6 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism for Songwriters

Do you know the best way to ruin your music and kill a music career before it even begins?

Be a perfectionist.

Those of us suffering from perfectionism often spends a lot of time working on many different projects, but never finish them. We spend more time stressing out about people’s reactions to our work that we never get our work published. Our public portfolios are bare because we believe most of our music—our art, the product of our soul—is not ready for others to see (and judge).

If that sounds like an issue you have faced, I want to offer you some tips and tricks to detox yourself from the blight of perfectionism.

The Root Cause of Perfectionism

Perfectionism as a serious psychological hurdle; the fear of your art/music/work not being good enough to represent your self in front of others.

I’m no shrink, but from my research it seems to means that a person has an internalized (I.e. subconscious) feeling of inadequacy. And that inadequate feeling materializes itself in whatever the person tries to accomplish. Who knows where that internal belief originated? You may not even know? It could be an obvious emotional trauma from childhood or there could be no recognizable event that premeditated. At any rate, perfectionism is more than just a character trait or bad habit…it can easily become a maladaptive coping mechanism that stifles every aspect of your life.

We could spend years in therapy trying to untangle the causes for our subconscious self-sabotage. But, frankly, I don’t have the money to throw at a therapist.

So instead I want to touch on some simple and habitual ways you can change your mindset and work around your perfectionism.

Again, I’m not a therapist and I cannot promise any of these techniques will help you—but I have personal experience from suffering with low self-esteem and perfectionism. These are the kinds of habits and sneaky little tricks I have pulled on myself to self-help.

And these are not a couple of feel-good “visualize success” mumbo-jumbo suggestions either. Personally, I never found those motivational speaker spiels to be helpful. These are actual actionable steps you can take little by little to shove your musicianship in the right direction.

The Long Haul Habits

My first two suggestions are long term changes to your routine that will disrupt your base perfectionist behavior. The long haul habits I suggest are:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. The 70% Rule

1. Mindfulness Tactics

Mindfulness a word that gets thrown around a lot in those hippy meditation circles that I criticized earlier. But, really, it just means putting yourself in the moment and questioning what you are thinking about. And that last part is the key to this method. Rationality is the bane of emotional worry.

When you start feeling that pit in your stomach about a song (or anything you’re working on) and feel like it’s not good enough, I want you to stop!

And start interrogating your emotions. Ask yourself a few direct questions, such as:

Why Do I Feel Bad About This Song?

Force yourself to give specific reasons as to why the song is not good enough. Write down exactly what parts of the song you aren’t happy with; don’t just generalize that “it’s not good” and throw it in the trash. Identify the part that isn’t working for you and physically write it down so you can come back to those notes when you are ready to fix it.

  • Is there one take in the second verse where you sound too pitchy? Make a note and re-dub it.
  • Is the chord progression kinda boring? Write it down, reference your melody’s key, and experiment with other chords.
  • Maybe there are a lot of things wrong with the mix. Still…make notes for each little thing you don’t like.

Any time you generalize the malaise of your discontent without confronting it, you are giving your subconscious too much leeway. Force your anxiety to clarify what exactly is causing the bad feeling and slap it in the face with logical deductions as to how it could be corrected or is not really a big deal.

A vague self-doubt that says “this isn’t any good” is hard to tackle because of how ambiguous it sounds. But a check list of specific changes you need to make is manageable. In fact, this process of turning big projects or problems into bite-size tasks you can check off a list is called chunking. And it’s a popular strategy for combating issues like ADHD.

What Parts of the Song Do I Like?

There must be something about the track that you felt was good. Why else would you have started working on it to begin with? Take that paper, the one where you wrote down your song’s bad parts, and now add a section listing the good parts about the song. This will reinforce the notion in your noggin that there is some value in the track, and therefore it can’t be all bad like your brain first claimed.

Who Is It that I’m Scared Will Hear My Song?

The anxious and perfectionist brain loves to deal out generalities. Your internal monologue may say to you: “if people hear this track, I’ll die of embarrassment”. But who are these exact people who you’re scared of? Name them.

Who is actually going to care if you publish this song and it’s not even good? Are you worried that random people on the internet will leave nasty comments? The type of person likely to leave you a nasty comment has probably never made a pizza from scratch…let alone externalized an expression of the human condition and created a tangible, emotive work of art. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be wasting their time flame-baiting on YouTube comment sections.

An anxious mind believes that everybody else in the world is watching what it does and waiting to point out its flaws. But it’s often an illusion of overthinking. The vast majority of people honestly don’t care about anyone but themselves and maybe their closest loved ones (not to be mean, but for real). The kind of people who actively look for other humans to insult or demean are doing it out of their own insecurities.

In the grand scheme of things, most people are not going to notice if you post a mediocre track. They’ll just move on from it and forget about it. In fact, if you get famous later on, people will be clamoring to find that first mediocre track of yours and comment on it saying: “like this comment if you were here before [such and such] was even famous”.

2. The 70% Rule

I don’t take credit for this one: I picked it up from a real cool guy called Struthless on YouTube. But I’ll summarize it here:

  • Make your goal to get 70% done with whatever you’re working on and then let it go.

Don’t expect to get 100% complete. 70% is good enough. By the time something is that far done, it’s probably good enough for others. And the more time you spend on it, the less likely those changes will have a substantial impact on it’s quality.

We perfectionists tend to scrutinize our own work more than the casual listener ever will. And, in case you were not aware, there is a whole breed of musicians who don’t fix their tracks. Some of those artists are even million dollar hit single makers.

Here’s just one discussion pointing out dozens of famous songs that have recording or mixing errors in them. If your track’s little errors are dampening your mood, go look through that thread of Billboard-charting mainstream musician mess-ups.

The Sneaky Little Tricks

Now onto the micro-hacks. The following techniques are what I call “sneaky little tricks”. I’ve used (and I’m currently still using) several of these to overcome my own perfectionism. They include:

  1. Seek Kindred Spirits
  2. Bait and Switch
  3. Take Out the Trash
  4. Hide Behind (Another Name)

1. Seek Kindred Spirits

Find other artists who released music that was considered “imperfect” or “too experimental” and let them be your standard rather than the polished professional pop you see trending on Spotify. Don’t know where to find these artists? Well, besides the reddit thread I referenced earlier, here is a quick list of musical weirdos to expand your mind with:

  • Daniel Johnston
  • Duster
  • Calvin Johnson
  • Jandek
  • Naomi Elizabeth
  • 100gecs
  • Farrah Abraham
  • Dead Man’s Bones

2. The Bait and Switch

Trick your brain by telling yourself you won’t ever show this song to anyone…then publish it online on a whim before you can tell yourself no and don’t ever look at it again. Don’t think, just post it and pretend it never happened.

3. Take Out the Trash

Pick a song that you’re not married to—something you think is okay but it’s not one of your pride-and-joy tracks that must be protected like the Mona Lisa—and record it quickly before you become emotionally attached to the idea/concept. Then refer back to the Bait and Switch tactic.

4. Hide Behind (Another Name)

Release songs or tracks under a pseudonym (just a “fake” but original artist name you made up on the spot) and don’t link it back to your “main” artist profile until it actually starts getting decent views. If it never gets any positive feedback, then pretend you had nothing to do with it.


I hope these idiotic but action-based ideas give you a nudge in the right direction. Please remember that perfectionism is often a manifestation of deeper, subconscious wounds and it cannot be waved away very easily. You need to accept that it’s an actual problem and not just a pesky “personality quirk” if you’re going to have a chance of defeating it.

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