My dirty little secret: I’m a class-A procrastinator.
Since I am both ambitious and maniacally organized, you wouldn’t think I have a problem getting work done. But I do, big-time. For instance, I sat down to write this post two hours ago. Since then, I’ve watched four video tutorials on making beach waves with a curling wand and chatted with half a dozen friends on Facebook. I responded to a backlog of emails and voicemails I’ve been letting pile up and folded my laundry. I’ve done everything I can think of to avoid writing this post.
Whenever I have a creative deadline on the horizon, I feel a burst of palpable anxiety writhing in the center of my chest. I do everything I can to avoid confronting that anxiety. So whatever I end up making–even if it’s really good–I know that it’s not as good as it could have been, had I devoted the amount of time to it that I originally intended to.
When I started this blog in June, I told my friend Sonya that I was afraid I couldn’t motivate myself to produce the content I know I’m capable of. She, an accomplished artist who’s encountered her own share of creative struggles, recommended a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
I immediately ordered it on Amazon and finally got around to reading it last week. It’s a quick read–I finished in about three hours–and so worth it for anyone who’s sick of getting in the way of their own achievement. Every sentence of Part One, I was nodding along, thinking, “Finally, someone who understands!” and then, “Wait–I’m not the only one?”
Not by a long shot. According to Pressfield, the struggle against what he calls “Resistance” is universal. Resistance is a villainous feature of the human psyche that works to prevent us from doing the things that will bring us good. When we think about how we should really get started on some task–me writing this blog post, for instance–Resistance does everything it can to keep us from beginning it.
Pressfield personifies Resistance because it has a mind of its own. It comes entirely from our own subconscious, yet most of us don’t have a say in when our Resistance manifests, or how. You can feel Resistance as fear or anxiety, like I do when I think about an approaching creative deadline. It frequently comes across as the desire to procrastinate. It feeds us valid-sounding rationalizations for why beginning an activity is a bad idea, or at least is bad right now. (Hint–if Resistance says that today about something, it’ll also say it tomorrow).
Resistance doesn’t limit itself to artists and writers–it flares up in the presence of “any activity that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.” Resistance is that familiar voice in your head saying, “This really isn’t a good time to take that trip to Europe. I’ll do it next year,” or, “I’ll skip the gym today. One day can’t hurt anything.” The more important the activity is to our self-improvement, the more Resistance we encounter during it.
Luckily, this means that we can use Resistance as a “compass.” The more Resistance you feel toward doing an activity, the more positive and powerful that activity probably is. Resistance should be a sign to do more, not less.
The first step to overcoming Resistance is recognizing it in yourself. When you’re aware of it, you can fight it. The next step is to sit down and get to work (or book a plane ticket, or step onto the treadmill). Your Resistance will lessen the second you start. The only way to get through Resistance is to push through. It doesn’t matter how good what you’re doing is, only that you’re in the process of doing it. Nike knows what I’m talking about.
To achieve something big in spite of Resistance, you have to do what Pressfield calls “going pro.” You have to treat the activity like it’s a job. If you were getting paid by somebody else to do it, would you be taking it more seriously? Probably.
Pros go to work every day. To be a pro, you have to work on your goal every day too, or at least on a rigorously kept schedule. Again, it matters much less how much you accomplish in these work sessions and more that you’re putting in the time. Each day that you write another page of your book or log another mile at the gym, you’ve beaten Resistance–eventually, those little victories will add up to major results. Pressfield stresses that you’ve got to commit to your goal over the long haul. Amateurs work for a short time with an intensity that they cannot sustain long-term; pros work in realistic increments that will give them what they want in time. A big goal “is the Iditarod, not the sixty-yard dash.”
I’m well-acquainted with my Resistance; I feel it all the time. In fact, today there are several activities I would like to do, and would get satisfaction from doing, but am probably not going to do. I love yoga, but getting to the studio is a haul and I’m always totally wiped by the end of a two-hour vinyasa class. I downloaded this app I’ve been wanting to play around with and post on the blog, but to input the information I’d need to use it would require a few hours of work and I’m like, eh. Not today.
But you know what I’m now realizing? I’ve said those excuses to myself every day this summer. School starts next week and I never got around to either of them. I did plenty of other great stuff, so I’m not devastated, but I would have enjoyed both activities. If I could do it over having read The War of Art, I’d hit the 30-minute beginner yoga class in the mornings instead of telling myself it was vinyasa or bust; I’d put ten minutes each night into working on the app, and by now I’d have it done. If I’d faced my Resistance, even in tiny increments, I’d be a more flexible and tech-savvy girl today.
As fall approaches, I challenge you to do what I’m doing today: think about what Resistance has stopped you from doing in the past and what it’s stopping you from doing now. Do you feel guilty for or anxious about avoiding some activity? Figure out what the first baby step is toward your goal, take a deep breath, and get ‘er done. The only way to feel relief from those icky Resistance feelings is moving forward. I’m going to: write an email I’ve been procrastinating on big-time, order my textbooks for a difficult class that starts Monday, and sign up for yoga at the USC gym.
There are other insights in the book that apply more specifically to creatives–writers, artists, etc–who deal with Resistance when they sit down to make their stuff. If this is you, whether you’re a designer, blogger, art student, whatever, I really recommend spending a few hours ingesting what Pressfield says about the way in which we should be treating our creative work. From an art student’s perspective, his comments on production, critique and ownership of work are really helpful. Maybe I’ll even do a second post on it sometime–what do you guys think?
I want to know in the comments: what are you feeling Resistance on right now and how do you combat it?