This article was originally about writer’s block — a particular kind of procrastination — but as some readers have pointed out, it applies to anything you’ve been avoiding. Writing is my example here; you know better what it is you’re avoiding right now.
Getting myself writing used to feel something like trying to start an old lawn mower. Occasionally I’d get it running right away, but most of the time it would take at least a few rips at the cord, and I was always aware that I might not get it to turn over at all that day.
This made it feel like there were days I could write and couldn’t write, and I could never do much more than hope it was the right kind of day. Some time in the last year I lost most of my fear of writing, or at least by now I’ve experienced enough of that fear that I can see it has a rather simple and predictable structure.
I’m not saying I’ve defeated it, only that I understand it enough that I can always get myself to the point where I actually write something. I still encounter creative fear every day, but it arrives in only a few predictable forms and I know what to do for each one.
There are four forms, and almost every day they ride out to confront me in the same order. I call them the Four Horsemen of Writer’s Block, but they are undoubtedly the same evil forces that stifle creators of all types.
Initially they come in disguise, seducing travelers away from the creative path. Often they defeat you without your even knowing it. Once you know their names and their strategies, you begin to see your encounters with them as an everyday part of your job that need cause you little trouble. But be careful. Even if you’ve defeated them a hundred times they will still be capable of tricking you — in fact, my overconfidence allowed the first one to outsmart me yesterday on the piece you’re reading.
Know which you’re dealing with and what to do for each.
The first horseman is responsible for the greatest number of casualties. Usually he alone is enough to defeat a given person. His persistence is the primary reason there are people who believe they have no creative ability at all. He keeps the majority of the population from ever even beginning to do their best work.
His name is Tomorrow and his first arrow is so sudden and penetrating that it can slay your creative spirit for the day before you even notice his arrival. Every subsequent day he attacks from farther away, until each assault can kill weeks, months and years of your creative life.
Across his breastplate his mantra is etched: “Now is not the time.”
His strategy: He wants today to look spoiled to you, so that tomorrow, next week, or next year seems like a vastly better time to get to work. When you notice it’s 11:17 and you’ve got nothing down, you begin to think that today’s energies might be better invested in laundry or errand-running. This is his deathblow, and it is so insidious it feels good.
His weakness: Tomorrow needs you to regard future days as your most fertile creative periods, making today look comparatively unsuitable for working. When you recognize that it is actually impossible to do work tomorrow, then you know to stay with your work until something starts to take form. Today is the only day you can ever work, and once you see this truth, he is defeated.
The second horseman arrives in the quiet hours of the morning, when you still feel the abundance of a whole day ahead of you. He’s most effective when Tomorrow defeated you yesterday and you’re determined to work today, but still rattled. The prospect of creating is slightly scarier to you today than it was yesterday and it is this scent of blood that attracts your next enemy.
Later is well-dressed and generous, and the inexperienced traveler is drawn to him. He flatters you for your commitment and industriousness, and extols the principles of emotional preparation and the rejuvenating effect of play. The moment he senses your anxiousness about getting to work, he reassures you of the abundance of time. After lunch, after dinner, after the next episode of Orange is the New Black, there is a clear stretch of time to work, and you’ll be more energized and balanced then. Sometimes he will offer you cannabis.
His strategy: Later offers you gifts but they must be accepted immediately. He sells you on what appears to be perfect compromise — do whatever you like now, as long as you get to work right after after lunch, or right after dinner. It’s a nearly irresistible deal: at the time you accept the gift you believe are losing nothing, because you’ll simply do the same amount of work later in the day, and you get to enjoy a lovely treat right now.
His weakness: He can defeat you only if you never learn that work only gets harder throughout the day. Accepting his morning gifts weakens you in several ways simultaneously. Firstly, you’re using the day’s freshest hours to do its least demanding activities; secondly, you’re training yourself to expect the easy and fun part of the day to come before you begin working; and thirdly, some part of you knows that you have already sold out on your high expectations for the day, and the day becomes tinged with shame. Tomorrow will be upon you in an instant. If you do begin to work later, you’ll expect less of yourself and you’ll quit early. If you follow a policy of never accepting gifts of gratification before you’ve done enough work to be proud that day, he cannot win.
The third horseman waits until you’re at your desk, having thwarted the first two opponents. Rather than sneak up to you, he rides in to the sound of trumpets and pyrotechnics. He wears a great blue cape with a white lower case “f” on it. On his tunic are embroidered his emblems of power: a coffeemaker, a sudoku grid, a banana nut muffin and a Reddit alien.
Though Distraction has been antagonizing writers and artists for centuries, his power has grown a hundredfold in the past few decades. In fact, he is threatening to dominate an entire generation of youth, who worship him by absently fondling a black or silver rectangle they carry in their pockets.
Those who write for the web are particularly vulnerable to his power, because he lurks in the very tools the writer uses.
His strategy: He wants to reduce your output by diluting your writing time with social media time, second breakfasts and daydreaming, so that you start to believe you need enormous blocks of time to produce anything. When you begin to despair at your inability to get anywhere, you will stop working for the day, leaving you ripe for all four horsemen to descend upon you when they please.
His weakness: Distraction works by enchantment. He doesn’t want you know you’re distracted until you’re too hooked on the distraction to quit immediately when you do realize. You have to learn what the in-the-moment sensation of becoming distracted feels like, and when you notice it, return your attention immediately to what you were doing, without “resolving” the distraction. It is easier to learn to do this in small stretches. Set a timer and declare the next thirty minutes distraction free. Snap back to the task at hand the moment you notice you’re not doing it anymore. This is a muscle you have to work.
The final enemy often waits until you’ve actually begun to get somewhere. You may even be almost done a day’s work by the time you notice his long shadow creeping across your workspace.
Self-doubt stalks every creative and will appear at some point during every project. His figure is indistinguishable from Death — dressed in black with a bare skull for a face. Sometimes you just spot his silhouette on a distant hilltop, and then he will disappear, allowing you to finish. But you know you saw him and you are left unsettled about your work. Other times he may ride right up to you, unfurling a great black banner that says, “Everything you write is shit.”
Unlike his predecessors, who are satisfied with merely ruining your day, his aim is to get you to stop forever.
His strategy: To get you to give up on your projects out of the belief that you’re missing a crucial ingredient, typically talent or inspiration. Creatives who believe they’re missing something must either wait for it to come to them, or quit the pursuit altogether.
His weakness: Primarily, he needs you to believe that bad work is avoidable and that it threatens your good work. Self-doubt has trouble gaining traction with the writer who is unfazed by producing something he knows is bad. If you embrace your shitty work as a necessary component of getting to your good work, he begins to doubt his own effectiveness. Joel Saltzman’s analogy of writing as panning for gold is helpful — the gold is only ever found amongst many times as much sand. If you see the sand as being in the way of your gold production, you stop producing. Good writing needs bad writing, and the less resistance you have to one, the more easily the other comes.
Self-doubt is the most complex of the enemies to creativity, and it can come from a lot of different places. But having a name for the stifling force goes a long way towards continuing to work regardless of its presence.
Essentially, if you know which foe is stifling you at a given moment, it’s not difficult to defeat him. Expect them to come in this order, but be aware that they never really die. When you have trouble with one of them, often the others will reappear, even if you’ve already handled them that day.
I’m convinced now that these four enemies make up the entirety of everyday resistance to creative work, that they are predictable and that anyone can defeat any one of them on any given day. There’s really not much that can stop you if you decide you’ll keep working no matter who shows up.