As I write this, we’re on the eve of an important election here in the United States. I’ve done very little today, and I think tomorrow may be a wash as well. These are the kinds of days when it is super hard to concentrate. But these are also the kinds of days when it’s most important to concentrate. During times like these, retreating into the world we’re crafting, the memory we’re trying to resurrect, the sense we’re trying to make of our runaway imaginations can be the thing that keeps us healthy.
And so today, I want to talk to you about my single greatest tip for moving forward:
Oh, hey, lady, you’re thinking right about now, thanks for a whole lot of nuttin’! And you’d be right. It’s super easy for any of us to say “just start,” but how realistic is it when you can’t even corral yourself to sit at your desk for more than three minutes before you feel the need to get up and burn off some nervous energy or before you feel the desire to do some housework instead of wrestling with a difficult character. (Ironing, by the way, is very satisfying. Poof! Wrinkles gone. If only we could do that with our plot problems.) As with anything, there are tips and tricks to get around it. Writer Anne Lamott, in her classic Bird By Bird, reveals that she puts a 1-inch frame somewhere on her desk. When she sits down to write, she tells herself, “All you have to do is write enough to fill that 1-inch frame.”
Me? I have a bright pink Post-it note stuck to the bottom left-hand corner of my monitor. In block letters, it reads, “Just. Start.” And there’s another trick in my computer. I have an app called SelfControl. It blacklists certain websites (all my social accounts; all of my email clients) for a certain time period, so I really have no excuse but to work in my word processing program or do research. I can set it for as few as 15 minutes or for as long as a day. Usually, I set it for 45 minutes, which is about as long as I can work for before I need to get up and stretch or look at something else.
This little tool is handy for another reason: It prevents the decision fatigue I sometimes suffer when it comes to something like checking email or social media. When I know I’m meant to be working on something I care about, something that will take work, I incur a certain amount of guilt when I start to open up my email client or go to type in “Instagram.com.” But with something like a blacklist, that decision is taken away from me entirely: It’s not an option. So, I don’t even have to think about either feeling guilty or making the decision to click or not to click. It sounds like a small thing, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll know.
Speaking of time, there’s always the trusty Pomodoro method, where you set a timer for 25 to 30 minutes and then take a two- to three-minute break. Invented in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, a management expert, and named for the tomato-shaped timer he used, it also calls for a longer break once you’ve completed four or five work rounds. People in the know say it works because you get a reward – the break – at the end of each work session. And the short break isn’t long enough for you to get too distracted by something else.
There’s another thing you can do to make just starting easier, and it has to do with reducing the friction of any one task. When I say “friction,” I mean resistance. If it’s harder for you to do something, you’re less likely to do it, right? This is what people mean when they say things like, “It’s as easy as falling off a log.” When I hear this expression, I don’t just think about a log in the woods somewhere; I think about a log in one of those log-rolling competitions, where there’s nothing but slick water all the way around. You almost can’t help but fall off that log, can you? Our job is to make just starting as easy as falling off a log into a river.
While management expert Laszlo Bock was the head of human resources at Google, he put into place some initiatives that made it possible for Googlers to eat more healthily. How did he do this? He put unhealthy snacks in opaque containers and healthy snacks in clear containers. When Googlers couldn’t see the unhealthy snacks, they naturally went for the healthy ones, which they could see. It was as easy as falling off a log. Bock based this decision on economist Richard Thaler’s work around choice architecture, and it can be seen in other workplaces, too. Some companies, for instance, place their bathrooms strategically so that you’re forced to pass through areas like the kitchen or other communal areas. You’re then nearly always bumping into someone from another department on your way to or from the bathroom, and you might have more constructive interactions because of it.
I’ve been thinking about something a friend said to me when I lamented that it had been many moons since I had done anything that was creative and voluntary. Everything I was writing was for assignment, and it had been a long time since I had done anything for the sheer pleasure of making something new. “Surely,” my friend countered, “this is when you get out your paintbrushes.”
In her comment, I thought, was the problem. There was still plenty of capacity for me to enjoy something like watercolor, which is an art I have dabbled in for some time. I am still new enough at it to make joyful mistakes; I still enjoy pushing myself. But she had said, “This is when you get out your paintbrushes,” and that’s when I recalled Bock’s food containers.
My painting tools are always out of the way, put away on shelves or in cabinets. When I go to paint, I have to make a deliberate decision to do so. “I am going to paint now,” I say to myself – truly! – and although no one will argue that setting an intention is a very good thing, one could also argue that the intention is pointless if you then encounter friction strong enough to stop you from doing a thing.
I made a change: I carved out a little corner for myself. I put a drafting desk in that corner, and I leave my paints, drawing and painting implements, and paper out on that desk all the time. I do not put them away because then I would have to take them out again, and that extra step would create just enough friction that I probably wouldn’t do the watercoloring. And then I definitely wouldn’t reap the enjoyment I get.
Remember how we talked about how the break in the Pomodoro routine was its own little reward?
Well, I want to tell you something. The enjoyment you get from spending some time in the writing world or in the fictional world that you’ve created for your work in progress or with the characters that populate your memoir, that feels like a reward in and of itself. The satisfaction you get from knowing that you completed a couple of paragraphs, or just enough to fill a 1-inch frame, count that as a reward, too.
Tinkering with words; spreading some knowledge about what you’ve learned; discussing writing, after a fashion, with other writers – even that’s a kind of reward.
I know this to be true because for the first time all day – we are at the end of the workday here in California – I have completed something: I have finished writing this column. And after those first few rocky minutes, the sheer joy of writing and of passing on what I know to you has carried me through to the end of this task. This is my reward.
Now, it’s your turn: Just. Start.
Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.