Are you an academic? Do you struggle to progress when you have to work on a conference paper, article, book chapter, or dissertation? Do you find yourself researching and researching and never writing anything? Do you take your manuscript through revision after revision, resulting in little change?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be procrastinating, and there’s a reason for this. You likely encountered the Dragon of Academic Perfectionism. Most of the academic writers I know are not lazy or unmotivated when they miss deadlines. They’re missing their deadlines because they have fallen victim to perfectionism.
ACADEMICS ARE OFTEN PERFECTIONISTS BY NATURE
It makes sense that many academics are perfectionists. By nature, we are thoughtful and enjoy exploring a vast number of possibilities. We are curious researchers and analytical readers, used to asking the smart questions. These qualities are great for academics, but too much of them can get us into trouble. When we turn that intellectual energy upon ourselves, perfectionism may spring upon us. We may try to conjure up the perfect research question. Or go on a quest for the one theoretical framework that will help us create the perfect outline.
For instance, when I sat down to write this blog post, I too struggled with procrastination. The more I struggled, the more I became frustrated with myself. Why? I talk about this with people in The Academic Writing Space all the time! I know my stuff! So why was I once again meeting this dragon I thought I’d long since tamed?
In my case, it was because so many people have written about perfectionism, and I wasn’t sure what to add. A quick google search shows thousands of articles on the Internet. There are articles, books, TedTalks on the subject. So what on earth could I say that would be unique or different? What did I have to say that would contribute to the conversation?
PERFECTIONISM, ESPECIALLY IN ACADEMIA, IS ABOUT SELF PROTECTION
As I thought about what was happening to me, I realized that my protectionism was trying to protect me. I was doing what many academic writers do when we’re in a tangle with The Dragon. I wanted to rewrite the same five sentences over and over before moving on to the next paragraph. I wanted to find that perfect example that would help me structure this post.
And why did I do this? Why do we do this? If we produce the magical piece of writing that will be all things to all people, will we be above reproach? Will we have the key to the perfect study, the perfect paper, the perfect dissertation chapter? Then what? Will no one say anything negative about our work? Is any work of the mind or body one hundred percent untouchable? Are we insisting we meet standards that are honestly impossible to meet? If so, then why are we doing this?
It’s because if we stay a victim of The Dragon, we never have to expose ourselves to criticism or censure. If we chase the elusive goal of perfectionism, we can linger forever in the land of the unfinished. We can stay where it seems safe (but where real work doesn’t get done).
BECOMING VULNERABLE ACTUALLY LEADS TO SUCCESS
So, rather than gearing up to have an all out fight with perfectionism, we need a better approach. We need to recognize how perfectionism is the armor we’ve put on to protect ourselves. We need to identify the ways in which we stall, trying to be perfect. We may even need to figure out who our dragons are. Who are our dragons? What do they want? An impossible goal we chase? A mindset we’re battling? What is it we are protecting ourselves from experiencing?
Yes, stepping out of that armor requires you to be vulnerable. Yes, most likely, you won’t be able to avoid being at least a little bit hurt. But in producing that very flawed draft, you prepare for a better one. In exposing that better draft for review, you can prepare it to reveal to the world. And in taking that final step to reveal it, you prepare the way for a fiercer, larger, more powerful dragon. The Dragon of Academic Success.
THE ACADEMIC WRITERS’ SPACE
If you want to learn more about taming perfectionism and developing a sustainable writing practice, please visit The Academic Writers’ Space (TAWS). We are a coworking community for graduate students and academic professionals. We are a safe and compassionate community where you will learn to work in a way that is self-honoring. At TAWS, we help you make tangible progress on a daily basis. We offer 21 writing retreats and 2 planning sessions each week. We offer a 1-Week Free Trial so you can see if our community will make a difference for you.