Whether you're a scientist, writer, Youtuber or build a following on Twitter you have to hit publish.
People starting out, myself included, usually have an aspiration to perfection. Craft the perfect Tweet, draft the perfect Journal Paper. Go viral, get cited 10,000 times. You know the drill.
So we sign up for courses, read blog posts, buy books, watch videos of people who explain how to perfect our writing. What is the most compelling style? How do you draw attention?
The Parable of the Entrepreneur Class
I heard this story of an Entrepreneur teacher. He said there are two types of people that take his class. There are the people who come to one of his classes and then go on and build a business. Then there are those that keep buying class after class.
Trust me I'd know. I have hundreds of Udemy courses I never touched and am now enrolled for the third Youtube course with an impressively small throughput of videos.
I truly suffer from the aspiration of perfection and every day I work to overcome it.
You may have noticed because neither my blog posts, nor my videos, nor my scientific papers, and not even my book chapter are even close to perfection.
So how do you overcome the aspiration of perfection?
You focus on deadlines.
Work to publish not to perfection.
Set up processes that use leverage against perfection.
In my case, this is a Beeminder goal that charges money if I don't publish on time.
A PhD that requires you to publish is also magnificent at getting you to produce and send off papers. Also, the reason why I have many more conference papers than journal papers. Deadlines.
You can't infinitely obsess over perfection when there's an actual deadline.
You may think
I tried deadlines they don't work
I agree. I tried personal deadlines many times in life.
Especially in university, I thought "oh you have to do X by Y". It's the responsible thing. I didn't do it though.
The only consequence of fake deadlines is self-loathing and most people are already great at that.
That means you have to set up processes and systems that will cause real consequences. Here are some possibilities:
- Use Beeminder charge you if you don't Do The Thing™
- Find an accountability buddy you have regular meetings with
- Build in public. Nothing like the pressure of people getting excited about the thing and you having to deliver.
- Sign up for a cohort course, be it online like Ship30for30, Ali Abdaals Part-Time Youtuber Academy, or of course a classic university.
- Set up a Mastermind group.
- Write a commitment contract with a friend that will hold you accountable.
- Get an advance. There's nothing that will get you to write like the looming fear of having to pay back thousands of dollars because you don't write the book.
You get the idea. Real-world consequences that can leverage your psychology, e.g. using loss aversion.
Anything that can be automated should be.
The thing I hated about Evernote and lovelovelove about Notion are templates. I used to hack Evernote to get Templates delivered for regular tasks I do.
Use IFTTT, Zapier, Automate.io to tie your apps together. My Beeminder gets most of the data automatically from my blog and Youtube. You can hook it up to Strava etc. anything that is automated is by design more resilient (and cheating resistant of course!).
I'm not a huge fan of most advice in the Getting Things Done book. It is a book written for a different time. However, anything that takes more than two steps should be a project that you break up into tasks.
Any project that is repeated should be a process that you can repeat and improve.
Any process that can be automated should be.
Think of email for example. Set up general rules to sort your inbox.
Everyone is drowning in email.
But only a few every day are important and actionable. Rules and Filters are essential to focus these emails for you.
Processes and Systems
When I make Youtube videos, I need to complete Four things.
If I set up a hard deadline for Youtube videos that would for example use Beeminder to charge me "if I don't publish on date Y", this sets me up for failure.
Understanding the system of your content creation, or any task for that matter means you can find and tackle failure modes.
Let me take a personal example. I used to have a lot of problems cooking regularly.
That's bad because then I buy expensive and unhealthy take-out instead.
Is the solution to implement a Beeminder goal to have me cook? Maybe.
There is a better solution though. The main blocker to cooking is having cookware and ingredients. That means making sure I plan and buy groceries ahead of time is a priority.
Setting up a process to ensure the pots are cleaned in time for the days I cook is essential.
Understanding the system is essential, as you see, to defuse the situation and streamline the process.
The awareness of distinct processes in the system is often already enough for me to be able to work on the final product. When I have a bit of downtime, I can now clean the slow-cooker and know I am being kind to future Jesper which feels good.
Analysing your systems and focusing on the processes that contribute to you hitting publish is the same exact thing. It will set your focus on perfecting the process rather than obsessing on the final product.
Perfection is often about ego.
This is particularly true in scientific publishing.
The peer-review process of your paper is dreadful. Usually, it's someone that understands less about the subject that shreds it to pieces and requests more work and substantial changes (this is hyperbole by the way).
Scientists often obsess over single sentences in papers for weeks before sending it off to collaborators who already want huge changes. Then it goes to the journal and each reviewer wants substantial changes.
Ego only gets in the way of the process.
Submitting a paper that is good enough to publish is more important than creating the perfect paper.
Mostly, because the perfect paper will get changed significantly. This is in large part, because everyone has an opinion, especially reviewers who are asked to have an opinion.
Everyone has different tastes. My old professor bemoaned the change of the English language to short sentences. I am German, I worked very hard to not write Thomas Mann-style sentences in the English language. I had a reviewer ask that my conclusion on a paper be shortened to one paragraph.
Is it a fight worth fighting when your graduation from the PhD program depends on it? No.
You never want to risk additional rounds of reviews if you could just change the thing.
But ego gets in the way.
You only feed the ego if you indulge in perfectionism. "How dare they question my perfect product".
Finally, a little lifehack:
Every minute you don't spend tweaking the thing, you can build another thing.
Focus on the process and you will naturally perfect the process and build cool products in the meantime.
Unless you're James Jani, then please keep doing what you do, those videos are perfection.