Procrastination is the enemy of success. I should know. I’m a procrastinator.
At various points in my life, I was a supreme procrastinator. Fortunately, unlike drink, one can be a little bit of a procrastinator unlike trying to be a little bit of a alcoholic. I could still function relatively well, but not near my greatest potential. The demands of work and life helped cure me of my worst excesses, but the tendency is still there. The problem usually revolves around things that require a lot of effort and high expectations (usually self-imposed). Some things you can put off simply because they don’t need to be done now and it’s more efficient to put them off. (“How about never? Never works for me.”) I’ve no problems with this. However, some things worth doing – like writing a blog –often get put off for no good reason.
My history as a procrastinator led me into investigations of the will and how we often fail to do what is in our best interest. I learned that the ancient Greeks had a term for this called akrasia. This refers to our ability to fail to do things that are in our best interest, or to do things that are clearly to our detriment. It is the first cousin of self-deception (which I believe the Greeks would consider a form of akrasia) and probably related in some way to the problem best identified by the Desert fathers, that of acedia, or sloth or torpor. In any event with you call it procrastination, akrasia, or anything else, it’s a real pest.
Writers are among the best procrastinators in the world. They even have a name for it: writer’s block. Something about looking at the blank page (or screen) seems to shut us down. This has probably happened to anyone who’s had to write something that they want taken seriously and that can have some ability to change the world and themselves--they will have put it off at some point. Writer Stephen Pressfield addresses this problem in his two books, The War of Art and Do the Work. Pressfield doesn’t identify procrastination as the primary problem, but he names it as a sub-set in the larger picture that he labels Resistance. He thoroughly describes and analyzes it... He knows it firsthand. Indeed, in the War of Art, Pressfield is all about Resistance and how to deal with it. Pressfield describes Resistance:
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn't write, a painter who doesn't paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is . . . .Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.
Pressfield goes on to describe those arenas where Resistance most often manifests. Recognize any of them?
The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.3) Any diet or health regimen.4) Any program of spiritual advancement.5) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals.6) Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.7) Education of every kind.11) The taking of any principled stand in the face of adversity.
In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art (p. 5-6). Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.
Having read to this point, I was hooked. Pressfield’s description was like looking into a mirror. I may not be in the gutter, but I have a way to go before I could claim to have reached the point of not having to pay attention to this.
Having defined the Devil (we can apprehend Resistance as form of evil and personify it), Pressfield goes on the catalog the wiles of the Devil, just as the Desert Fathers might have done.
RESISTANCE IS INVISIBLE. Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It's a repelling force. It's negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.
RESISTANCE IS INTERNAL. Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. "Peripheral opponents," as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.
RESISTANCE IS INSIDIOUS. Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that's what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.
RESISTANCE IS IMPLACABLE. Resistance is like the Alien or the Terminator or the shark in Jaws. It cannot be reasoned with. It understands nothing but power. It is an engine of destruction, programmed from the factory with one object only: to prevent us from doing our work. Resistance is implacable, intractable, indefatigable. Reduce it to a single cell and that cell will continue to attack. This is Resistance's nature. It's all it knows.
RESISTANCE IS IMPERSONAL. Resistance is not out to get you personally. It doesn't know who you are and doesn't care. Resistance is a force of nature. It acts objectively. Though it feels malevolent, Resistance in fact operates with the indifference of rain and transits the heavens by the same laws as the stars. When we marshal our forces to combat Resistance, we must remember this.
RESISTANCE IS INFALLIBLE. Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. . . . . Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
RESISTANCE IS UNIVERSAL. We're wrong if we think we're the only ones struggling with Resistance. Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance.
RESISTANCE NEVER SLEEPS Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five. In other words, fear doesn't go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
RESISTANCE PLAYS FOR KEEPS. Resistance's goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.
RESISTANCE IS FUELED BY FEAR. Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.
RESISTANCE ONLY OPPOSES IN ONE DIRECTION. Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually.
RESISTANCE IS MOST POWERFUL AT THE FINISH LINE. The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we're about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it's got.
