So I was talking with my mom the other day. She’s a psychologist and a qualified medical evaluator.
We were discussing our respective workloads (mom puts me to shame), and she made a comment that was so insightful it sent me running out of the room looking for a pen. (Sorry, Mom. That was rude of me.)
Her least favorite part of the job is writing Qualified Medical Evaluations (QMEs), which often require reviewing hundreds of pages of medical records and can take dozens of hours to write and edit. So to force herself to start, my mom first does the easiest possible tasks related to the report — typing her contact information, writing the patient’s name, etc.
Then, she said, after a few minutes, she’s fully checked in — reviewing, writing, editing, getting it done. Works every time.
I had just finished reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (the guy who wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance). The book (definitely worth your time) is all about beating what Pressfield calls “the resistance,” which is that part of us that’s scared to death to try anything, to take any chance, to do our work. So it shows up in all sorts of devious and subtle ways to undermine us — like procrastination, or distractions, or in my case writer’s block. Most of us never realize that all of these obstacles (and a zillion others just like them) are in fact the resistance. And that’s part of its genius and why it’s often so successful at stopping us from doing our best work.
My mom’s trick for getting started on her QME reports is simply to tackle the easiest parts of the job first. Like stretching or warming up before a workout, she eases into a daunting project almost by tricking herself (tricking the resistance, actually) into starting.
But once she’s started, other forces — her subconscious, her “muse,” call it what you want — conspire to help carry her the rest of the way.
That’s the point: the key to summoning up your creativity and productivity, especially when you’re staring down a difficult or intimidating project, is to ease in, to start with the small, simple stuff. It’s as though you’re disarming the resistance in you. “No need to worry, Resistance. Just tidying up a few things here. I’ll be back to procrastinating in a few minutes. You can go back to sleep now.”
It also occurred to me that I have read many variations of this concept, from wildly different sources, all describing essentially the same idea that if you can just get through the first few minutes of starting what seems like an overwhelming job, all sorts of help will start showing up.
Here are three quotes that I’ve found the most profound and helpful and which I hope can inspire you too.
From Steven Pressfield (author and screenwriter):
As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly. The act of courage (of starting that tough project) calls forth infallibly that deeper part of ourselves that supports and sustains us.
From Peggy Noonan (columnist and former presidential speechwriter):
It’s in the doing that we begin to care.
From the late movie critic Roger Ebert:
The muse visits during the act of creation, not before.
All are trying to tell us the same thing. Starting is hard, yes, but it gets easier very quickly after you start, and before you know it you’ll actually be enjoying the process.
Thanks, Mom. You were onto something, as usual.