Hey there, Pollywog!
In the first post I gave you some suggestions on where to start. Now I’m going to tackle a question that’s just as important — how to start.
Because it’s one thing to know what you want to work on, but it’s another, sometimes harder thing to buckle down and do the actual work.
Because sometimes you run into Resistance, and Resistance is a tricky, tricky thing.
What is Resistance?
Steven Pressfield coined the term Resistance in his book, The War of Art. Resistance works like this: when it’s time to start your creative work, it’s suddenly the last thing you want to do.
Sitting at your desk or in front of a blank canvas, you feel anxious. Restless. Agitated. Unfocused. For me, it’s like thinking my way through wet cement… while there’s a tiny tornado siren going off in my chest.
The way I interpret Resistance, your brain doesn’t like unpleasant feelings, and it wants to protect you from them. So it distracts you with anything that isn’t creative work.
You might check your email and social media for hours at a time.
Alphabetizing your spice rack might seem like the most important thing in the world.
Or maybe you’ll say to yourself, hey! Let’s list everything blue… that has ever existed, ever. Yay!!!
Before you know it you’re out of time, and you tell yourself, let’s try again tomorrow. And when tomorrow rolls around? You start the cycle all over again.
Resistance and polymaths
Most people face Resistance in their creative lives. As a multi-talented person, you might find yourself more resistant to some projects than to others. This is something I’ve definitely experienced.
When I was doing a lot of beading, picking up the latest necklace or bracelet was effortless — it was putting the darn thing down that was hard. Now that I’m obsessed with customizing dolls, it seems like I can’t go for more than a minute without a doll head in my hands.
(That sounded a little creepy, didn’t it?)
But when it comes to writing, most of the time I want to be anywhere but in front of my computer or notebook. Because writing is hard, both emotionally and intellectually. And that makes it scary.
To protect myself from the scariness and discomfort, not only do I use errands and mindless Internet surfing to avoid it, but I also use my other interests. I’ll start a new quilt project, a new doll project, or I’ll pick up a jewelry piece I haven’t touched in weeks.
In other words, I use my polymathy against myself — I told you Resistance was tricky.
What’s behind Resistance?
If you’ve dealt with Resistance before, you’ve been frustrated both with it and with yourself. You’ve probably wondered… just what the heck is going on here?
There are plenty of reasons for Resistance, but a huge one, at least in my experience, is having insane expectations.
This usually translates to perfectionism — wanting to get it just right on the first try. Perfectionism causes overwhelm, and then rebellion. Your body and your brain will shut down, and a little voice in your head will shout I don’t want to, and you can’t make me!
But for the sake of this post, Pollywog, the important thing isn’t why it happens, as much as how to get past it. I’ve gotten past Resistance many, many times, with writing and other activities. Here’s how.
Getting past Resistance
1.) Make it as appealing as possible. If you’re being a perfectionist, you’re probably thinking too much about work and not enough about play. The best projects always have a strong element of play.
Put on your pajamas or other comfy clothes. Sit in the most comfortable spot you can find — I prefer my bed or the couch, with a lap desk. Tell your Rebel Brain… let’s mess around and see what happens!
When I wanted to start regularly doing yoga in theory, but not so much in practice, I waited for an extra long dog-sitting job. I went to a nice, quiet room in the client’s house and put on some relaxing music. I turned down the lights. I only did the easiest stretches, and I held them for a long, long time.
And it. Was. Amazing. I felt like I was at an expensive retreat, and after that first session, I couldn’t stay away. I recreate this feeling every time I start to feel resistant towards yoga.
2.) Combine work with leisure. Here’s another way to turn work into play. After you find a nice, comfortable, relaxing place to do your work, combine it with nice, comfortable, relaxing activities.
One thing I hate to do is tie off the little thread tails when I’m working on a quilt, so I watch a movie. Last month I watched Stalled for free on Hulu, and all that zombie fun made the time and knots fly by.
I’ve also done this with the less glamorous parts of beading, like weaving those remaining thread tails into the piece. When I’m not in the mood for a movie, I listen to a scary story. Chilling Tales is my favorite source for these.
