There are over three thousand books in my parents’ house, about a third of them mine. Sometimes people forget which books belong to who, or hasty, opportunistic use is made of a gap, and overflow from someone else’s collection ends up in mine. So it was that some time in my teenage years, my mother’s copy of Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway ended up spilling out of a pile of books stacked horizontally above others more neatly shelved in my bedroom.
Being an introvert, and on the basis of the few passages I read flipping through, I always interpreted Jeffers’ book as being about social anxiety, though on looking it up again I see it’s about fear more generally. Though I probably should read the whole thing, I always found the title alone seemed to tell me all I needed to know. In my mid-twenties, when I was trying to rebuild my social life in Melbourne after a six-year relationship followed by a year abroad in Japan, it was the basis of a rule I set for myself: if there’s an opportunity to go out and you don’t want to go, you must go.
The title sprang to mind when a writer friend, an extrovert, asked recently for advice on how to stay in her room and write while travelling, because she finds herself desperately wanting to go back down to the hotel bar or restaurant to be in company.
Specifically, the question was this:
Can the introverts among us provide any thoughts to assist me to value time alone, and not wonder what I am missing out on?
And this introvert’s answer is, you might never come to value that time alone, but you can still get your work done.
The War of Art
Most people find writing hard, and not just writing, either, but any creative work or important task.
In his excellent book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Resistance gathers around the most deeply important tasks of our lives. For those to whom mystical concepts appeal (as they appeal to Pressfield and I), Resistance may seem to gather around the work that is essential to completing our hero’s journey or fulfilling our destiny.
For my friend, wanting to go back down to the hotel bar is a good sign: it shows she’s trying to do something that’s crucially important for her. If it were easy, trivial, or a distraction from some truer calling, no Resistance would gather around it. “We can navigate by Resistance,” Pressfield writes, “letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before others.”
Now back to the bad news. Resistance never gives up. You will always meet it, and you must always fight it. If you’re an extrovert, Resistance may tempt you away from your work by offering you the hotel bar (or worse, a drink with a friend). If you’re an introvert, Resistance might instead make you think you aren’t ready to write your new book because you need to do more research first, or it might have you tidy your desk, go out to buy new stationery, or arrange your personal book collection according to the Dewey Decimal System.
Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you must learn to experience your boredom, or trepidation, or hunger for community, and do your work anyway. In fact there’s little specific advice that an introvert can offer, because if you solve the apparent problem of not valuing time alone, the many-headed beast Resistance, which is the real problem, will simply give you another reason not to do your work. And there will usually be some trick embedded in that reasoning: who is to say, aside from your Resistance, that you cannot go to the hotel bar with your laptop, sit in the presence of its patrons, and do your work?
You feel the fear, or the boredom, or the craving for stimulation, and you carry on with your work. You sit at your desk, or in your chair, or wherever it is, and you just do it. Over time, you will form habits that make you stronger in your endless battle against Resistance, but the paradox you must break out of is that you will never build that muscle if you don’t start out by doing the work you feel you can’t or don’t want to do. So just do it.
But that is easy to say and hard to do.
Three techniques for doing the work anyway
If you’re going to wage war, you’ll need some weapons. Here are three of mine.
1. Inflexible discipline
Setting aside a certain part of your day, even a small part, to do whatever is most important to you, is one of the most powerful techniques there is to get it done.
You have to make this absolutely non-negotiable, and it can also help if you position this time when there is no possibility of anyone or anything interrupting you anyway.
While I was writing the manuscript that would become Kiss Me, Genius Boy, My Generation’s Lament and Seize the Girl, lunchtime was my time. I left the desk at my office job, relocated to a café, and spent an hour writing new words.
My biggest distraction for most of this time was always girlfriends, one of whom was highly dramatic and not terribly respectful of my work (or study, or values … but that’s another story). Try as they might, friends, family, and lovers will seldom really understand or even respect your need for time to do your work (or Resistance may have you project this lack of understanding onto them), so you need to get away from them.
The number one merit of my lunchtime cafés was that a girlfriend would never interrupt me there, so five days a week, that hour was mine, and it belonged to my work. While many of my colleagues frittered their lunch hours away on make-work errands or social chatter, I wrote a 250,000-word, three-volume novel. And it felt good.
Lunchtime won’t work for everyone. An early bird friend of mine used to get up at 5 a.m. to get her book done. My night-owl grandmother stayed up after her husband and six children had gone to bed so she could paint undisturbed into the early hours of the morning. When your time falls in the day doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re ruthless about reserving it, doing the work in it, and keeping it safe from others who (often unknowingly but sometimes very intentionally) aid your Resistance by interrupting you.
Strangely, being inflexible about the time you need to do your work can help you take the pressure off yourself. Though you must in fact work, and not check your Facebook, write letters to your friends, or procrastinate in any way, you need not feel pressured to always be feeling inspiration or doing your best work. If you attempt the work in the time you set aside, and do that repeatedly, you will form a habit and the ideas or whatever inner resource you need will rise more readily to meet your summons. Pressfield describes this as giving the divine—call it the Muses—a chance to work through you. Conceptualize it as you will, just set that time aside and do your work.
