After I left clinical practice, I landed a position as medical director at a communications company. I was hired to oversee the medical accuracy of the training materials that the company designed. Occasionally I was asked to take over when a writer quit, became ill, or had multiple deadlines at once. A team of editors was there to help me. I found that I loved writing. After a few years, I took the plunge and became a freelancer.
Without the support of a team, writer’s block became my constant companion. I would stare at the page, baffled and overwhelmed. I’d write one sentence and delete it. Over and over and over again.
The stress would escalate as I saw a deadline approach, knowing I had to meet it if I wanted to retain my client and pay the mortgage. Also, I believed that I had to create perfect copy. Perfectionism paralyzed me, amped up my stress, and made me irritable at home. Eventually I’d pull together a draft, but it was painful and exhausting.
Perfection is a trap.
Yet ask a physician about perfectionism, and they immediately point out that medicine is different. Like nuclear energy, aviation, and other high-risk industries, lives are at stake. Being detail-aware, conscientious, and quality-oriented is required to get through the hoops inherent in pre-med studies and training. Plus, who wants a doctor who doesn’t scrutinize for nuances in signs and symptoms, lab results, and imaging?
How can we capture the benefits of the perfectionism trait but lose the negative consequences? I’ve learned through writing and coaching that awareness and specific tools can help.
I still face writer’s block every time I sit down to work on a new project, even after 20 plus years as a freelancer. Recognizing that hyper-attention to detail does not help in this situation is the first step. Next, I pull out a tool to quiet the perfectionist.
When I create a file to start a new project, whether it’s a blog post, article, or opinion piece, I name it “thoughts thrown down on paper” or “extremely rough messy draft.” The name reminds me that perfectionism doesn’t help here. It belongs at the editing stage, not at the first draft. Part of the creative process is attempts that end in blind alleys.
By letting myself have the freedom to make some mistakes, I discover gems, “wrong” words or turns of phrase that are even better than the grammatically correct version. But most importantly, this tool allows me to take my foot off the brake. I get to begin.
In the clinical realm, it is trickier. The goal is to keep the focus on the important nuances yet be mindful of where focusing on clinically irrelevant details or the formatting of notes wastes your time and energy. Awareness is the first step—noticing when that hyper-attention to detail is showing up and asking yourself whether it is needed in this instance. A tool to consider trying is asking yourself, How important is it? Perhaps it is truly important, and you’ll spend time there. Perhaps it’s not, and you’ll save shave a few minutes off your workday.
This tool also helps when the perfectionist mindset comes home with you. When your spouse buys the wrong type of milk or your teenager receives a less than a 4.0 report card, asking yourself How important is it? may quiet the perfectionist and nurture a relationship instead.
What would be different for you if were able to quiet the perfectionist?