Living with Your Messy Journal

Somewhere in your head is the vision of the perfect journal. Maybe it’s all online, on a beautifully decorated page with changing photographs. Or maybe it’s all written in fountain pen, in a lovely Palmer penmanship. It’s a nice thought, but it’s unlikely. If you are like me, you drag your journal with you and it has sticky spots on the cover, grease spots on the inside pages and some place where the cat (or your) chewed the corner.


“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are, you’ll fall into someone else’s plan and. . .”

Life is messy. Your journal will be, too. Unless you create separate pages and include only those you like, (and whose life is that controlled?), you will have pages that are neater than others. If you use your journal daily, you will write in various pens, include things torn from magazines, and in other ways, create a journal that looks like your life–messy and busy.

"Guess what they have planned for you? Not much."

“Guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”

It’s a much more realistic approach to journaling. There are people who tell me that they are waiting for their lives to “quiet down” before they start coaching. They never get around to it. Coaching, like journaling, takes place in the middle of messes, tears, joy, and confusion. That’s how life is.

If you hate a messy journal, here are three ways to make changes:

1. You can cut out an annoying page, leaving about an inch close to the spine. Then tape another page, one you like better, to the stub, using washi or masking tape. (If you have a sewing machine, you can stitch it in.)

2. You can gesso over the page you don’t like, and re-create it. Now you don’t have to look at the annoying page. You can also use a cream-colored acrylic and let some of the old work peek through. It’s more interesting that way.

3. Tape a piece of vellum over the offending page and write a list of things you would do differently on the vellum. That helps cover the old work and lets you remember what you like and don’t like. (That may change over time).

Or, you can enjoy the journal exactly the way it is, knowing that you are a recovering perfectionist, and your journal is fine the way it is.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who keeps a messy journal. Several of them, in fact.

Perfectionist and Procrastinator, Part 1

Anne is a writer. She hit upon a great idea for an article. It would require a lot of interviews, but the idea was brilliant. She posted a segment of the work on her blog and was contacted in four hours by a publisher. Anne could turn the idea into several spin-offs, so there was a great future ahead.


Changing time won’t change deadline

If you are a perfectionist, you know the next part of the story. Anne missed the first deadline. And the next. And the project is still not complete.

Anne is a perfectionist, too. She does excellent work and doesn’t want to turn in anything less than the best.

If Anne follows the road of perfectionism most writers and artists (and office workers, moms, employees, and supervisors) take, she will start a dozen projects and finish none of them, because they are not “finished.” Or “quite right,” or “done editing.”

She will have another great idea, and start it, and never finish it, either. Over her lifetime, she will start a thousand projects, ideas, articles, books, blogs, and relationships. None of them will end satisfactorily; many of them will never be finished at all.

Perfectionism sounds like something everyone would aspire to, but in real life, it is a pitfall to satisfaction. Perfectionism is the enemy of “good.” Or even “great.”

Don’t confuse “excellent” with “perfect.” Perfectionists are not satisfied with excellent, because there may be an  invisible flaw that someone will find. And expose the perfectionist as a fraud.

And being exposed as a fraud takes the identity from a perfectionist. And the images-1power they hold over others. As long as they don’t hand in the project or complete the work, they hang onto their identity.

Perfectionists are driven by fear of inadequacy–and sooner or later, often sooner, they will fail. Perfectionists fear this failure so much, that they begin to control their lives, their work, their employees, their family and friends in an ever-widening circle of perfectionism. By judging other people severely,  perfectionists point to the flaws of others as a distraction from faults growing in their own lives.

They are never happy, always striving, forever hearing the threat of “fraud,” “unworthy” and “failure.”

Continue reading Part 2 of  Perfectionist and Procrastinator on Sunday, Dec. 22. Discover a common cause of perfectionism and a new perspective. The Inner Critic takes the form of perfectionist to make sure you never are satisfied, and don’t get your creative work completed.

-Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist who helps others open the door to being great, if not perfect. See her work at

Perfectionists: Take That Risk!

Every time you make a decision, you close the door to other choices. It’s a fact of life. If you are a perfectionist, this causes a problem. Did you make the best decision? If it is the best decision for now, how about tomorrow?

For those of us who are recovering perfectionists, I can cheerfully say, “Make a decision. Every one of them comes with a consequence. You can’t control your whole future. Risk!”

