Beat your resistance with a daily practice

It is 8:45 on a bank holiday. The kids are at home and I’ve just put pancakes into the oven (the Swedish way).

I’m sitting in the kitchen and suddenly an insight comes to me. I feel the urge to write about it. An idea for an illustration comes at about the same time.

I take my computer and my notepad, and I go up to my working room. I make a quick sketch of the illustration idea, start a Pomodoro timer, and start typing.

Now, why did that happen? How come I went so fast from inspiration to action?

The answer is: daily practice.

Daily practice

I used to want to write. I’ve been wanting to write for as long as I can remember. And I’ve been wanting to blog since my second daughter was born. That’s nine years ago now.

Whenever I’ve had a good opportunity to write—which I have every Friday on the train to Düsseldorf—I’ve said to myself: “Yes, I will write. I’m just gonna plan a bit first.” (Planning happens to be my favorite procrastination technique.)

Then, lo and behold, suddenly there is only 15 minutes left of the train ride. Not enough time to start writing. At least that’s what I tell myself.

The same principle applies to painting and illustrating. I’d like to finish an illustration today. And that should be possible. But while thinking about it I can feel the resistance building up.

Resistance is something author Steven Pressfield talks about a lot. Resistance usually isn’t very vocal. That’s the problem. Often we discover it after the fact. Oops, why did I spend two hours researching realist art schools in Europe? Oops, how come it took me 11 days to publish that post after I had both written and illustrated it?

If I’d examine my thoughts when the resistance is active, they typically go something like this:

  • “I won’t make it. It’s too little time.”
  • “Drawing is hard!”
  • “It will look amateurish. It will be embarrassing. I don’t want to post something like that online.”

So why had writing become so easy for me? Why had it become something I could pick up and do, without having to overcome the resistance first?

The answer is: I’m doing it daily.

You could say that it has become a habit, and habits are, as you know, things you do without thinking about it. But I actually think there’s more to it than that. It’s the act of doing it daily.

There is something magical about doing something every day. (Or at least every workday.) Doing something daily prevents the resistance from appearing in the first place. And hence you don’t have to overcome it.

How I created the daily writing habit

So how do you start writing or painting daily? Well, here is how the daily writing habit happened for me:

  1. First, I and my friend Sari decided to have a virtual writing date one day a week. Tuesday mornings at 10. We send each other a WhatsApp message and then we start a 25 minute Pomodoro timer. We usually do two to three Pomodoros before we stop.
  2. After a month or so I complained to Sari, that I did have other times during the week at which I could write. But I didn’t. I could write Fridays on the train to Düsseldorf. But I didn’t. We decided that from that point forward that I had to write the first thing I did on the train. No more planning for me!
  3. Only a week or so after that I started writing daily. It was not something I had planned—it just happened. First I wrote on Tuesdays with Sari. Then Tuesdays with Sari and Fridays on the train. Then suddenly I was writing most days of the week.

My experience with writing daily has made me realize how important it would be to paint daily. It would be so nice to sit down in front of the Cintiq without any resistance.

Tips for creating a daily drawing habit

Here are some ideas for creating the habit of drawing or painting daily:

  1. Create a virtual painting date. If you know someone else who also wants to paint more often, make a virtual appointment with him or her. Agree to paint “together” at a specific day and time. Then message each other at the beginning and at the end of the painting session.
  2. Start with only one painting day per week. If you’re painting some weeks and other weeks not, see if can get in only one regular painting day per week. And if you’re already painting once per week, see how you can get in two painting days per week. Then build it from there.
  3. Doing it at all is more important than doing it well. Remember that you don’t have to do a lot if you’re planning to paint every day. A quick and dirty sketch will do. Set a timer to anything from 5 to 25 minutes. As James Clear has shown, even very small actions keep up the habit. And keeping up the habit is more important than any one painting that you will do.

Now, I don’t believe that doing something daily is the only way to beat the resistance. But if you can fit it into your daily routine it’s definitely worth trying. It’s easier to get started with your work if you don’t have to work through the resistance first. Then you might get inspired and “just do it” even if it’s a bank holiday, the kids are at home, and the pancake is in the oven.

As I was in the process of editing this I heard an interview with Camille Dungy at the Raise Your Hand Say Yes podcast. She talks about how instrumental it has been for her to establish a daily writing habit, with sometimes as little as one or two sentences per day. Give it a listen for more inspiration on starting a daily practice.

How we hold ourselves back (yet how it’s not all that bad)

I was skyping with my friend Doris the other day. I told her I wanted to dedicate myself fully to my long-time dream of writing.

The thing is, I could decide to do whatever I want with my time. My husband is the breadwinner of the family. So I have that luxury.

But there are things that I feel that I should be doing. I feel that I should work and earn money. To just write, with a very low chance of ever making money… Well, so far I haven’t allowed myself to do it.

I also tend to get derailed by all the things that I could be doing. If I illustrate my own blog posts I could also illustrate for pay. If I write about self-help I could also offer coaching.

