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Overcoming ADHD Perfectionism Paralysis Part I: Writing

Does perfectionism hold you back, too?

As you may know, I like to do semi-regular one-question quizzes about how to handle a specific ADHD challenge. Recently, I posed the question, “What is your single favorite strategy for conquering perfectionism paralysis?” The results of the quiz weren’t like the results I normally receive, and they shed some important light on this very challenging issue.

The Results

When doing these quizzes, I usually receive a multitude of action-oriented responses that are super helpful and can be shared in the article. While there were some responses like that to this quiz, the two most common themes that showed up in the results were:

  • I don’t know/I don’t have a strategy

  • I just force myself to do it

These themes are interesting for two reasons. First, they tell me that most people haven’t found an effective way to overcome their perfectionism paralysis and that there is still a significant need in our community to learn how to mitigate it. And second, they show that people are confusing sheer willpower with strategies or tools, which usually makes the problem worse instead of better.

The data highlighted another important aspect as well – most people link their perfectionism paralysis specifically to writing, which is easy to understand. Writing requires us to put our scattered and sometimes off-the-wall thoughts into coherent, linear sentences that make sense to other people. But it’s important to recognize that writing is not the only task vulnerable to perfectionism paralysis.

Since writing was such a big theme in these quiz results, I’m going to focus on writing for Part I of this article and will focus on other areas for Part II.

Perfectionism Paralysis & Writing

It’s no surprise that perfectionism paralysis shows up in a major way when we have to put our thoughts down on paper. Figuring out exactly what we’re thinking and how to communicate it can be challenging for anyone, but more so when we add ADHD into the mix. People with ADHD oftentimes think in more abstract, out-of-the box, nonlinear ways…so figuring out how to communicate in a structured, linear format can feel nearly impossible! Just because a task feels difficult doesn’t automatically mean perfectionism paralysis will kick in. The problem emerges when our need to get it just right (i.e., perfect) overpowers our ability to get it done.

Perfectionism paralysis manifests in several different ways, and can look like:

  • Never getting around to starting

  • Having an idea, but never putting it down on paper

  • Always making notes, but never turning your notes into a final product

  • Being stuck on one word, sentence, or paragraph

  • Going through round after round after round of revisions

  • Starting a project but never finishing it

  • Finishing a project but never sending it

In each of these instances, it isn’t the level of skill, knowledge, or intelligence that is the barrier to success. It is the overpowering need to get it ‘perfect’ that blocks the completion, or even the start, of a task.

When perfectionism paralysis sets in, we often only see the full scope of what we’re trying to do. Whether we’re trying to write a book, build a résumé, or even respond to a difficult email, we tend to look at it as one big mountain to scale. But if we make some minor adjustments to our process, we can break the project into manageable, bite-sized pieces. Here are some of my favorite tips, many of them inspired by responses to the quiz, to help you learn to overcome your perfectionism paralysis while writing:

Start with Clarity

  • Sometimes you can spend a lot of time stuck on writing – finding the best word or rewriting the same paragraph – because you are not really clear on your message. Many people with ADHD will jump into writing without pausing to think about what they need to communicate first. Try starting with a brainstorming session to gain a clear idea of what you are trying to say before putting words down.

  • Draft a little plan before writing: a structure, outline, list, or subheadings can help.

  • Develop psychological distance – What would you say if you had to explain what you are trying to communicate to a friend or even a stranger?

Chunk Your Time

  • When sitting down to a writing session, set an interval timer – one that buzzes or beeps every 10-15 minutes. When the timer goes, ask yourself: Do I need to move on?

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes and challenge yourself to see how many words you can write during that time.

Take a Break

  • Stop whatever you are doing and take an intentional 30-second break. Pay attention to your breath, get some water or a snack, shut your eyes for a moment. These activities help re-boot the brain so you can tackle your task. Physical movement can also help get the brain moving. Try chewing gum, running in place, taking a short walk around, doing some jumping jacks, stretching…

  • When you feel stuck, finding yourself on the same word, sentence, or paragraph, highlight where you are, make a couple of notes, and then move on. Go back later when your brain will have a new perspective.

Make a Change

  • Change locations while writing: go to a co-working space, coffee shop, or your local library. Other people around can help to keep you from being stuck.

  • Stand up while writing.

  • Change the font or color of font that you are using.

Permit Yourself to Be Imperfect

  • Perfectionism is often accompanied by feelings of frustration. If you can catch yourself feeling frustrated or tense, try a stress releasing activity. Do a quick mindfulness practice or simply focus on your breath for a couple of minutes.

  • Try doing a crappy job. Getting something done is often more beneficial than getting nothing done. If you do a crappy job, you often free up enough time and energy to go back to revise later. Many times, what feels like a crappy job in the moment, turns out to be pretty good work when re-read later.

  • Practice patience and loving-kindness for yourself, acknowledging that you are in a state of learning rather than in a state of mastery.

Use Technology to Help You

  • Use speech-to-text software if it’s easier to speak your thoughts than write them.

Hire a Professional

  • Hire an editor so you do not feel like you have to perfect your writing.

Some of these tips will be easier for you to implement than others – that’s normal. Sometimes it might take testing out 4 or 5 of them before you find ones that work best for you – again, that’s normal. Tricks to overcoming perfectionism paralysis don’t need to be sophisticated. Oftentimes, the littlest changes or the shortest breaks can give your brain the mental boost it needs to break through the barrier and let go of the fear of not being perfect. The next time you find yourself stuck in perfectionism-paralysis mode while trying to write, give a couple of tactics a try and see how they work for you!

And be sure to check out Part II of the article, where we talk about perfectionism paralysis in other areas of our life.

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