Why starting helps get us unstuck

The hardest thing about writing a draft is starting.

Looking at a blank page can leave you feeling as though anything is possible, the words can go in any direction. The limits are boundless, so we procrastinate. We tell ourselves we’ll start writing once the right idea strikes, once we have a more vivid direction to go in. We often look to the internet for inspiration or direction but get distracted instead. The work waits for us, but we’re off pretending we’re waiting for the work to tell us what to do.

The blank page sits there because that’s all a blank page can do: wait.

If you’re trying to create—to write or paint or code— for fun or as a new habit or hobby, the pressure is even worse than if you’re doing those things professionally. That blank page isn’t just a blank page to the free-writer, it’s a choice. You could start writing, but there are so many other, more important or pressing things to get to, you’re better off waiting for inspiration to strike. So you’ll focus your attention on more important things like checking email, getting caught-up on your favorite tv shows, fiddling with an old project.

Of course with this mentality the writing or painting or coding rarely comes, and when it does: it’s slow and painful and often feels like a bit of wasted time. We try to convince ourselves we’re wasting effort by saying things like: “This is crap” or “I shouldn’t waste my time since I don’t know really know what it is I’m trying to make.”

Yet once we’ve begun creating, once the opportunity and pressure of the blank page have been corralled, the act becomes a little bit easier. Surprisingly, it’s easier to end a sentence than begin one. It’s easier to add ink to an already wet canvas. It’s easier to cross out a line, move the code around, or tinker with colors, once the work is already in front of us.

The reason for this is simple psychology: our minds need direction—some clear guidance—on what to think about at all. And we each tend to feel like: unless we have some guidance, we’re better off doing something else. The internet is always willing to think for us, so we tend to turn there first for inspiration. If we don’t feel the jab of inspiration, the clear signpost on which way to go, we don’t budge.

Of course once we start moving in a direction, we realize moving isn’t all that hard. The only motivation we often need is the direction we give ourselves.

When we pause for clarity we’re often fooling ourselves. We don’t need inspiration to start tackling a blank page, we simply need to start. With whatever thought comes to mind first. With whatever we’re feeling in the moment.

Capturing whatever you’re thinking or feeling the moment you encounter the blank page is a good way to get a direction clear in your mind. What you’ll find is as you start putting things down, they will surprise you. Things you write or paint or code will be things you weren’t really aware you were thinking or feeling or considering. Putting these feelings and thoughts down gives them clarity. The act turns our thoughts from mushy, cloudy things into tangible words and images you can not only see but now edit too.

Once you’ve begun, the rest of the work becomes a little bit easier. And when you have a few bits on the page, you can hone in on what resonates or calls to you and edit or remove what doesn’t. The spark of inspiration is often best found in the work itself: all you need to do is start. To fake it if you have to, but start.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

How to put your ideas into action

How does anyone turn any idea into reality?

Despite what it may appear to many: anyone who creates anything is figuring it out as they go—with few exceptions. Steve Jobs had absolutely no idea how to build a company, let alone a personal computer, but he—with help from others—figured it out. Warren Buffet knew little-to-nothing about investments or investment firms before he started working as one and eventually founded one of the most successful investment brands in the world.

Actor, writer, and comedian John Cleese put it best in his book So, Anyway by saying: “Nobody has any idea at first.”

To put it another way: a serial entrepreneur may have experience starting and running companies, that doesn’t mean they’ll know everything about their next company. If they did know it all and have all the answers, there’d be no point to starting yet another company. The same goes for a writer who is working on their next book, or the successful architect building their new project, or the app developer pushing code out for a new game.

In each of these things what matters is two-fold: 1. Do what you can now, and 2. Identify what you don’t yet know so you can go out and learn it.

If you want to invent a new type of machine—for example—but you know nothing about manufacturing or materials and imports or patent laws, you can at very least write a detailed description of what it is you want to build. You can go further and doodle what the machine might look like or how it might work.

From there you can start piecing the gaps in your knowledge together through research: if you wrote that your machine will mold some type of metal you should start researching metals commonly used in molding processes. You could find experts in machine production or patents and email them or message them on social media to get their help. You could go to the local university and see if they have groups or support to point you in a direction.

You have the entire world of knowledge at your finger tips, you could certainly figure out anything you might not yet know with a quick search on Google.

I’m getting away from myself here though. The answer to your question—of how to make something real with your idea—is to first do whatever you can right now, then identify what you can’t yet do and find a way to learn it or someone who might be able help you.