TucsonsunsetPerfectionists are excellent procrastinators. Putting off a decision means not making a wrong decision. Yes, that’s true, but it also means you are not moving forward. And not moving forward isn’t an act of perfection. The difference between a rut and a groove is the length of time you’ve spent there.

Here’s something I learned over the years: if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough of a creative risk. If you are doing everything right, you are doing the same thing over and over. That isn’t perfection, that’s the shortcut to insanity. Unless you are assembling a kit, perfection is not the goal.

Come on out in the open and try making a decision whose outcome isn’t practiced, isn’t certain. If you make a mistake, you’ve learned something. And learning something is a milestone to getting better. Perfection, on the other hand, is an impossible state that hates “better.” So it remains immobile.

Image: I took the photo without looking as I drove from Tucson to Phoenix. The phone slipped and I took the photo. A happy accident–I like it better than a planned photo.

Quinn McDonald is spending the weekend taking risks with her new book. The Inner Critic is frantic and her Inner Heroes are gathering.

Saturday Round-Up

Just in case you missed these over the years–some old favorites for a lazy Saturday.

1. Food first! It’s cherry time again, so if you want them in puff pastry or chocolate covered, enjoy yourself.

2. Last year, I was in a bookstore when I saw someone buy my book, Raw Art Journaling. She was a perfectionist, and I offered to sign the book.

3. College students making art postcards–spray ink and maps. What a great combination! (Do it with your kids or grandkids–it’s easy).

4. Reductive drawing–start with a page covered with charcoal, erase to create an image. Fun. If you mess up, just add more charcoal.

Enjoy your weekend!

Quinn McDonald has been blogging for about five years. That’s a lot of blogs.

Day 22: It’s OK To Be Imperfect

Day 22: It’s OK to be imperfect.  (If you just landed here, you can catch up by, starting with the first post in the series.)

Brene Brown's book is a must-read for every imperfectionist. And perfectionist.

Wisdom from the comments:
Arlene Holtz noticed, “I have also skipped a couple of days of writing since I started – not deliberately (well, at least not consciously). . . . What was different for me this time, was I noticed I hadn’t written, and even “missed” the writing. In fact, I was really relieved to get back to writing the very next day. It feels like it is becoming a real part of who I am.”

Marianna Dougherty wrote, “I do sitting meditation and sometimes get great revelations as a result. Not during the meditation but later in the day or another day. It’s the process of quieting my mind and the daily practice that brings about results.”

Diane Becka had no problem with walking everyday, “On the days I don’t want to, I do it mostly because I haven’t missed a day. So even in bad weather I find a way to walk just so I can feel I’ve kept this commitment to myself,”  but hit a rough patch on the writing, “Journaling has been another matter. I just couldn’t make myself start. I bought more blank books, new pens. Nothing. Every day I would read how much the writing was helping others, all that you were learning from it, and the more I read, the harder it was. I let the expectations I had grow until there was no way I could meet them and it was overwhelming.”

Bo Mackison said, “I find it hard to do the writing and the walking, maybe if I had made the commitment to do one, got that down and then added the other it would have been easier. ANd I have no ambition to walk in cold or snow or sleet or winter mix. . .”

*     *     *     *    *

What causes most people to quit a new habit? The same thing that causes most people to abandon their New Year’s resolutions? It’s not that the goals are too lofty (unless made in a hurry under the influence of drink or peer pressure), but the mistaken belief that one mis-step “ruins it all.” It doesn’t. One mis-step, one missed day, one incomplete page is just that–an imperfection. It doesn’t invalidate the intention or the goal.

Quote from Brene Brown's book.

It does, however, make it easier to add another missed day to the stack. And that’s where the self discipline comes in. If you skip a day, be aware of it, be conscious, make it a choice. And the next day, make it a choice to return.

Change doesn’t happen all at once. Change happens when we replace one action with another. And the more often the replacement happens, the more likely we are to repeat, until we have a new habit. In an email I received, someone insisted that if they forgot one day, they would have to “start over,” they added, “with nothing.” I know that’s how AA does the counting, but I don’t think that’s true with journaling. You have something. You have begun to walk down a path. You are exploring your motives and excuses. That’s not nothing.

Of course, if you want something positive to happen, you will have to kick yourself occasionally to keep doing it, and you will have to do the work, but you will always do your work imperfectly, because that is the reason we keep learning–every imperfection is a chance to learn something new.