In that way I keep adding projects and even whole professions to my life.

The question is: If I’m yearning to write and I don’t need to earn money, then why don’t I? Why do I end up pursuing all those other things?

“Isn’t it funny,” Doris said. “It’s like we’re in this hot air ballon, and we’re about to take off. But we don’t allow ourselves to gain hight. Instead we use all these sandbags to make sure we don’t climb to high.”

The hot air balloon is our real dream. It’s our big, hairy, audacious goal. And the sandbags are our should and our coulds. It’s the stuff that we feel we ought to do. It’s all the shiny objects; all the things that we could do.

Shoulds and could not all bad

But are the shoulds and the coulds all bad?

“If I only knew what’s right,” I said to Doris, feeling a bit exasperated. “Is making money the most important thing? Or is pursuing my long-term dream of writing the most important thing? If I could only figure out what is right.”

Doris answered, “Both of them are important. That is the thing. You will never be able to figure out what is right, because both of them are right at the same time.”

Yes, that is the thing. So often we find ourself choosing between two equally important values. Two equally high priorities.

The fact is, if I would focus 100% of my time on writing I’d probably freak out. Because I’m not planning to make any money with it. I’ve tried that route before (freelance writing) and I decided it wasn’t for me. If I would pursue writing alone my inner reptile voice would become very loud. It would continue to scream about the importance of making money until I caved in.

That is the thing. What we really want, our big, hairy audacious goal, it is—audacious. It’s scary. We need courage to pursue it. And in the worst case it gets so scary that we jump out of the basket.

Useful sandbags

Here is were the sandbags come in. If we leave a few sandbags in the form of our shoulds and our coulds—that can actually be a good thing. Useful ballast. They make the journey less scary. We know we won’t lift too high too soon. We remain within our comfort zone – or ideally, at the rim of it. But not so far outside that we want to jump.

The right balance

So what is a good balance then? How much helium should we use for the balloon? And how many sandbags should we hang around the basket?

I’d say, use as few sandbags as you can. Try to ditch as many shoulds and coulds as possible. At the the same time, it’s fine if you want to leave a couple.

Here is a simple exercise that you can do from time to time to calibrate your balloon ride.

  1. Write a list of all your shoulds. Do a sentence completion on “I should …” . Do it as many times as you can.
  2. Write a list of all your coulds. Again, do a sentence completion on “I could also …”. See how many shiny objects you’ll come up with.
  3. Make a list of all your real wants. Start the sentence like this: “At this point of time, my authentic desire is…”. I find that works the best. I ask myself this from time to time while walking the dog. Doing this on a regular basis gives a lot of clarity.

In my case I have started to write daily. Finally after years of yearning, I’m now actually doing my dream. At the same time, writing is not the only thing that I’m doing. I’m also dedicating myself to painting. I enjoy painting, but unlike writing, it is something that I do for money. Like Doris said, both are right.

How important is it on a scale from 1 to 10?

I’m sitting in the student restaurant (Mensa) in my home town Hamm. I'm thinking about Essentialism, a term coined by Greg McKeown. Essentialism is something I turn to time and time again when I’m attempting to do too much at the same time.

Is this essential?

The big question of Essentialism is: Is this essential? And if it isn’t it goes. You don’t do it. You cut it out of your life.

Think about how many non-essential things you spend your time doing. What if you would use that time to further your most important goals instead?

Many creative people—and people who love to learn—tend to spread themselves too thin, taking on too much. A bit of painting here, a bit of web design there, a bit of photography there. But not all of these tasks and activities are a valuable use of your time.

On a scale from 1 to 10

The most useful thing I’ve taken from the Essentialism book is this exercise:

  1. Write a list of all the activities and commitments you have in your life. I like to do include all the activities that I attempt to do too. Here are some examples:
  • Write daily
  • Write weekly
  • Daily drawing practice
  • Do German vocabulary
  1. For each of the activities you then ask yourself: On a scale from 1 to 10, how important is this to me? Then you write down the number next to each activity.
  2. Now you have a list of engagements to the left and a number from 1 to 10 on the right. The next step is to strike everything with a score of 8 or lower. Simple as that.

Coming up with a number is usually the easy part. I even do it with my kids sometimes. “How much do you want to start pony riding on a scale from 1 to 10?” They can usually tell me with precision.

The difficulty comes when you actually start to implement it. When you decide tonot do something that scores low.

I know, it seems radical. But it can also be liberating. It gives you permission to get yourself out of activities that aren’t important to you. And it gives you time and space to focus on what is truly important to you.

It is like the 80/20 principle, where 20% of your efforts bring 80% of the results. Only here we’re not only looking at the data—the results. Instead we're determining what kind of activities are important to you.

Stumbling blocks

There are a few things to watch out for when doing this exercise.

  1. One tricky thing is, that when you know that eight is the cut off point, you might start to cheat. You might tell yourself that an actual eight is a nine.
  2. You’re honest about the number you’re giving it, but you still cannot bring yourself to cut it out of your life. It’s simple concept, but it’s not always easy to put it into action.

