Faced with an important task, it’s not uncommon to come up against a wall of resistance. In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield tells you how to break through.
I have a confession to make: The story you are about to read barely made it into this magazine.
It was written under the gun. It came in under the wire. It … well, just go ahead and insert your favorite phrase here. Tall tale short, I put it off until the last minute, and then watched that minute tick into hours, days and, yes, even weeks.
Deciding to come clean about this hasn’t been easy. I’m a professional procrastinator, after all. My bad habits have caused pain from time to time, of course. The wounds have mostly been self-inflicted, though, and I’ve become very good at suffering in silence.
For instance, I’ve been meaning to write a screenplay for years but have never gone public with my plans. So whenever I sit down and surf cyberspace instead of tackling that first scene, no one’s the wiser.
I’ve long been planning to adopt a strict, sensible workout routine, but hey, I’ve been a weekend warrior since college, proud and stubborn as I am sore on Monday mornings. Why change what I’ve always been able to barely get away with?
At first, this article was part of the same seemingly unbreakable mold. Several months ago my editor asked me to read and review The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield (Warner Books, 2002). She said I should take plenty of time to ruminate over its meaning. I said I’d get right on it.
It looked to be a quick read, just 165 pages of prose divided into a series of short, simply rendered meditations. I stored it on the nightstand, gave it a glance every night, then put my head on my pillow with the promise that I’d “get to it” tomorrow.
After a few months of putting it off, two days before my deadline, I was able to plow through the prose in a couple of hours. Then I realized my boss was right: To do the work justice, I would need some time to reflect on Pressfield’s ruminations. It would mean calling my editor and asking for an extension. It would mean exposing my dirty little secret.
The irony is that The War of Art is essentially about identifying the causes of, and finding remedies for, chronic dawdling. It is, in Pressfield’s words, about the challenges of pursuing “any activity that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health or integrity.” So, if you’ve been putting off starting an exercise program, a weight-loss regimen or a work project, read on. Now.
Putting Pen to Paper
Steven Pressfield is the novelist who wrote Last of the Amazons, Tides of War, Gates of Fire, and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Since his chosen profession involves getting up every day and making up stories, it comes as no surprise that, anecdotally at least, the act of writing is a recurring subject in The War of Art.
The man knows how intimidating it can be to get into a staring contest with a blank page, and so far he’s tried nearly everything to avoid the confrontation: self-medication, self-criticism, self-dramatization, self-indulgence, even casual sex.
In this book, though, the blank page is also a metaphor for any important, as-yet-uncompleted project. And anyone who has ever dreamed big, only to see their plans short-circuited by some form of self-destructive behavior, will likely encounter themselves on Pressfield’s pages.
Perhaps you’ll relate to the essay on the dangers of victimhood (“casting yourself as a victim is the antithesis of doing your work”); on criticism (“individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others”); or on fear (“the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul”). If any single chapter rings bells for you, the chances are good that, as you move deeper into the book, you’ll find yourself feeling altogether exposed. But you’ll also find yourself wanting to change the way you work (or don’t).
Pressfield organizes his book into three sections. In the first, he identifies the enemy, which he has come to define broadly as “resistance.” In the second, he offers strategies for combating resistance by, as he puts it, “turning pro” – developing the skills and discipline required to reliably show up for one’s work, even when one doesn’t feel like it. In the third section, Pressfield reaches into the space “beyond resistance” in order to investigate the mysterious realms of inspiration, where muses and other helpful forces counteract resistance and move us into alignment with our gifts and highest purpose.
The Path of the Procrastinator
The most common manifestation of resistance is procrastination, because it’s the easiest way to excuse ourselves: We don’t tell ourselves we’re never going to start training for that 10K race; we tell ourselves we’re going to do it tomorrow.
You cannot see or touch resistance, but it can be felt. You cannot smell or taste resistance; but listen close and you can hear that little voice listing the reasons you can’t or shouldn’t follow your muse to the blank canvas or the gym.
“How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to?” Pressfield asks.
Getting On With It
It’s a good bet that most bookstores will shelve The War of Art in their self-help sections, but those looking for a soothing, contemplative read would do well to prepare themselves for the book’s no-nonsense, no-excuses approach. Pressfield is a former Marine, New York cabbie and a veteran of Hollywood’s cutthroat studio system. And his creative-drill-sergeant mindset hits hard in the book’s second section, “Combating Resistance.”
In the chapter “How to Be Miserable,” Pressfield has a wake-up call for us softies who think we’re being nice to ourselves by allowing just one more day to start a project.
Anyone “committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not,” Pressfield writes. “He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable … Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.”
So how must one engage the enemy? Pressfield says no matter what you’re hoping to achieve, you must approach it like a professional. At its most basic, he suggests, that means showing up for the job, staying on the job, doing the important stuff first, mastering the techniques of the job and preparing to receive praise or blame in the real world.
On the pages that follow, readers learn that a professional is patient, seeks order and acts in the face of fear. The pro accepts no excuses, does not show off, accepts criticism from those he respects, and does not hesitate to ask for help. Most important, the professional abandons all hope that it will ever be easy. The professional knows that even if he wins the battle today, resistance will be hiding in wait the very next day. The war will never end.
Tough stuff, to be sure. But Pressfield knows that there is a payoff for such unwavering focus, which he describes in “The Higher Realm,” the third and final section of his book.
Free from the distractions of resistance, he writes, we are truly open and able to receive inspiration. “When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen,” Pressfield tells us. “A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.”
The precise nature of that purpose differs from individual to individual, of course, but Pressfield believes that whenever we dare to plumb the deepest reaches of our own resistance, we also tend to stumble into the territory of our most ego-less and selfless service. We come face to face with our destiny, asserts Pressfield, “and the answer to why we were put on this planet.”
I’d be lying if I said I’ve already achieved such heights. But I now understand that it’s devotion to the process of doing, not an obsession with the final result, that ultimately delivers. Procrastination seems a cheap trick compared to the promise of such a valuable outcome. Am I cured? Well, let’s just say I’m taking it one project at a time. One down, one to go. For as long as it takes.