What have you been learning as you go along?

-Quinn McDonald is a journaler and creativity coach who is exploring the habit of journal writing with readers of the blog.

Image: the saying from Brene Brown is available for purchase from this site. I am not recommending it, I’m simply letting you know where it’s from.

Recovering Perfectionist Starts Something New

Combining fabric and paper to create mixed-media postcards is my latest art project. I’m new to sewing, after one disastrous failure when I was about 10, and spectacular embarrassment in a class of 8 to 10-year-olds when I was 30. This time, I’m not sewing clothes, I’m experimenting.

Jeff Szymanski wrote The Perfectionist's Handbook.

Experimenting is hard for perfectionists. There’s a lot of risk. You could mess something up. (Serious when you are a diamond cutter, not so much when your materials are smallish pieces of paper and fabric.) There is also the possibility of looking foolish, as you feel pleased with amateur level work. Yet I know few people who went from beginner to master in a single step. That’s what makes us perfectionists such procrastinators–if we put it off long enough, we might make it perfect. So we put it off in hopes of perfection. Sadly, perfection is elusive.

I’m a recovering perfectionist, so I push myself. I post my experiments, even my mistakes, on my blog,  because it may be helpful to someone just starting out. Or ready to quit. What made me want to quit with almost anything is the enormous amount I had to learn right at the beginning. As a recovering perfectionist, I figured out that I work on the meaning

Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D. wrote Never Good Enough.

first. What makes it important to me. That’s generally content–the Why in “Why am I doing this?” Once I have that down, I work on details. The “How,” especially the “How am I going to make this work?” if I worry about details first, I’ll never capture the overall concept.

The past few days, I’ve been posting photos of postcards in progress. I’m pleased that I’ve figured out how to thread a machine and wind a bobbin and make the machine run forward and back. I’m not worried that the pieces aren’t perfect, or that the mistakes show. I was surprised when I began to get emails telling me I wasn’t a quilter (you’ll get no argument from me), or that I should take a sewing class (hmm, wonder why?) or that putting up my mistakes shows that I’m an amateur. (Yes, I am a rank amateur on the sewing machine.) What is it about starting a new project that brings out the outer critics to chorus up with the inner critic? I don’t answer the critics, no more than I get into an argument with my inner critic.

The crucial stage is starting. If I bog myself down in details early on, I’ll never see anything beyond the details. If I try out the big picture–does this concept work? I’ll make progress. I’ll learn techniques and problem-solving. I’ll figure out work-arounds and work throughs. But mostly I’ll keep working. If I let the critic slow me down fixing details, I’ll quit. I won’t learn.

So to all the people who are letting me know I’m making mistakes, don’t expect to hear back from me. I’m busy. But if you hang around here, you will see a postcard with a zipper, or lined in copper tape, and they’ll all have mistakes, too.

Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist and creativity coach. She writes about her experiences as a beginner. Because she begins every day with an eye to making meaning.

Perfectionists: You Must Choose Sometime

Every time you make a decision, you close the door to other choices. It’s a fact of life. If you are a perfectionist, this causes a problem. Did you make the best decision? If it is the best decision for now, how about tomorrow?

Even New Hampshire's Old Man in the Mountain changed--part of his face fell off.

For those of us who are recovering perfectionists, I can cheerfully say, “Make a decision. Every one of them comes with a consequence. You can’t control your whole damn future.” The difference between a rut and a groove is the length of time you’ve spent there.

Perfectionists are excellent procrastinators. Putting off a decision means not making a wrong decision. Yes, that’s true, but it also means you are not moving forward. And not moving forward isn’t an act of perfection.

Here’s something I learned over the years: if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough of a creative risk. If you are doing everything right, you are doing the same thing over and over. That isn’t perfection, that’s the shortcut to insanity. Unless, of course, you are working in the widget factory, assembling widgets. Is this the place for a perfectionist?

Come on out in the open and try making a decision whose outcome isn’t practiced, isn’t certain. If you make a mistake, you’ve learned something. And learning something is a milestone to getting better. Perfection, on the other hand, is an impossible state that hates “better.” So it remains immobile.

