stems from a fear of being judged and criticized. So go back and listen to the episode on fear again for help in dealing with that.

Also, before we move on, it's worth noting that perfect resources and circumstances don't exist. They're a myth conjured by your mind to stop you from doing difficult, uncomfortable, uncertain work. Even the highest budget projects run into obstacle after obstacle, and imperfect circumstance after imperfect circumstance.

Thinking in "all or nothing" terms

Another sign that you might be a perfectionist is that you think in "all or nothing" terms.

This is when you start telling yourself the project you're working on HAS to be successful in some big concrete way, or else it's a total failure. When there's no middle ground between those two extremes, that's "all or nothing" thinking.

When you start thinking like this, it's easy to get into some perfectionist thought patterns and behaviors because it feels like everything in your life—your identity, your financial success, the respect of your friends, your status in society—is riding on the project being perfect.

When a project produces thoughts and feelings like this, it's a pretty clear cut sign that perfectionism is on its way.

Procrastinating and missing deadlines

Perhaps the most obvious sign of perfectionism is when you find consistently procrastinating and missing deadlines.

This is especially true for the people who've been working on the same script or who have been in post on the same feature for 5 straight years. Oftentimes, this is just another symptom of thinking in "all or nothing" terms.

You're never satisfied with the work of your collaborators

Another sign that you're a perfectionist, is when the work of your peers and collaborators never satisfies you. You find yourself delegating less, criticizing more, and taking on a bigger and bigger workload because you don't think anyone else can get it right.

Needless to say, not only is this a terrible move for your sanity and mental health, but it's perhaps one of the best ways to alienate the people on your team and lose collaborative friendships.

Trustworthy people tell you your work is good, but you don't believe it

Lastly, one of the most telltale signs that you've got a gnarly case of perfectionism is when other people think your work is good, but you constantly beat yourself up over how bad you think it is.

Don't get me wrong, your family and friends will almost always tell you your work is good because they're trying to be nice, but if other filmmakers are telling you it's good, but you're still beating yourself up about it, chances are you're a perfectionist.

Tips for overcoming perfectionism

Alright, now that we've covered how to spot perfectionist behavior and thought patterns in yourself, it's time to talk solutions.

The first thing you need to understand about perfectionism is that it's almost always rooted in fear.

It stems from fear of failure, fear of criticism, and fear that your best work isn't good enough.

And if you remember back to the episode on fear, our brains are hardwired for this stuff. It's a survival mechanism that's baked into us at birth.

And for that reason, perfectionism is something you'll have to consistently fight, especially if you have high standards for yourself and your work, and particularly when you're working on high stakes projects where you deeply care about the outcome.

My first tip here is to find the fears that underlie your perfectionist behavior, and use the tools we talked about last episode to combat those fears. Oftentimes, just confronting those fears head on is enough to put an end to perfectionism behaviors.

But if you confront those fears and you still find perfectionist behaviors popping up, I've got a few more tips for you.

1. Give up the "all or nothing" mindset.

Whatever you're working on right now, or hoping to work on next, make it as good as you can within reason. But don't let your entire identity get tied up in the finished product, and don't trick yourself into thinking that it has to be successful, or even good.

Being a successful filmmaker, and making a great career out of it, requires playing the long game, and that means focusing on an entire body of work, not a single project.

2. Actually embrace failure and criticism instead of running from it.

Don't just make yourself less afraid of these things, but actively change your beliefs about their value. Because failing and trying again and again is the only path to becoming truly great at your work. Realize that lots and lots of failure is what it takes to become truly world class at something.

3. Set ambitious deadlines (with consequences if you miss them)

Deadlines are your friend. Especially ones that come sooner than you're comfortable with, and that have legit consequences if you don't meet the deadline.

This is applicable no matter what you're working on. Whether it's a script, a shot list, a certain take or scene during production, or everything in post.

Anything where you feel your perfectionism tendencies starting to crop up should be constrained with a deadline.

I don't know what it is, but deadlines can not only motivate you, but they cause your brain to go into overdrive to solve problems and create efficient solutions.

There's an underlying idea here that you might already be familiar with, but it's really what makes deadlines work so well. It's called Parkinon's Law.

Work expands so as to fill the amount of time you give it.
— Parkinson's Law

For instance, if you give yourself 2 weeks to complete an edit, it will take two weeks. If you give yourself 24 hours, you will find a way to get it done in 24 hours.

If you give yourself a year to write your first feature script, it will take a year. But if you challenge yourself to do it in a month, it'll take a month.

Again, I don't know why this works so well, but it does. Real deadlines will motivate you like nothing else, and they'll generally help you solve problems faster. It's like putting your brain on overdrive and tapping into its full power.

And that brings me to my last tip regarding deadlines.

Make sure to give yourself deadlines that have consequences. Real consequences that you'd much rather avoid.

Maybe you put money on the line with a friend. Maybe you announce the deadline to the world on social media. Or maybe someone is counting on you to finish on a certain date, and you don't want to let that person down. There are a lot of ways to conjure consequences for missing your deadlines, and it's important that you do so if you want to hit them.

This is something I learned the hard way during the making of this show. I set one incredibly ambitious deadline, and missed it, so I set another. The only problem is that all my deadlines were arbitrary, and nothing bad happened when I missed them. Except feeling like a failure and beating myself up, but that's a story for another episode.

So to sum this all up, if you struggle with perfectionism, you must set deadlines. Your deadlines should come sooner than you're comfortable with, and

4. Show up every single day

My last tip is one that we're going to talk quite a bit more about in the next episode. And it's the idea of showing up every single day, doing your most important work, no matter how you feel, no matter what's going on in your life.

It's an idea at the core of a philosophy that author Steven Pressfield calls Turning Pro. In my life, (and with the filmmakers I've coached), this has been the single practice that's helped them overcome fear and procrastination and perfectionism and confidence issues, as well as rewiring their beliefs. Yeah, it's that powerful, which is why it gets its own full episode.

But for now, if you find yourself being a perfectionist in any way, arm yourself with those mindsets we talked about earlier, set yourself up with a real deadline, and spend at least 20-30 minutes every day (though ideally more) working on the most important tasks for that project.

If you can do that, and you show up every single day, you'll be able to tame the inner perfectionist, and finish project after project, and ultimately build an incredible body of work that creates opportunities in your career.

Book: The War of Art - Steven Pressfield

This book is a classic amongst artists and entrepreneurs for a reason. It’ll help you defeat the forces that prevent you from doing your best creative work once and for all. Fear and perfectionism are definitely conquerable with the advice in this book.

Book: Do The Work - Steven Pressfield

This is one of the followups to The War of Art, and it's focused on getting you through your next big creative projects. It's quite practical and encouraging, and it's meant to get you to the finish line, which is exactly what most perfectionists need.

Book: Big Magic - Elizabeth Gilbert

Getting your work out into the world consistently is one of the core tenets of Big Magic. If you're a creative and haven't read this one yet, get on it. 

Book: Uncertainty - Jonathan Fields

Oftentimes we're perfectionists because we're deeply uncertain about the outcomes of our work. There's never true certainty in this business, though, and the best filmmakers learn to live and thrive in the face of that uncertainty, without it stopping them from doing their work.

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

Are you ready to take your film career to the next level?