RESISTANCE RECRUITS ALLIES. Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there's a parallel peril that must also be guarded against: sabotage by others. When a writer begins to overcome her Resistance — in other words, when she actually starts to write — she may find that those close to her begin acting strange. They may become moody or sullen, they may get sick; they may accuse the awakening writer of "changing," of "not being the person she was." The closer these people are to the awakening writer, the more bizarrely they will act and the more emotion they will put behind their actions. They are trying to sabotage her.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art (pp. 6-19. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.
Okay. I must stop now, as I’ll end up including the whole book. From this description of traits, Pressfield goes on the catalog the techniques of Resistance, number one of which is—you guessed it!—procrastination.
So what do we do with this awful thing? How do we fight the Devil? By “turning pro”.
By “turning pro” Pressfield means that you “do the work”. You show up each day and do something that you need to do to further your project. You set aside all of the crap and put on your game day face. You approach life as a warrior, as one who comes to work (even if it’s just to the typewriter on your kitchen table) ready to perform. The cure to Resistance is to turn pro and to do the work. According to Pressfield, it’s that simple, and I think that he’s right. We show up to do what we need to do just as we show up for our jobs each day and do what we need to do, only with one difference (unless you’re very fortunate): you show up for love, not just a paycheck.
Pressfield’s list of “pro” attributes is a complete and impressive. I particularly appreciate this quote:
A professional schools herself to stand apart from her performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul. The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art (p. 88). Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.
Although I didn’t see it quoted in the book, I’m sure he’d give the nod to Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech as well.
Part 3 deals with “allies”, those forces that come to the aid of the pro. Pressfield in this regard sounds a bit like Castaneda’s Don Juan, but he has a point. As the saying goes, “God helps them that help themselves”. So it is in these situations. Pressfield shares this quote:
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now."
— W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art (p. 122). Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.
This part is more speculative, based on religious intuition and Jungian psychology, but it makes sense and gives a larger perspective to Pressfield’s project. He outlines a Jungian distinction between the Ego and Self in a battle between the small “I” that clings to the status quo and the “I” that represents creation and fulfillment. It’s not just our little battle, but it's part of a larger cosmic conflict. Regardless of the degree of credence you give to this perspective, it taps into some of the most potent and evocative archetypes of human kind in order to situate our struggles.
Having defined Resistance and how we can slay the dragon, Pressfield takes a more practical bent in Do the Work (but this isn’t to suggest that The War of Art isn’t practical: to the contrary, it’s immensely practical, but Do the Work is more of a playbook). You now know what you have to do, this goes into how to do it more effectively and with greater clarity.
In fact, early in the book, Pressfield lists traits now mentioned in the earlier book, those traits that aid us:
Our Allies Enough for now about the antagonists arrayed against us. Let’s consider the champions on our side:
- Blind faith
- Assistance (the opposite of Resistance)
- Friends and familyPressfield, Steven (2011-04-20). Do the Work (Kindle Locations 130-134). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.
Pressfield breaks down the artistic process with for closer examination. He starts at the beginning and shares this suggestion: “Don’t prepare. Begin.” (Kindle Location 172). Pressfield discusses a number of practical tips to aid the process and to overcome the guiles of Resistance. For instance, he addresses one of my weaknesses, research; you know, just one more case or law review article to make sure of such and such before I start to write. But Pressfield nails it:
Do research early or late. Don’t stop working. Never do research in prime working time. Research can be fun. It can be seductive. That’s its danger. We need it, we love it. But we must never forget that research can become Resistance. Soak up what you need to fill in the gaps. Keep working.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-04-20). Do the Work (Kindle Locations 315-317). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.
Yup. He’s got it figured.
Pressfield offers an extended quote from Marianne Williamson on “the fear of success”, which he argues is foremost among our fears and actually much more intimidating that the fear of failure (which simple allows the status quo to continue). Williamson writes:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you . We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-04-20). Do the Work (Kindle Locations 717-722). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.
Pressfield (via Williamson) doesn’t encourage us to play small ball.
These books are insightful and encouraging. Light reading in one sense, not long, not complex. But they go for the jugular and if you have any endeavor that creates Resistance (such as Life), you’ll likely benefit from these works.