I’ve used this process to teach myself to code, design, make fine metal jewelry, paint, write, and more. I’ve written about this a lot as a result, here are some of what I’ve written which may help you:

The surprising truth about making ideas happen

John Cleese: Nobody Has Any Idea at First

How to take any idea and run with it

This post first appeared on Quora.

Two ways to tackle creative procrastination

Any time I sit down to create something, I face an immediate sense of being overwhelmed.

My mind immediately races across everything that needs to get done. I have to organize my tools, make sure everything is up to date and working, ensure that I didn’t break or otherwise ruin anything the last time I sat down to work, and double-check the Internet to see if there’s anything that might inspire me while I’m working. The list of things that must be done in order to prepare myself to work feels endless, and has nothing to do with the list of things that entail actually doing the work.

Maybe you feel the same way whenever you sit down to work?

Whenever we feel overwhelmed like this, our minds are naturally drawn away from whatever it is we want or need to do and instead attempt to find relief in the act of procrastination. And to not to fool yourself, procrastination can take on many different forms: it’s not just watching videos on YouTube or Instagram.

Procrastination can disguise itself as spending a little too much time organizing your desk space, or of saying you need to “feel inspired” and then spending an inordinate amount of time browsing the web for something—anything—that makes the job ahead of us feel at least a little bit easier. Procrastination is really anything that doesn’t produce tangible results for the job at hand.

When we shy away like this from the work that’s sitting in front of us, waiting for us to explore it, we miss opportunities to get just a little more of the puzzle solved. To see a little more of the stone carved out. To make that small amount of progress that might actually end up inspiring us, or motivating us, toward a creative result.

Our attempts at somehow making the work easier by avoiding it tend to have the opposite affect. We burn precious hours and stumble on “inspirations” which aren’t often what we really need in order to do our best work.

If we want to deal with the sense of being overwhelmed any time we sit down to do creative work, there are two, more helpful, options.

The first is to simply dive-in. Don’t give your brain time to chicken out. Sit down and get started and see what happens as a result. It’s a way of faking it to make it happen, and doesn’t give the logical, un-creative parts of your brain enough time to realize what’s going on.

The second option is to really focus on breaking down what must be done into very actionable steps. Write it down. Each step should have a clear deliverable that you can cross-off. This is a way of being logical with what needs to get done while also creating a clear plan on how to do so. Once the list is created, the only thing to do is go back to the first option: dive in.

Any time I bring up the topic of procrastination, I have to mention the unforgettable quote from Merlin Mann, who said:

“We procrastinate when we’ve forgotten who we are.”

That is to say: when we have work to do but face the urge to instead flip over to Netflix, or skim across Tumblr, or open up Instagram one more time, it’s worth taking just a moment to remind ourselves of who we are and what we want to accomplish.

For me, I want to be someone who shares insights on how to be more creative and do more with your ideas. I can’t accomplish that if I’m watching videos or playing games all the time. It can only be done by putting the words on the page, or designing the work, and sharing it. That’s it.

Once I remember that fact, that I’m someone who shares insights into creativity, I can either dive right into the work, or create a clear outline for how I can get it done.

What about you? Who are you, what do you want accomplished, and if you were to drop everything right now and just dive into doing what you can, with what you have now, what would happen?

You already have all the tools for creative work

“The tone is in the fingers.” - Jason Fried, Founder of 37signals and author of Rework.

Too often impostor syndrome creeps up on us and begins a conversation that can prevent us from doing our best work.

We’re reminded of our past failures or short-comings, the negative or unfair criticisms we’ve encountered along our way, how talented and more fortunate peers are performing around us. In these instances we often find ourselves paralyzed and unable to do creative work. What’s the point, anyway?

Sometimes, though, we fight the feeling of being an imposter. We do this in numerous ways: by drudging through the work, or by seeking motivation from others. Commonly we’ll use the feeling of being an imposter to seek out newer and shinier tools. Tools, we think, that will allow us to do better work merely because they’re new and different. If the tool we’re using is the problem, we tell ourselves, then that means I’m not a failure!

All these things are undoubtedly helpful in their own ways, but more often than not they become traps. They pull is in with false promises of relieving our symptoms of feeling like imposters, of feeling not good enough, only to have us realize we’ve wasted time researching tools or inspiration when we could have been working, learning, and growing our abilities. This is particularly true in our search for the best or shiniest tool for the job. Even if we have perfectly fine tools sitting in front of us, we’ll tell ourselves we can’t do our best work until we have what “the pros” use.

We can’t do remarkable design unless we have expensive software (never mind the free stuff). We can’t write unless we use the same tool our favorite authors use (again, who cares that it’s almost identical to the free stuff). We can’t paint unless we have the most expensive brushes and high quality canvases (despite the fact most famous artists start with cheap brushes and tissue paper). We can’t tell our story unless we pay for expensive blogging software (because tumblr just won’t do).

