On perfectionism


Perfectionism is a topic that a few followers have brought up recently as the topic of productivity has been discussed in my blog as well as many others. I’ve been asked how I tackle perfectionism and how I get music made instead of honing on the small details for a long time.
That’s a good question, and I’ve definitely been there: never willing to let a tune out of my hands and call it finished, working on it for weeks or even months – and that, let me tell you, can really kill the joy of making music and you may start disliking it or even hating it. We all know that creating new ideas is the bomb and a major reason to make music, so let’s keep it that way.
I’ve been increasingly interested in productivity and related matters in the past year or so, and I’ve tried to change my focus in such way that it’s now on getting things done in an effective fashion instead of working on the small things for too long, which takes its toll on one’s productivity.

Perfectionism “is the fear of calling things finished”. We basically don’t want to let something out because we think it’s never ready. And as we think it’s never ready, we think people will see/hear/notice faults or shortcomings in it and that’ll backfire on you for sure. Right? Well, not so. Here’s a few points I remind myself of to help you if you’re getting “too perfect” with your work.

  • The chances are slim that your audience will notice that small things you’d notice in your own work: they simply don’t observe/enjoy it the same way and their taste probably isn’t 100 % similar to yours. So take it easy. It’s not like anyone’s going to come and say “Hey, one of those layered snares sounds really odd to me”, so it may not be worth working on it for hours. Ask yourself when you find yourself working hard on something in your work: does this have any real impact on my work?
  • So, all the time spent on minor details is time off working on the major body of your work. It’s like fixing punctuation when you still have 10 pages to write; not worth it at all. Work on making a song that’s catchy/interesting/original and rich in ideas, because that is what people pay attention to and not how strong your snare is. It’s been in drum and bass especially in the past few years that there’s a major focus on the production, and you can really tell, as the actual musical ideas and content are often weak and there’s not a whole lot on the menu for those who don’t stroke their beards listening to the snap of the snare (your mum won’t). I’ve heard too many “fat tunes” which I won’t remember after hearing them. Sorry to say it but that is true. Again, put the work on what matters.
  • I recently read a nice D-Bridge interview on Resident Advisor where he points it out that the songs that the fans end up liking the most are always the ones where you’ve spent the least amount of time on.
    Cus there was a point where I started to sit down and look at some of the tunes, the tunes that people liked of mine, and invariably it was always the ones that took me the least amount of time to do”. 
    So there you have it, from a long-time veteran. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to work on something for ages, but the focus here is productivity (= getting things done), so let’s think of this in a context.
  • One thing that used to be a major, major troubling factor for me when I spent way more time per song is that I developed very strong (emotional) ties with those songs. “I’ve spent three months on this song…it must be perfect before I can let it out.” It’s like we became buddies. That’s extremely stressful if you end up in that zone. So, for your productivity’s sake, keep on moving – do NOT spend ages on a song because it’ll be your “baby” sooner than you know it, and you know how mommas and daddies wouldn’t like to see their babies go.
  • Go for the 80/20 rule. I read about this on, for example (point # 6). Basically, it states that 80 % of your work can be done using 20 % of the total time it requires and the remaining 20 % would take a 80 % effort. For example, if you know that you’d create the absolute best piece of work you can do by using 100 hours on it, giving it 20 hours (20 %), you’ll come up with 80 % of the whole body of work, and to get the last bits done (“running the extra mile”, doing a lot of honing) and all that, it’d take you 80 hours. Not viable for most of us! So, as I kind of pointed out in my last blog post, focused sessions are important as it’s there that you’ll do the major part of your work. Especially in music, and coming up with songs, it’s hardly ever worth it spending hours and hours EQing that snare etc…you know how it goes. Don’t put your work where it’s going straight in the garbage bin – put it where it matters.
  • If you have to, set a time limit for yourself. You probably have a lot going on, just like the rest of us. If you’re a perfectionist and you give yourself an unlimited amount of time per song, you WILL end up spending an unlimited amount on a song. Don’t. If need be, set a goal: “I will finish this song by the end of this/next week”. That way, you’ll put the focus where it matters and get the song done. You give yourself three days and you’ll start working on the arrangement, of course, and not the snare (unless everything but the snare is a wrap). You won’t be tweaking minor details three days; you’ll work on what matters, and then, it’ll be smooth sailing into the next one. Boom.
  • The most important point I told myself to get rid of the perfectionistic way of thinking: mistakes don’t matter. We will never be “perfect”. See, we will always hear/see/perceive what’s not so great about our work. So, accept it. Yes, it’s likely that you hear a song of yours and spot something that doesn’t sound so good to you (this still happens to me, and always will). So what? It won’t kill you. Maybe you can learn something from it, and maybe you already have. Besides, as you learn from them and understand it, mistakes won’t be mistakes anymore. It simply is way better for you to create four songs in one month than spend four months on a song, right?
  • Last but not least, let’s go with the idea for a minute that we’d come up with a “perfect” piece of work. How crazy and scary would that be? It’d probably make all our future work even harder, and we don’t want that. We’d always compare our future work to that one “perfect” piece, which’d make it really difficult for us. And, we don’t want to make things more difficult: we want to make it easier.

I hope some of this helps you if/when you need to shake the shadow of perfectionism off your shoulder. If you liked my thoughts, you can holla at me / follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Happy creating, ya’ll – let’s be the perfect imperfect ourselves!