Wednesday, January 18, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 18: Let Go of Being Perfect and JUST WRITE

I feel like I've been friends with Heather Conroy from Australia all my life, but I've only known her on the net. We've both had dreams that we've met. Perhaps we will one day. I WILL get myself to Australia—too many beautiful places and people to see there! Heather is top on my list! Here she is to talk about the Pareto principle ( In case you are wondering what that is, I didn't know either, but now find it a fascinating concept!):

I’ve always found writing hard. It’s not news that writers face a lot of obstacles. What I found surprising when I really started to write a few years ago is that I am my biggest obstacle. Which is why I am delighted to report that I have tackled and conquered a very self destructive and difficult writing issue in 2011. I did this by drawing on principles pioneered early last century by an Italian economist.

To get over myself and just write I have tried a number of strategies. I’ve tried writing every day to limber up. I’ve tried just showing up and assuming the position with hands on the keyboard in the hope that something will happen. I’ve also set a timer and tried to free-write for 20 minute bursts. This is supposed to trick your brain. Sometimes I’d write on a white computer screen in white font, so I couldn’t see what I was writing (also brain trickery). I admit it was therapeutic and fun to write about my state of mind as I sat frozen and unable to write. In fact, I found it possible to join these snippets together and shape them into something resembling writing. Many of these patch-worked paragraphs now appear on my blog. There was also a lot of sighing, and getting up for a coffee and never coming back. One strategy I tried revealed my biggest obstacle to writing in all its glory. Let me explain.

I don’t remember who, but some kind, well meaning, and helpful person suggested at some point that I write a letter to the wisest person I know to very briefly state my issue. I suspect that the goal of this was clarity, and that they secretly hoped that I would discover that I am the wisest person I know. The only problem was that I felt overwhelmed by too many options and I was stuck before I started the letter.

For instance His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people sprang instantly to mind. I suppose it was something about his understanding of the universal human want to avoid suffering and to be supremely happy that I hooked into. To be honest, I wasn’t happy that the Dalai Lama lacked direct experience with my type of problem. What I needed was an expert. I ran through the skills and abilities that this person must possess to earn my letter (and yes, I’m not making this up). On and on I went through all my options. Figuratively, I drew up a pros and cons list for each potential candidate. A nagging thought as I pondered each one’s merits and then rejected them was that there must be someone wiser, someone more appropriate….And there it is in a nutshell. My issue. The one where I am on a quest for perfection, for daily I deal with a huge amount of information and my quest is to find the very right piece of research to support my claims. This sea of literature is vast and I am but one tiny navigating sailor. The thought that there is always something better ahead is a real breeze stopper and I am left bobbing around, suspended, dwelling in the future, thinking about its completion, where it’s going and watching and waiting and polishing up my sentences. All this runs counter to what needs to be done which is to just work smart with what I have right now. And then ship it.

So it is right about the last week of January 2011 that I stumble on something that gets me sailing again. It is erroneously referred to as the Pareto principle because in its purest form it is a mathematical formula created in 1906 by an Italian economist who used it to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in a country where twenty percent of people own 80 percent of the wealth. Since the 1940s it has changed and morphed into the 80/20 rule and became a universal principle that acknowledges that 20 percent of effort is always responsible for 80 percent of the results.

I translate it to my writing by working out how many hours I expect it will take me to complete a particular project. For example a thesis chapter might take me 100 hours to complete. I then apply the 80/20 rule where 80% of the quality of this chapter is achieved with 20% of the effort. The other 20% of the quality is hard won (think sailing, rough seas, storms, navigating off course) and requires 80% of the effort. So I give myself 20 hours of focused effort and I then ship my chapter off to my supervisor. What surprises me is that it comes back to me swiftly with minimal changes required. I have used 20% of my energy and time to produce something that is good enough. The other 80 hours of time and energy that would take my good enough chapter to perfection I then use to ship off another piece of writing.

What I have learned to do this year is to just quieten the chatter that tells me that what I produce must be perfect. That voice is carried away by the strong winds that fill my sails and move me forward. I have shipped many pieces of writing this year with this guiding principle. I call it Pareto efficiency because efficiency refers to the ability to accomplish a task with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.

As Anne Lamott writes of perfectionism: “ It is a mean, frozen form of idealism…” and I am persevering in my efforts to get over it by leaving a recirculating flow immediately behind my moving boat.

Heather Conroy lives in Perth, Australia with her family. She is about to complete a combined Masters/PhD in Clinical Psychology from Murdoch University. She is a writer over on my other blog called Writers Rising, a collaborative blog I created from writers a few years ago. (Unfortunately, I have neglected that blog a bit, but always feel inspired when I visit. I hope to puff wind back into its sails this year with a batch of new writers and more frequent posts!) I have greatly enjoyed all my interactions with Heather and can't wait to meet her someday!


  1. One day Katherine! We will catch up and talk of ALL manner of things and enjoy ourselves immensely. I am SO looking forward to having your book in my hands and thank you for sharing my writing here xx

  2. Yes, one day Heather! So nice to see your post here! Thanks for participating in 31 Writers, 31 Lessons!

  3. Absolutely love this post and I can relate. Wonderful advice!Thank you!

  4. Thanks Maria-Good luck with your writing!