–Quinn McDonald  is a writer and certified creativity coach. She’s also an artist. See her work at

Making Peace With a Wabi-Sabi Life

Wabi-Sabi—Appreciation of the Imperfect and Impermanent
You are looking watching the big harvest moon rise in the September sky. You remember seeing this special moon–as big as your head–when you were a child and asking if this moon was the bigger brother of the regular moon. You smile at the recognition of the wonder of this moment.

That fragile moment of recognition is part of the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi– the beauty of things impermanent or incomplete. It contains a profound appreciation for things modest and humble. As an aesthetic, it honors things imperfect and impermanent.

Bonsai and shadow © Quinn McDonald, 2007
Bonsai and shadow
© Quinn McDonald, 2007

A Different Approach to Success and Abundance
Wabi-sabi is the release of control. It avoids beating up the creative soul for not achieving perfection. Recognizing and embracing our imperfections allows room for growth. The only result of demanding perfection is certain failure. Perfection is impossible, and while we live in a culture that loves people who are “passionate” and “give 110%,” we seldom feel passion for our daily lives, and it is impossible to give more than all. Perfection is a cruel boss. It leads to giving up, depression and anger rather than eagerness for growth and improvement.

Living a wabi-sabi life means letting go of the stress of competition, relentless achievement, and replacing them with a willingness to let life find its own pace. It allows for space to trust that opportunities will appear, and a willingness to let the world unfurl without having full control over every activity. It is a life stripped down to what is valuable, rather than randomly acquired. It is not living without, but rather within.

In a wabi-sabi life, you recognize all things are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. Once you open the door to imperfection, a creative force rushes into your life, making it possible to risk, to try different solutions, to explore your creativity fully. Which leads to living a creative life–work and business combine to create a full, rich and abundant life.

How to Live a Wabi-Sabi Life
One of the hardest things to do is live in the moment. We are always planning—what to have for dinner, what time to pick up the kids, what to do if that promotion doesn’t come through.

Bittersweet © Quinn McDonald, 2007
© Quinn McDonald, 2007

We live our lives in the past, reviewing our mistakes, and in the future, planning on contingencies and how to handle what will happen next. The current moment is empty as we rush to control—ourselves, our lives, the lives of our children. We try to control our creativity, what we make, even our intuition.

Certainly planning helps organize our time and leads to action. But when we begin to plan for every possibility, guess at every motive, fill every second of the day with planned activities, meetings and obligations, we exhaust ourselves and our families.

We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Often we can’t influence the future. What we think of as failure is simply a lack of knowing. You don’t always have to know. And you don’t always have to be in control. Take off that heavy obligation of knowing and controlling and take three deep, slow breaths. Then decide right now. In this moment. To live and grow. And leave perfection behind. And let creativity take root in your life.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach. She teaches journal-writing classes, including Wabi-Sabi Journaling and raw-art journaling (c) 2007-10 All rights reserved

Perfectionists and Procrastination, Part II

Yesterday, in Part I of Perfectionists and Procrastination, you heard about Anne, who missed opportunities because her perfectionism never let her finish a project.

The Root of Perfection.
What causes perfectionism? Research shows that around the age of four, children begin to socialize with the culture they live in. In American culture that means playing in groups, not being too different, not showing above-average intelligence, and following rules. (Later this changes to not getting caught when breaking the rules.)

Trash can trash by

Trash can trash by

Around age four, children start spending most of their day in a school-like group environment where behaving according to the teacher’s norms is important—it yields approval.  Children learn to color in the “right” colors, stay inside the lines, sing in groups, write the “truth,” and memorize facts that will appear on standardized text.

Critical thinking is not encouraged. Creativity isn’t either. Both take time, and most schools spend a lot of time preparing the class to get better grades on standardized tests.

Misplaced Focus Leads to Misplaced Ideals.
As children manage the hard work of socialization, they are taught to focus on certain questions and their answers.  Art, music, and other creative studies are dropped. No standardized test worries about inventiveness, creativity or multiple right answers.

A Little is Good, a Lot is Worse.
Socialization isn’t bad, it’s just overdone. Our parents and teachers tell us to compete, win, get that good job, make lots of money, be “successful.” Peers goad with fear that we are not good enough, stupid, not applying ourselves or lazy. By the time we are in college our goals are to hurry up, win, compete, and stay in the top percentile of school and achievement.

Perfectionism is not all bad. In tiny doses, self-discipline is great, and even the desire to be perfect can be useful–doing careful research, doing original work instead of plagiarizing, being diligent–all are good. When being “perfect” gets out of hand it leads to serious life problems.

