follow the friction: how to stop procrastinating the hard part
The path of least resistance
We are all hardwired to take the path of least resistance, like electricity. To do what’s easy, take the shortcut, skip the hard part, go home early, put down the book and open Twitter, faff around instead of working.
I do this all the time. When I am struggling with work, I will find any conceivable way to avoid the discomfort. I’ll make the tenth cup of tea, talk to whoever I can find, decide to walk home to say hi to my cat, make Spotify playlists, whatever. A lot of the time the procrastination is insidious fake work - unnecessary research, writing paragraphs I know I'll delete, sketches, faffing around with formatting. Anything to avoid the hard part.
William James summed it up:“I know a person who will poke the fire, set chairs straight, pick dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation—simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests." (That person was himself if you hadn't guessed.)
It’s what Steven Pressfield calls the Resistance, Seth Godin calls the Dip and I think of as the point of maximum vulnerability - the point where we are most liable to quit at the slightest discouragement because everything is difficult. The point where there is nothing to hide behind and the path of least resistance is quitting. We know we don't really want to quit, so we find any way to pretend to still be working without getting to the hard part.
I’ve written before that I think it’s important to pay attention to procrastination. But I have since realized that there are two types of putting things off. There is the genuine type that occurs when we don't know what we are doing and/or don't know why we're doing it.
When we clarify both issues and still don't want to get started, it's the other type; we know what we need to do and why, and we're scared of it. Scared of the vulnerability it brings. Scared of the friction. Scared of pushing through the Dip.
Rennaissance artists used to say Ogni dipintore dipinge se - the artists paints himself. No matter what we are doing, we often put a lot of ourselves into it. If you've ever looked at something someone you know has made -be it a meal, a song, a poem, a living room decorated for Christmas- and thought that's just so them, you know what I mean. That's the hard part, the part where we get resistance to carrying on.
Follow the friction
I recently had a challenging work-related phone call booked. Phone calls to people I don’t know well terrify me so I tend to avoid them at all costs. When the time came, I physically couldn’t pick up the phone and had a panic attack in the coffee shop where I was working.
The following week I realized I needed to get a handle on this before it got worse. So I scheduled a bunch of calls, read a few pages of Fight Club before each to psych me up, then did it. By the time I put the phone down, I was shaking and had to go for a walk to calm down. I felt like punching the air and telling everyone I saw that I had done it, I'd made the call and hadn't combusted. Dealing with calls has been a lot easier since then as I can remind myself that if it was fine that time, it will be fine this time.
I keep finding that the only way forward is to follow what feels most difficult (which Seth Godin describes as ‘leaning into the Dip.’) Exposure therapy works for phobias. A few people have told me that the hardest part of getting over a mental illness or addiction is the point right before you win - when it fights to keep a hold on you because you’re almost there and are scared to let it go.
It’s the same with making art. The hardest part is right before the magic happens. Push through it and you feel invincible as if anything is possible now that mental block is gone.
Another source of friction I'm working on at the moment is shyness and unsurprisingly, the only thing that works is diving headfirst into discomfort and talking to random people. Every Sunday, I go to work in a few different coffee shop and give myself the goal of talking to at least three total strangers. In the span of a few weeks, it has had a dramatic impact on me. Weirdly, total strangers have started striking up conversations with me too.
There are three things I try to remind myself when I'm tackling sources of friction:
It’s not logical.
Of course, it’s not logical. It’s not logical to be scared of working on something we enjoy, or of submitting it to the world, or of asking for feedback. But most fears aren’t logical. My cat is terrified of the vacuum cleaner - so much so that even when switched off, the mere sight causes her to leap about five feet in the air. My friend’s dog is petrified of a particular cupboard and gets hysterical if anyone opens it.
When the fear creeps in, I remind myself that I’m like my cat freaking out at a hoover - scared of something completely harmless. It’s a revelation the first time you realize that you can feel that vulnerability and just keep going.
Doing my TEDx talk, for example, was one of the scariest things I have ever attempted. I didn’t sleep the night before or the night after. I was literally dry heaving backstage. The point for me was as much about overcoming that fear as is it was about the actual talk.
Let the pressure build
Sometimes stepping away can make things easier when we return. The pressure builds. The urge to get the work increases. By the time we return, it’s almost unbearable. I’ve heard quite a few people talk about how they put off writing their book for years until they felt they couldn’t physically continue living without getting it out. By that point, fear of criticism doesn’t enter the equation - the work just needs doing for its own sake. The greater the fear, the more necessary the work.
Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road by letting the pressure build for years, until the book pretty much spewed out of him in a few weeks.
Many of my blog posts are written this way. An idea emerges. I note it down, then wait for a few days, weeks or even months. Then one day, in the middle of something, I feel the pressure to write it and I type like a maniac to get the half-formed words out. Relieved, I can then return to whatever I was doing.
Lean into the friction
This is really the only thing that works and it’s what I make myself do. Systematically finding sources of friction then forcing myself to deal with them. To actually lean into it and embrace the discomfort. A bit of mindfulness - paying attention to the physical sensations provoked by tackling a source of friction - does wonders. When I look at my heroes, it's often a case that they did just that. They figured out what felt uncomfortable, then put it into their work. It comes down to a strange sort of willpower, as Balzac put it:
"There is no great talent without great willpower. These twin forces are needed to build the huge monument of an individual glory. Superior men keep their brains in a productive state, just as the knights of old kept their weapons in perfect condition. They conquer laziness, they deny themselves all debilitating pleasures . . . Willpower can and should be a just cause for pride, much more than talent. Whereas talent develops from the cultivation of a gift, willpower is a victory constantly won again over instincts, over inclinations that must be disciplined and repressed, over whims and all kinds of obstacles, over difficulties heroically surmounted."