Recently I posted a list of five books that I re-read every year. You can see that post here:
The first book on that list is The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield. If you’ve not read it, you should definitely fix that soon. If you have read it, you’ll know it’s a combat manual for writers (and other creative types) to deal with a force that Steve calls Resistance.
The thing about Resistance is that it’s like the mythological hydra – every time you recognize (and defeat) one manifestation of resistance then two more pop up to take its place.
That’s why Steve called his book ‘The War Of Art:’ because this is not a battle you can win in one day. It’s a campaign that you have to fight anew every day of your creative life.
And today I came across one of the favourite strategies that Resistance when creative people start taking action – and it’s something really sneaky strategy that you have to know about and guard against.
We’ll talk about that in a moment. First, let’s just talk about Resistance in case you’ve not read The War Of Art. (And seriously, if that’s you, do yourself a favour and get it. The Kindle version is less than 7 bucks on Amazon.com!)
So What Is Resistance?
Resistance is an internal force that comes from the Ego part of the brain. And the Ego part of the brain hates change – because part of the Ego’s job is to keep us alive. And back in the day – like seriously thousands of years back in the day – change could literally be a matter of life and death.
So Resistance can work like this: “Going hunting? Yep, we took that path on the left yesterday and caught some nice meat. And there were no predators. You want to try that path on the right? I’m not so sure? Ogg tried it the other day. He never came back, did he? And there’s lots of trees and bushes that way – great places for a sabre-tooth to be waiting. Why don’t we take the path on the left.”
Resistance is a big part of the reason why humans are such creatures of habit.
And if you try to do something different – especially something creative – Resistance won’t like it. And it will come up with different ways to try and get you back in your usual patterns. Your safe patterns.
But Resistance can be beaten – and did I mention that Steve’s book is worth checking out yet? Or that you’ll find a lot of the answers in there? In the rest of this piece I want to talk about the counter-intuitive strategy that Resistance has in its playbook.
What Is This Counter-Intuitive Strategy That Resistance Uses?
A lot of the primary strategies the Ego deploys to try and persuade creative folk like you and me to stop being creative are to do with self worth and the lack of it. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the internal voices of self-doubt: Why are you writing, no one is interested in your writing? You’re not an expert, people will see through you – better quit now. And go and do something safe. And not creative.
And these primary strategies deter a lot of creative people from properly expressing themselves. I know it’s true because I hear these would be creatives talking about being blocked, or waiting for the Muse to strike, or just not being inspired.
But these plays are obvious – and with a bit of knowledge and experience they can be avoided. And you can carry on being creative.
Here’s when the Ego deploys the counter-intuitive secondary strategy from the Resistance Playbook. Like many effective ideas it’s murderously simple:
Resistance opens up the floodgates and lets more good ideas bubble to the surface of your conscious.
The only rule it has is that these good ideas CAN’T be related to what you’re currently working on.
How This Counter Intuitive Strategy Can Derail You
Here’s how this one caught me out last November. I was working on a short non-fiction book. And about 8000 words in I was suddenly struck by a really interesting idea: ‘instead of writing a book, why don’t you do this?’
I made the fatal idea of taking some time away from my book to investigate this new idea that had floated to the surface seemingly out of nowhere. Deadly mistake.
When personal circumstances interrupted further and I had to take three days away from my desk for an emergency in the family. Three more days of not writing on the original book, – which was already starting to collect virtual dust – and three more days of thinking about this bright, new, shiny idea that had popped into my head…well, this play from The Ego had done its job and I barely wrote a word for December.
Other Ways This Page From The Resistance Playbook Plays Out
Have you ever experienced this whilst you were working on a project? You’ve put in a good few days and your project is starting to build up a head of steam when you get hit with an idea: hey, this would go so much faster and more easily if I could buy and learn this piece of software to create with.
Or: hey, this idea would be much better if I just took some time off to put together a proper system. That way I can repeat this at will. And in the long run I’ll be really productive.
And so on.
What Resistance wants you to do is stop being creative, stop the creative habit you are forming, and go and do something else. And eventually it hopes that you’ll just give up and go back to being ‘safe’ and ‘normal.’
I’ve been blindsided by this play several times in the last few years. If you’re not looking for it, it’s deadly.
But it can be overcome. And you can even turn it to your advantage.
How To Avoid Being Stalled
Here’s what you can do to avoid this play catching you out and stalling your project:
- Have an ideas book. If you get any great ideas whilst you’re beavering away on your work in progress, file them away in your ideas book. If they are truly good ideas…they’ll still be there when you’ve finished the idea you’re currently working on. You want to get in the habit of finishing things.
- If you suddenly decide that acquiring new hardware or software – and investing in the learning curve that goes with them – is a necessity for your future production, then you need to stop that idea in its tracks. If you decide you absolutely HAVE to go with this idea, then you make a deal with yourself: your writing or creative activity comes first and this task that you’ve identified has to fit in the remaining time available to you.
- Have some way of tracking the progress of your current project. It’s easier to remain focused on that project when you have some kind of tracking in place. A mastermind group is really helpful as well – so if you DO have some kind of idea that might derail you it can be pointed out to you.
- Re-examine the early planning notes you made for your work in progress – and try and rediscover the enthusiasm you had for it in the first place. And carry on working.
- Use a professional mindset. Work on it every day until it’s finished. Or five days a week until it’s finished. That one catches Resistance out – because it likes safe habits…and you’re using Resistance’s strength against it.
- Be vigilant for this happening – especially in the early days of a new project. When the first flush of enthusiasm for a project wears off – and it starts to become a slog – that’s when you have to avoid the siren song of new ideas.
This secondary strategy from the Resistance playbook can be beaten. And even better, if you make detailed notes about the ideas that Resistance tries to distract you with, then you can come back to those notes AFTER you’ve finished with your work in progress.
That’s one in the eye for Resistance.
Resistance is the internal force that all creative people have to face. When Resistance wins you hear about people suffering from ‘writer’s block,’ or waiting for the Muse to strike.
But if you overcome the primary strategies that Resistance uses, and start to create a creative habit, then Resistance counters with a secondary strategy.
It tries to lure you away from your work in progress by giving you loads of great ideas. Or convincing you that you need to learn something new in order to be more productive.
Both of these diversions can be deadly to a work in progress if you’re not really careful.
The way to stay on track is to make a habit of finishing things. Finished things can always be shipped – half-finished things never can. Any new ideas that you get can be recorded for use at a later date in an Ideas book, or a word processor file.
If you absolutely have to learn a new piece of software then allocate time to doing that only AFTER you’ve done your creative work for the day. Never before.
And have some way of tracking your progress to create momentum. Plus a mastermind group can help alert you to when you are being distracted.
The War Of Art
Seriously, if you’ve not read the War Of Art….do yourself a favour and go read it.
If you have any questions, feel free to post them below.