So why is it so difficult to say no to the sevens and the eights? Heck, it’s even difficult to cut out the fives!

The thing is, all the activities that are sevens (or fives), they are good things. But they aren’t as good as the nines or the tens. And who wouldn’t want to have more nines and tens in their life?

You can only do so much. And hence – why not choose the thing you want to do the most?

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don't have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

― James C. Collins, Good to Great

Bigger decisions

I know, I know, there are other things to consider too. There are other ways to test what you really want to do. But at least it gives you some data. Especially for non-crucial activities it’s is a very useful tool.

What you really want is under what you want

I came across this text the other day while googling “what you really want” (not for the first time):

“We often say we want one thing, say a million pounds, but what we really want is to give up our day job and go and live on the Costa Del Sol. Rather than focusing on what you think might get you what you really want, why not focus on what you REALLY want?

Sometimes you find that what you really want is easier to get than what you thought your Big Dream was. Sometimes you find that you can start to LIVE what you really want now, today, rather than waiting”

The text is written by Donna Higton and it really hit me. I’m very good at coming up with “noble” goals and aspirations. I keep reaching for what is achievable (with enough hard work and persistence). But often, behind it, is my real dream. What I actually want.

My “real dream” has for as long as I can remember been to write. Painting has played second fiddle to writing ever since I was a kid. Yet painting is what I’ve spent most of my time doing.

But why is that? There aren’t many prerequisites to becoming a writer. You don’t need to have “a million pounds”. You only need to make the time to write. So why haven’t I done it?

Let’s break down the quote above and dissect it. Here is the first part:

“We often say we want one thing, say a million pounds, but what we really want is to give up our day job and go and live on the Costa Del Sol. Rather than focusing on what you think might get you what you really want, why not focus on what you REALLY want?”

How do you find the real want?

The question is: How do you know what you really want? How do you know that there is a deeper want hidden beneath your so called Big Dream?

Here are some pointers:

1. Your intuition

Your intuition might pop up now and again and whisper: “This is not the right thing for you. This goal is close, and it’s good, but it’s not it.”

If you’re honest with yourself, deep down inside you know. But otherwise, if you’re uncertain, how do you hear your intuition?

You often hear your intuition when you have a little time off. When you’re in another setting. On a train or in a café. In another town or on vacation. Being away from the ordinary helps you access your intuition.

Another way is to decide to dedicate some time to your thoughts and to your dreams. To create space in your life to think.

Some people access their intuition through meditation. Others while walking in nature. For me it works best to write.

2. Journaling

You can become aware of what you really want by journaling or by doing writing exercises.

While I was on a plane I did an exercise in Barbara Stanny’s book Overcoming Underearning. It made it clear to me what's most important to me. The exercise goes like this:

  1. Put yourself in a good atmosphere (e.g. a café or, in my case, on a plane).
  2. Ask yourself: What would you do if you had only six months left to live?
  3. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind.

I was on my way to a two week vacation Portugal when I did this exercise. It was the perfect setting to feel open for possibilities and to feel like anything was possible.

3. An old dream that you can’t shake

Your intuition can speak to you in the form of an old dream that keeps prodding you. Something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but somehow never get around to doing. That’s what writing has been like for me.

I’ve been wanting to blog since my second daughter was born. That’s nine years ago now. Nine years of not writing. Yet the dream has stayed with me year after year after year.

Do you have a dream like that? A dream that you can’t shake. A dream that begs you to give it a try. That might be your real want, the want behind your Big Dream (the “million pounds”).

How do you make your real goal your real goal?

So, now, once you’ve become clear on what you really want. How do you shift from your good, reasonable goal to your real, actual goal? Let’s address the second part of the quote:

“Sometimes you find that what you really want is easier to get than what you thought your Big Dream was. Sometimes you find that you can start to LIVE what you really want now, today, rather than waiting”

In Donna Higton’s example, it might be easier to find a way to go and live on the Costa del Sol than it is to make a million pounds.

In my case, I have now given myself permission to write several times per week. My goal is to write or edit every day of the week. It doesn't always happen. Still I'm writing a lot more than when I didn't write at all.

Now over to you:

  • How can you start living your dream today?
  • How can you start to do it?
  • How could you experience it now, this day or this week?

If it isn’t something that you can start doing today, such as writing, then:

  • What can you do now to start working towards your real goal?
  • What would be the first, small step?

What stops us from pursuing our real goal?

What is stopping us is often not that it’s difficult, or hard, or takes an inordinate amount of time. What is stopping us is that we are afraid.

When you’re not doing something that you want to do, then there is always some level of fear behind it. But often we're not even aware of this fear. It shows up as procrastination instead.

Please have compassion for yourself. Going after your real dream is scary. Being afraid is completely normal. And it's the real reason the person above didn't immediately plan to go Costa del Sol.

Accept your fear. Work through it. And take one small, not so scary step. Which one is it going to be?