As a bonus, when the time is up, you can leave your work and go back to whatever you like (the hotel bar, the Dewey Decimal System). But for extra credit, if you have built momentum and want to keep on doing your work, I recommend giving in to the impulse. The chance to do that is one of the key things that I won by leaving my old office job to run my own business.
2. A change of scenery
Believe it or not, even as an introvert, I get tired of sitting alone all day doing my work, too. Part of it is that I just get bored with the setting: my apartment now is pretty basic and there’s not much natural light or a terribly good view.
Having one room there where I do very little other than work helps me recognize that it’s work time, although there’s the unfortunate matter that my writing space is also the space that I do my client work, and there’s also a bunch of home clutter around that confuses things.
In the café scenario I mentioned, one benefit was that I had shifted to a space that, at least for me, was dedicated to writing. But it was also important that it was comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, I could enjoy a good coffee, and be taken care of by relative strangers who were friendly and sympathetic, but wouldn’t intrude on my work.
There’s an ambient pleasure in going to a good café (or library, or park, or whatever works for you) that acts as an incentive to separate yourself from your ordinary life, and from your Resistance, and do your work. I’d relish my chances to go to Moulin Noir in Port Melbourne, to the Blue Diamond in Chiang Mai, and even to well-laid-out Doutor franchises in Japan. By contrast, I’ve felt my motivation sapped a little by this dimly lit apartment, the inhuman megalopolis of Bangkok, or when my former job relocated to an inhospitable corner of South Melbourne where my best option was a crowded and drafty café that served ten-dollar sandwiches and was eventually taken over by overly chatty new management. (Yes, that was the best option—Albert Road is a wasteland.)
If you can find a place that makes you want to go there and write for your allotted, non-negotiable time, it can be a significant help to your discipline. This is another reason that the hotel bar my extrovert friend has been avoiding may in fact be the perfect place to battle her Resistance.
For extra credit, you can use the change of scenery to eliminate distractions. Leave your phone somewhere else. If your computer distracts you, disable the internet connection, leave it at home and write on paper, or buy a new computer or tablet that you use for nothing but writing.
3. Break it down: The Pomodoro Technique
I mentioned before that if you’re stuck in your work and you’ve got momentum that makes you feel like continuing, it’s a great idea to just keep on doing that work. Continuing is often easy. But starting can be really hard.
I love the song “You Might Die Trying” by the Dave Matthews Band, especially the first three lines:
To change the world, start with one step
However small, the first step is hardest of all
Once you get your gait, you’ll be walkin’ tall
My younger self used to keep from starting work by thinking that I had a huge task ahead of me and would be at the keyboard for eons. I’d write in six- to twelve-hour binges once a fortnight or month, then do no more work for weeks because the prospect seemed so daunting. Little of worth got finished this way.
Eventually the complete ineffectiveness of binge writing (at least for me) left me open to the wisdom, so widespread now that it seems conventional, that you should take big tasks and break them into small ones.
This doesn’t have to mean that you plan out every step of whatever project you have in mind, run it through an excruciatingly detailed GTD process managed by a hundred-dollar piece of software, estimate how many hundreds of hours it’s going to take, draw a Gantt chart and put dated milestones in your calendar for the next year.
For me, I’ve found that “breaking it down” can be as simple as knowing “what’s next” (a mantra wilfully misappropriated from the above West Wing scene), and sitting down to do it for a short time.
The Pomodoro Technique has been extremely effective in helping me do this. There’s plenty of information available on the website, but here’s a very short summary.
- Get a timer. It’s called the Pomodoro Technique because Francesco Cirillo, who invented it, used a timer shaped like a tomato, and pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. If that doesn’t work for you, get an app that’ll do the job. I use Tomatoes on my Mac.
- Set the timer, and work solidly and without interruption for twenty-five minutes. This twenty-five—minute period is called a pomodoro.
- After each pomodoro, take a five-minute break.
- After four pomodoros, take a long break (but not too long!). I give myself half an hour.
I don’t always know how many pomodori I’m going to do when I sit down to write, or do something else, like study or client work, that Resistance gathers around. But I do know that I’m going to sit down for just twenty-five minutes, and after that I can take a break. If I can keep at that for two hours, I get a full half-hour to do whatever I want: read a book, watch a movie, play videogames—whatever restful or unproductive thing I want, completely without guilt.
As it turns out, I often use my pomodori for some “creative procrastination”, as Austin Kleon calls it in Steal Like an Artist. Here, I trick myself into doing something where I’m battling Resistance, by disguising it as leisure. These days I switch over to working on my novel when I get a long break after four pomodori of client work, and often I build up momentum on that and keep on working for one, two, or three hours. Getting caught up in this “procrastination” is never really bad if I’ve cheated Resistance and hoodwinked myself into doing the most important thing in my life.
Starting my day, or my non-negotiable writing time, by doing “just one pomodoro” of something important gets me into my work. It makes me take that first, hardest step. After that, I’ve got momentum, and I can continue on relatively easily.
Often, then, I have the problem that I don’t want to stop working. If you don’t want to face exhaustion and burnout, eventually you’ll have to tackle this, too, but not being able to stop pursuing your destiny is an entirely different and better problem to have than that you are wasting your life by not doing what is most important to you.