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March 23, 2018

Creative Procrastination is Brutal—but we have 3 Ways to Fight It.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us.” ~ Steven Pressfield 

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For the fifth day in a row, I sit in front of the computer screen and write…nothing.

Not a paragraph. Not a sentence. Not a word.

However, today, I’ll give it a better go…I take a few deep breaths and start on my pre-writing routines. I make an espresso, put on my headphones, and start listening to my favorite playlist for writing—which includes neoclassical albums, Yann Tiersen, Federico Albanese, and Hans Zimmer’s “Inception.” I then light up a short cigar and take a few puffs, just ’til my fingers find the keyboard.

I finally write a few sentences, but my rush of inspiration ends just as quickly as it started, and I lose my focus.

I check my phone, then my email, and within a few minutes, I’m chasing one link after another until I find myself on YouTube listening to an interview with bestselling author Steven Pressfield. In it, he talks about his book, The War of Art, and how we unconsciously block ourselves from doing our work.

These last two months, while battling physical pain from a broken leg, I’ve written just enough to get me through my MFA program requirements, postponing much of the heavy work for later. I’ve relied on old writings and a few “cheat” infographic posts to honor my promise of a weekly blog.

Last week, the doctor told me that I’m progressing well with my broken leg, but that I still have another six weeks on crutches. However, he assured me that since the pain and swelling have subsided, there’s less need for painkillers. And, I can lean my foot on the ground while writing (something that was a significant hindrance before).

Bottom line: I’ve got no excuse not to write.

I find myself in unchartered territory, stalling on my writing duties for the first time in years.

Some people call staring at a blank screen “writer’s block”—but to me, it’s just another form of procrastination.

I’m reminded of my 20-year-old self. With only a month to go before my exam dates came, I postponed studying so often that I finally had to book a hotel room and lock myself in it for 10 days to focus on 18-hour study days.

In the English dictionary, procrastination is defined as the act of delaying or postponing a task. Put another way, it’s self-sabotage. We place obstacles in our own path to avoid the work at hand.

In Steven Pressfield’s bestseller, The War of Art, he calls this the “resistance.” Pressfield argues that the primary enemy of creativity is “resistance,” an unconscious part of us that acts against our conscious desires and sabotages our work. He further explains that resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It arises from within and takes the shape of procrastination, lack of motivation, insecurities, self-doubt, and fear.

Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle described this behaviour as akrasia, or the state of acting against our better judgement.

Behavioural psychology suggests that we act in this way because our minds crave instant gratification. Procrastination is intractable, because it’s linked to deeper perceptions of time and the differences between “the present and future self.”

“When making long-term decisions, [people] tend to fundamentally feel a lack of emotional connection to their future selves,” writes Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA Anderson School of Management, who studies the present and future self.

His research has substantiated the argument that even though we know that the person we are today is the same as the one who has a deadline in a week’s time, we have little care, perception, or empathy for that future self.

We don’t care about how we will feel in a week or a month; but rather, how we feel now. It’s as if we treat the future self like a different person—one who won’t benefit or suffer from our actions today.

These are the three best ways I have found to beat “resistance,” or procrastination:

1. Dig deeper.

First and foremost, we need to recognise that it’s self-sabotage. This resistance isn’t some external factor, but something we are doing to ourselves. We have to look at it closely, as if we were battling our inner demons. There’s always a deeper fear or insecurity within us for why we are stopping ourselves from doing the work.

I became aware that I was feeling sorry for myself. I needed a hiatus from my suffering—but when I really looked at my plight, it was no big deal; instead, many lessons slowly started to emerge from it.

2. The two-minute rule.

In Dave Allen’s, Getting Things Done, he explains how we put off easy tasks that we could complete in a few minutes. Things like washing the dishes, replying to emails, and making quick phone calls.

The rule he proposes is simple: If it takes less than two minutes, do it immediately.

3. Baby steps.

When we find ourselves in the midst of this war against resistance, it’s best to break up goals or tasks into mini-goals and micro-tasks. Instead of telling ourselves we need to work out at the gym five days a week for an hour each time, let’s set a target of going twice a week for 20 minutes.

To get back into my writing groove, I set a target of writing for 15 minutes every day until I felt confident enough to get back into my usual daily hour. An article took three to five days to complete, but at least I got it done.

Unless (and until) we accept that procrastination is real—and a that it’s a problem originating inside our minds, rather than outside ourselves—we won’t be able to fight it. Resistance is real, and it is part and parcel of our working lives.

We must recognise that the work we do is sacred, whether in art (writing poetry, painting murals, playing the guitar) or in business (creating a marketing program, preparing for a quarterly meeting, setting a new company strategy).

We do the work for its own sake—not for money, fame, or some sense of belonging.

As Steven Pressfield said, “The most important thing about art(work) is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

Are you ready to fight your own resistance?

Then prepare for war.

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Relephant:

7 Ways to Conquer Procrastination Once & for All.

Facing Procrastination & Going Deeper: What Holds us Back from being Brilliant.

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Author: Mo Issa
Image: Unsplash/Allef Vinicius
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy Editor: Caitlin Oriel

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