Of course, sooner or later, you’ll be back to square one. The tools we use matter, but only if we have figured out how to use the most basic among them.

Gordon Ramsay, the multi-Michelin starred, internationally recognized chef and TV personality shares in his book:

“It is better to be an under-equipped doer, than an over-equipped poser.”

The difference between the posers, the real imposters, and everyone else is simple: they don’t do the work.

To be an imposter is simply to not do the work, to not grow, to pretend as though you have all the answers and the only thing holding you back is a different tool, a more expensive brush set, a better pen.

To be a true creative means you’re constantly pushing to do the work itself, regardless of the tools you’re using. If you’re a creative, you’ll find a way to make the work with whatever have in front of you anyway, right? Isn’t that the definition of creativity?

And when you do start to feel like an imposter, you won’t wast eyour time seeking bandaid solutions. Instead, remind yourself that maybe you feel like an imposter because you’re growing:

“We adjust our expectations of ourselves in the same manner we adjust our capabilities as we learn and grow. So our notion of what it means to be someone who is creative evolves as we progressively do more and more creative work. As we grow our creative “bar” gets set higher and higher, so not only do we fail to notice our new nature of thought and capabilities, but we feel as though we’re continuously missing the mark. We compare ourselves to those we look up to, those we work alongside, and their creativity feels boundless. But what we fail to see is our own growth, and how outer comparisons are not precise or entirely accurate.”

Use what you have to do what you can, start now.

Building systems for staying creative and not burning out

Creative work happens between the birth of an idea and seeing the idea come to fruition. The result of the work is something useful, something to be experienced, something from nothing. Of course, your milage may vary.

To the general observer the creative process looks simple, even easy: idea, action, success. To those only seeing the end result, creative accomplishments appear to get done simply by magic. Just like in the movies.

Of course, this perception changes depending on who you ask too. An analytical, business-minded thinker might see the creative process as beginning with a goal, working through execution toward success. But it doesn’t always work that way either, as famed entrepreneur Derek Sivers once said:

“Notice how most business plans have this line pointing to the right that keeps going up? It doesn’t happen all the time.”

The reality is that the creative process is more wild and unpredictable: idea, draft version 1, experimenting, obstacles, learnings, adapting, back to the drawing board, version 2, another obstacle, experimenting, fine tuning, repeated until you can step back and call the work “good enough.”

There’s a lot of hard work involved in the creative process. Obstacles and failure cause frustrations, which is why at times creative work can be almost as exhausting as physical labor. Creative workers are exposed to analysis paralysis, depression, anxiety. These don’t always take a physical form, but they can be debilitating to experience.

The creative process is both beautiful and grimy at the same time. But mostly it’s just exhausting.

How do we, as creative thinkers and workers, develop habits to combat the inevitable feelings of exhaustion that come with creative play?

Scott Adams in his book, How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big, recommends focusing on systems instead of goals.

How does that work?

Many people have been conditioned to go after their goals with a low level of specificity. The advice might be familiar: dream big, be bold, be ambitious, “just do it.” This type of mentality often leaves us feeling confused or uncertain, prone to procrastinating or clumsily taking action then quitting after bumping into the most minute obstacle. Or, we run forward and when we face any uncertainty we persist, we must carry on, which causes us to eventually run out of willpower.

The key is to build a system of thinking that simplifies how we manage our time, energy, and willpower for our creative pursuits. What does a system look like?

Prioritize taking care of your body. You can’t dedicate energy toward doing creative work if all of your energy is reserved for instead staying awake, or fighting a sickness, or getting out of bed in the morning. Start with a healthy diet, get some level of exercise, sleep, and if possible: take walks, outside and without your smart phone. When in doubt, remind yourself that it’s ok to take a break.

Develop habits that enforce creative work and when to take breaks. If you know you wake up every day at the same time to write or doodle or tinker, there’s no guess work involved; the time is already set, you just have to show up. A simple creative to-do list, or list of experiments you want to try in your work, can help too.

Employ the help of a friend (or two). Most of histories greatest creative minds never worked alone. They may be famously framed as a lone genius, but the reality is they always had someone behind the scenes helping them work through problems, prototype ideas, and providing guidance on how to overcome obstacles. Whether that’s a partner or a close friend, never hesitate to pull in a friend who can get you out of a creative rut.

Whenever you’re stuck, or when you start feeling overwhelmed with your creativity, ask yourself what system you’ve developed to maintain your creativity?