The Distracted Perfectionist

For the last two days, I’ve been writing about creativity as a daily practice. The first day was about the importance of a daily practice and the second was about setting a priority of daily practice–the possibility of choosing to do your daily practice rather than something else. What I focused on was housework.

The lure of housework is not obvious. It’s a good thing to have a clean house. But when we use chores (and it can be gardening, errands or other not-doing-creative-work), we diminish the time spent creatively.

clock and calendarThere is another, far worse, way to ruin a daily practice. It’s the very computers we use to do a lot of creating. Once you are writing, drawing, creating on your computer, you are one click away from choosing a more interesting diversion. Playing computer games. Shopping online. And if you are a perfectionist, you can pretend it’s a virtue.

Playing games is a “needed distraction,” shopping is “faster than going to the store.” True, but it also is “not getting creative work done.” Computer games are addictive. After all, I have a post on advancing through levels in Zuma. I thought it was a mindless distraction, until I got stuck in level 12. Last night, I spent two obsessive hours trying to beat a computer game instead of something creative.

I felt slightly dizzy and guilty. I love creative work and wanted to do it, but I grabbed at a distraction and lost the time. Sure, I can say a little distraction is good. Yes, I can enjoy a little mindless fun. But when mindless fun begins to eat into creative time, when your creativity isn’t getting fed, when what I choose to do isn’t helping my daily practice, I have to consider what I’m doing.

And I think what I’m doing is letting myself get hooked into playing Zuma or online distractions. In fact, if I’m really honest, and I add up the hours I’ve spent doing both the past week, it’s a big number. It’s big enough to make me think about addiction. That’s a scary word, but if I spent as much time drinking as I did playing Zuma or engaging in online distractions, I’d be a serious drunk.

As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve told myself I need some downtime to regenerate and playing is good for me. As a creative person, I know I’m wasting time to avoid solving a creative wall I’ve hit.

It’s hard to look at our down time without rationalization, but it’s a good exercise. Perfectionists, particularly, want to be good at everything. It’s easy for me to say that playing Zuma is a way to get good at something I have little experience with–computer games. It took me a while to recognize the rationalization–similar to “I need to be informed about pop culture, so I’m reading People and Us this week, and watching reality shows on TV.” It’s the same kind of resistance to overcoming a creative block by reaching for drivel. It doesn’t help but it fills time so I don’t have to think.

This week, no Zuma. Just to see how much I miss it. Because I’ve rationalized that it teaches me something (hand/eye coordination) and even I recognize that as crap.

What’s your favorite distraction? How much time is it eating out of your daily creative practice? I don’t think I’m the only one to use online distractions as a hiding place. See what’ s holding you back. Put it down and see what happens.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and creativity coach. See her work at  Image of building with clock and calendar: Alfred Molon, 2005.  (c) 2007 All rights reserved.

17 thoughts on “The Distracted Perfectionist

  1. I was searching back about ‘wasting your time’ after reading your comment to Annie. First up I was surprised at how long I’ve been reading your blog, second, how long you have been blogging.

    When I read this post, as a recovering perfectionist myself, I couldn’t help thinking that if I used my creativity and intellect productively instead of to make up excuses as to why I wasn’t doing this, that ot the other, I’d achieve every goal I cared to make . . . and then some that I haven’t dreamed yet.

    No utterly mindless Mahjong Connect or TV for me for the next week! I’m going to be mindful instead.

  2. Robyn–well, that’s a good idea. An Alzheimer’s patient needs to keep good hand-eye coordination, good reaction time and some memory (‘I’m getting better at this game, I’m remembering more rules. . .) But I don’t have that excuse!

  3. Quinn, when I took my mum to the doctor during the early stages of Alzheimers, the doctor said she should play computer games to help keep her mind sharp……if thats any consolation.

  4. TiVo and Netflix are great solutions, but I got hooked on Zuma, and the thing that hooked me was, “can I get to the next level?” which, of course, is all the challenge a recovering perfectionist needs. Sigh. That, and avoiding that creative challenge I’m avoiding.

  5. It’s the addictive quality of computer games, television shows, etc that seem to get to us perfectionist types–oh ok, one more game and if I win this one I’ll go ahead and go to sleep, or oh, crap, this show looks interesting, so maybe I will stay awake and watch it..

    I’ve switched to TIVO and Netflix. I have to choose to record something to watch it and choose something to watch and then wait to have it shipped. So the rest of the time the TV is off and I go clean up my room and start something new. I’ve stopped taking the Palm with it’s solitaire into the bedroom and leave it with the purse where it belongs.

    Just like you said–choose what you really want to be doing! (or need to be doing!)

  6. Robyn–You sound like you have the exact discipline it takes to get to creative work. So many people think “you lucky artist. . .you get to have fun all day. But a daily practice requires a lot of making yourself get down to creativity.

    Pete- Games are real time sucks. Fun, colorful, rewarding–but at the end of the day, you don’t have anything to show for it.

  7. Pingback: Daily Practice, Part II « QuinnCreative

  8. I have the most trouble wasting time on games that seem designed to reward me just a little and have no point at which anybody wins. Tetris, for example. If I win or lose I can stop, but if the game just goes on and on, so do I. “The only way to win is not to play.”

    Computers themselves are like this, too, (he typed on his computer…)

  9. Exactly what I have been struggling with Quinn. Yesterday I dragged myself away from the computer and forced myself to create….”or else!” and that action has me set for today. Half an hour reading emails and blogs, then back to work.

  10. Eva Maria–artists take vacations like other people–if and when they can afford them. A change of scenery is always good, but my worry about playing computer games is the same as yours–it’s time lost and has an addictive element. Yes, it’s fun, but it doesn’t really help you relax and it’s a time drain.

  11. The Europeans are very big on making sure that the worker gets plenty of vacation time, 4 weeks per year or more. The idea is that time away from work, recharging one’s batteries, relaxing or just a change of environment are good and healthy. It will contribute to a happier, healthier and more productive employee. In this spirit, I think that all of you creative people do need time away from your labors, time to recharge, time to relax and allow yourself to be inspired, perhaps even during housework or gardening. Do you, artists, take vacation time? Perhaps a computer game is not ideal because it can be so intense, but I think a change of task may not be totally counter-productive.
    (Personally, I stopped playing computer games because of the time lost as well as the addictive element.)

  12. In the middle of writing, art,etc., I get antsy and flip to my favorite site where I can play as many Srabble games as I want at one time — yes, I played 10 games of Scrabble last night when I had promised to sort out my studio. Distraction is so alluring and so addictive. “Just one more game” or “just 15 minutes more.” Then I become aware of time and realize I’ve been playing for 2 hours. It is such a great distracter, I find myself turning to the internet when I should be seeking in the outside community. The internet has taken over my life and I really don’t want to give up this pleasure. I KNOW I should turn it off, but I don’t WANT to. I need to start opening that motivation jar and grabbing a few creativity cookies before it really is too late, and I become a full-fledged Internet Junkie.

  13. And, of course, sometimes we find ways to keep ourselves from creating because we’re afraid that we won’t be able to create or — and as another recovering perfectionist, this one resonates — because we’re afraid that whatever we create won’t be good enough.


  14. I think you’ve already named all my major distractions, so I’ll just comment on what I think is the most important and revealing sentence in this post: “…it fills the time so I don’t have to think”. “Mindless” is certainly the word to use, and what is scary is how we use any addiction to create and maintain that mindlessness.

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