I should mention, though, that if you use this approach, be careful which things you combine.
I would never watch a movie while sawing, hammering, or taking a torch to metal — there are too many safety concerns as it is. And as a personal preference, I might be the only fiction writer who doesn’t have a play list. It’s just too much of a distraction.
3.) Warm-ups. You warm up your body before you jog, play tennis, or even sing, so why not warm up your mind before you start your creative work?
My favorite way to warm up, no matter what I’m doing, is to free-write. I ramble about anything and everything that comes to mind. In doing this, I purge the clutter from my brain, and then I’m calm and ready to focus.
Now that it doesn’t intimidate me, I also do yoga to warm up. Nothing calms the tornado siren in my chest like deep breathing, and stretching is the perfect way to get blood flowing through my body and to my brain.
4.) Tiny steps. If a project is overwhelming, start seeing it as a series of very small and easy steps. Refer to this chart, courtesy of 99u.com, if you need to.
I read the first version of SARK’s Creative Companion in 1993, and the part that stuck with me was the idea of micro-movements. Of taking a project and asking… what’s the smallest, simplest action I can take right now?
I like to combine tiny steps with free-writing. Towards the end of my rambling, I’ll list some possible micro-movements. More often than not, writing about them makes me want to act on them immediately.
5.) Projects in small doses. You don’t have to look at a project as a huge looming thing, and you don’t have to look at your work session that way, either. Tiny doses of a project are as helpful as tiny steps.
My Rebel Brain balks at things like schedules, to-do lists and goals, but sometimes, structure is exactly what it needs. I just have to be careful. To set goals so small that not even a Rebel Brain can complain.
I’ll set the oven timer and tell myself, you only have to write for 15 minutes, and then you’re done for the day. I usually end up doing more than I’d planned to.
There are other ways to give yourself small doses of a project. Mandy Wallace, who writes one of my favorite writing blogs, suggests setting a goal of 50 words. She also writes while lying down, which goes back to the idea of making yourself as comfortable as possible.
When I wrote my first nonfiction book in 2006, I told myself… you only have to pick up the manuscript and look at it every day. I did just that, and every time, without fail, I would see a change I wanted to make or an idea that needed to be fleshed out.
6.) If all else fails… bribery. When your brain tries to protect you from feeling uncomfortable, it plays dirty. Don’t be afraid to do the same. If this means holding a future reward in front of yourself like a carrot in front of a donkey? So be it.
I’m a shameless self-briber, and I take advantage of the fact that I’m less resistant to some activities than to others. Once again, I’m using my polymathy against myself.
When I wrote my second book in 2013, I had a rule. For every hour I spent working on the book, I could spend an hour playing with my dolls.
I would get to work right away, and I’d stick to it, Resistance or no Resistance. And then down to the basement I’d go to cut and dye some doll hair. Using bribery, I was able to finish the book in a month.
Is all this really necessary?
I’ve read a lot of creativity and productivity advice, and one thing I’ve heard over and over again is that if you’re not doing the work, it’s not a priority for you.
Those same people would probably look at my list and say, this is crazy. You shouldn’t have to bribe yourself if it’s something you really want!
I don’t think that’s true. I’ve avoided things I love the most, like writing, and I’ve also resisted things I want the very least, like selling my jewelry online. I can tell the difference.
For the things I don’t want, I would never in a million years think of tricking myself!
In fact, when I read this post by Havi Brooks, who suggested just the opposite — that we avoid a thing because we want it too much — so much clicked into place for me.
Here’s the part that changed the way I look at my work and my Resistance:
“If you weren’t avoiding it on some level, I’d be worried about you. If you could do the thing easily and painlessly, without having to spend years and years working on your stuff to get there… I’d probably assume that it didn’t mean everything to you.”
She said it so well, all I can add is: this. So much. Thanks, Havi.
What’s my motivation?
In the end, whether we truly want to begin a project depends on our reasons for taking it on to begin with. Just as there are some great reasons for picking a project, there are some not-so-great ones, and they can seriously sabotage a project. I’ll cover those in a later post.
Now I want to know: how do you start a project and cope with Resistance?