The key is separating discipline from  fear of failure. We live in a world stoked by our own negative self talk. “You can’t do this, you will not make it, you are scared. . .” goes the voice.  Suddenly discipline stops us from producing anything finished.

New Idea of Discipline.
Discipline is exactly the right word for what we do need to nourish. it is not the discipline of your youth. Here is how the new discipline works.

Neatly stacked manuscripts,

Neatly stacked manuscripts,

The idea stage of a creative project is the fun part,  the part where anything is possible.  But when we start the process portion of the project, we call, not on discipline, but on the gremlin of negative self-talk.

What we need is discipline enough to push through to the finish and get that wonderful feeling of completion, perhaps even accomplishment.

Gremlins of Negative Self  Talk.
Everyone has gremlins of negative self talk. We criticize ourselves harshly, in the words we remember from our parents, teachers, and peer bullies. This negative self talk collides head-on with the need to compete, to win, to succeed. And perfectionism is created.

Too much pressure and stress to achieve leads to symptoms or real illness. The deadline looms, and the perfectionists collapses.

The Trap of High Standards.
Perfectionists say they have “high standards.” It serves as the excuse to miss deadlines and to berate lesser efforts than there own. Yes, the perfectionist is a bully. Of self, of others. Because that was the power example they learned early.

Blaming the deadline is a lack of discipline. The truth is more likely to be, “If I never finish it, others will never find the flaw, and I will never have to admit that my work (and I) are not perfect.”

And making it perfect sounds virtuous, even wonderful. The perfectionist excuse fosters procrastination.

It says, “Oh, this part isn’t as good as that part.” It says, “Oh, this book needs too much work to be right.” It says, “I need to edit the draft one more time.” And when the work doesn’t get out there, we have the excuse of “still working on it. . .”

The Reward of Completion.
Here is the big reward: when you get things done, even if they are not perfect,  you will first be overwhelmed with shame at how poor the work is. You will invent hundreds of excuses not to turn it in.

Do some deep breathing, put it away for an hour or so. Then, look at it right before you send it in. You will discover that it is really good, and that it is done. When you submit it, you will be boosted up on a wonderful high. You will feel relieved. You will feel proud.  You deserve that wonderful rush. It is the rush of the imperfect. It is the acceptance that you worked hard and as well as you could with the talents you have today. And it will be the first step into meeting deadlines and doing well. It will be the first step into being a recovering perfectionist.

–Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist who helps other people open the door to a new future without the burden. See her work at QuinnCreative.

No More New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions? I’m against them. Why would a creativity coach be against something so apparently helpful? Because I don’t think New Year’s resolutions are helpful. Most of them are chosen randomly—losing weight, being nicer to co-workers, being more thoughtful in traffic. Many are vague (all three of the above are) and most are geared to work against the resolution-maker.

resolutionsSetting a goal brings with it the bothersome work of self-motivation, accountability, and self-judgment. None of that sounds intriguing, much less fun. It sounds like something to do until we get bored—on January 3.

When my clients charge into the New Year, fueled with determination to root out their bad habits, I suggest that bad habits are generally nothing more than good habits dialed up too far. Generosity, certainly a good habit, can be dialed up until it becomes the bad habit of overspending or buying someone else’s affection. Judging others sounds like a bad habit until we realize that explaining morality, ethics and response to bullying to our children involves judging in a good way.

A better way to tackle resolutions is not to dig out the bad habits—pulling out the roots of good behavior at the same time. Instead, resolve to increase things you do well. That nice feeling you get helping others? Get more of it. Let that car in the other lane get in front of you. Get out of line in the grocery store to pick up the item you forgot, instead of leaving your cart in line, forcing people to wait for your return. Smile while you do this.

Are you a good friend? When you hear that juicy bit of gossip, break eye contact, look down, then look the gossiper straight in they eye and change the subject. Refuse to pass on gossip, snarky remarks or that embarrassing email someone sent you.

Because you are already good at these tasks, finding more ways to put them into action won’t be hard. You are following your inclination to make the most of your talents, rather than working against yourself rooting out a bad habit.

And you’ll find yourself still doing well in July, instead of feeling guilty by the second week of January. It’s a great feeling.


–Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach. She writes Imagination Works, a newsletter that supports creativity. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.