The Futility of Resistance

 The sneaky ways procrastination can disguise itself as progress

Stop pretending you're in research mode.

I admit I love those lists that make the rounds of our various feeds–untranslatable words for charmingly obtuse concepts. A personal favorite has always been l’esprit de l’esacalier, “stairway wit,” or TFW you come up with your wittiest retort or sick burn after the fact. Or the particularly resonant boketto, which in Japanese describes vacantly staring in the distance without thinking, something that I catch myself doing not infrequently when I’m writing. Recently I’ve come across tsukunde, also Japanese, and meaning hoarding more books than you can read at a time. 

The good news is that I’m certainly not alone in this habit, and really, there are worse things I could do. My books don’t languish though. I may rack ‘em up, but I also knock ‘em down. There is almost never a time when I’m not reading and note-taking, day or night. Whether I’ve diving into sourdough or startups, I invent a curriculum for myself with a syllabus full of required reading. Is there, perhaps, a word out there that describes this sort of compulsive learning?

Oh wait, yeah, there is. The word is procrastination.

Here’s a quiz. Let’s say you’ve got a really big idea, one that’s been brewing for a long time, and you finally decide to just go for it and tackle it head-on. Where do you start? Is it by:

  1. Mapping out the domains of the project and creating task/to-do lists for each;
  2. Thinking about the outcomes you’d like to achieve and plotting milestones against them on a calendar;
  3. Listing all the resources and dependencies necessary to get the project off the ground;
  4. Signing up for courses, and reading blogs and books by experts in the area.

Gotcha! The quiz was rigged. While all plausible and sensible starting points, each of these can equally be a form of procrastination.

In other words, they're ways of getting ready instead of getting started. 

The desire for knowledge and insight and the need for organization and planning should not be diminished. I’m not in the least suggesting that you go headlong and willy-nilly into your big, juicy creative projects. But if you’re anything like me, and you find yourself deep in rabbit holes of research, capturing pages and pages of notes, or writing and re-writing to-do lists, I AM suggesting that maybe, just maybe, you’re not actually moving forward the way you think you are.

In Big Magic, a book I keep coming back to in my own research loops, Liz Gilbert says this:

"Most of all, there is this truth: No matter how great your teachers may be, and no matter how esteemed your academy’s reputation, eventually you will have to do the work by yourself.”

Sigh. Of course she’s right. Even when you are truly passionate about learning, and in a world that offers infinite delights of information and inspiration, at a certain point you have to face the fact that learning is not the same as doing. There’s only so much reading you can do about brain surgery before you actually have to just go poke around some brains. (But there’s a lot of reading to do first though.)

Steven Pressfield, prolific author of stop-thinking-start-doing books on creative projects (more research cantstopwontstop) thinks of procrastination as resistance–a dark force or tension that pushes us away from “the unlived life within us.” I suppose you could also call that fear: of failure, of rejection, or even fear of the change that embracing our parallel “unlived” life may bring.

As someone currently in the throes of launching a new project, I’m facing down this resistance every day. Fortunately, I am well-equipped for battle. It just so happens that the tools for creative problem solving I’ve honed over the twenty years of my design career are incredibly handy in these situations. Fundamentally, my work as a design strategist has always been about unpacking wicked problems, breaking them down into manageable bits, and establishing a plan for tackling them systematically. There’s plenty of thinking and learning involved, sure, but given the frequent constraints of time and budget, you’ve got to be focused on action. 

With clients, it’s my job to facilitate a prototype mindset. How can we think big, start small, and learn fast? What are the smallest steps we can take that would show success? 

Designer Tom Cavill captured this well in his talk at a local meet-up: “The privilege of being a designer is that we have permission to try things, and hone it until it’s right.” Meaning, we acknowledge and accept that sometimes stuff might not work. Essentially this comes down to designing experiments–putting small and less risky tests of an idea into the world to get feedback early on, before committing to and potentially over-investing in a single idea. We test, learn, and iterate. 

Now, about that project I’m working on. Well, you’re sort of looking at it. The idea that I’ve had brewing for awhile has been to find a coherent way of merging the skills and know-how I’ve developed in my design career with my passion for all manners of foodie pursuits. 

What does that mean exactly? I’m setting out my stall as an “experiment coach” to help foodies and creatives bring their ideas into focus so they can shape, test, and launch purpose-driven businesses. What does that have to do with writing this blog? Everything! Writing each week’s post has been a kind of prototype- testing out what I had to say about some of the creative challenges I’ve faced and also figuring out what sort of space food and cooking and writing occupied in my life. Moving my newsletter to a blog format is a prototype of how I might extend my content into new territories and create a broader platform. I’ve also been prototyping a coaching program with a willing friend who’s been more than game to let me experiment with her life and food business. In fact, I’ve got a whole bunch of other tests lined up, helping me to go, as Anne Lamott recommends, bird by bird

So in putting my money where my mouth is in terms of learning and seeking feedback, I’d love to hear from you. What creative problems do you need help with? 

What are you doing on Tuesday?

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