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How to Tackle the Difficulty to Start

The difficulty to start may be one of the biggest setbacks in achieving almost anything in life. You sit down to write the first chapter of your book. You are bothered by some items on your desk, so you clean that first. Then you put some music on. No, but you can’t concentrate with this music, so you change the music. You adjust the brightness of your screen and then you check social media just in case. Then you think that maybe you should do something else instead, because writing a book may not pay off. You decide to stick to your plan, however, and write, but then you check how much time has passed and realise that you are actually thirsty….

Does this sound familiar? In my case it sometimes gets even worse. I used to start feeling guilt about not doing almost everything else except the project I am currently working on. Should I call my mom? Should I answer 57 e-mails? Should I actually work on another project which is in some ways more important? What is something that you would like to start but have been postponing? How do you usually overcome the difficulty to start? Share your strategies in the comments below. Here I share mine:

A very common advice is that the best you can do is to start NOW. In most cases this is true. However, if you just start, it does not guarantee that you will automatically focus and get into the state of flow which is ultimately the goal. Also, very often, as we know, starting is difficult which is likely the reason you are reading this. The most important thing in overcoming the difficulty to start is to decide in advance what you are going to do and then stick to it. This can be enforced by preparing yourself and your surroundings for your task. Imagine that you are going to a swimming pool. Can you do anything but swimming there? Can you procrastinate? Well, you can, if you really want, to spend more time in sauna or jaccuzi  than you wanted to, but in general you can’t check e-mails, go on social media etc. Why? Because you have left all your stuff in the locker and prepared yourself and your surroundings for one thing and one thing only: swimming. Same here. If you want to start writing an essay next morning, prepare already in the evening. You don’t start the essay in the evening, so there is no anxiety involved. You just prepare your desk so that everything is ready for you to begin writing. Open the relevant files on your computer (provided you can suspend it and re-open everything as it was), clean your desk so that you are not distracted once you sit down at the task, and if you know you will probably want to sip on tea during the work, make tea-preparation in the morning as easy and efficient as possible: prepare the mug and the tea bag or tea powder in advance, so that you only need to boil the water. Think in advance which things you will do in the morning before starting (brushing your teeth, breakfast, etc..). Then, in the morning, when you sit down at your desk, there is no way you can procrastinate! Because you did all the preparations in advance. So here is rule number one:

Rule 1: Decide what you do in advance, and prepare yourself and your surroundings for that. 

What if you don’t start next morning but this evening? The pattern is the same, but instead of sleeping you have something else. It can be a cold shower, 5 minute meditation, listening to Mr Bungle, or even a snack or a cigarette, if you are into that kind of stuff (I am not advocating that, though). To start a project, first decide that you will start it immediately after your shower/meditation/listen to Mr. Bungle… Then prepare your desk/computer/notebook, make tea and whatever you might need to concentrate. When everything is ready, go to your cold shower or whatever it is and BAM – start working! Another reason Rule 1 is important is because you want to be in a high energy state when you start working something that is important for you. Say, you are writing a novel. Something that comes from your heart and soul. You don’t want to start working on it in a low energy state right after having to clean a desk etc. Preparing your desk and computer for work is a boring activity and you don’t want to do that right before doing something inspirational.

Now, we do need to read e-mails sometimes, so it is important that sometimes you decide that you actually read them and not do anything else, because then you don’t have to read them while doing something else. If you decide to read e-mails, read e-mails; if you decide to work on your essay, work on your essay. You are not allowed to do anything else during the time you reserved to do that thing.

Rule 2: You are not allowed to do anything else.

If you are, say, in high-school, you might feel that it is never wrong to study math. But if you decided to study French, it is wrong to study math. And if you decided to study math, it is wrong to study French. It is paradoxical, but it is true. Arnold Schwarzenegger says in Tim Ferriss’ interview that when he is studying a screenplay, he dedicates the whole day to that. He doesn’t do anything else in the whole day than reading the screenplay. Last summer I was cleaning my  walk-in closet and attic for 20 minutes a day, I would enter either the closet or the attic and for a minute just standing there without knowing where to start. Normally I would invent a reason to start doing something else, but this time I was not allowed. So eventually I started cleaning. This mind set will also help you to relax. When you relax, you are not allowed to do [any of those things you are relaxing from]. This is specially important for academic people who can easily carry their work with them in their head.

So you start writing (or drawing, or composing) but things still keep coming to your mind (“I should call my mom”, “I should do the laundry”, “my other projects are not progressing”, and on and on). First of all, if you keep following rules 1 and 2 over and over again, this problem will slowly disappear, because you train your brain to focus on one thing at a time. But there is also a quick work-around. Have a pen and paper next to you, and whenever a thought like that occurs to you, write it down immediately on this piece of paper and get back to whatever you are doing. This will help to get the distraction off your mind. Once you are done with your main thing, read through the list and do those things that are urgent.

Rule 3 (optional): Take notes of distracting thoughts to get rid of them.

Have you ever noticed that getting out of bed is suddenly easier when you have to be somewhere, i.e. someone is waiting for you? You decide going to the gym at 7 AM alone versus with a friend? Which one makes you more likely to wake up on time? Having someone to work with is not always an option, but in many cases you can and should try to find company. Want to read a math book? You can certainly find someone to read it with having weekly meet-ups virtually or in-real-life and discuss the chapters. Having difficulty committing to a diet? Find someone with similar goals and do it together. Have an idea for a book that you can only write alone? Find a friend or a colleague who could be a potential proofreader of your book and tell them when you plan to have it done. All this will motivate you to start and proceed with a new force, the force of the social animal inside you. There is also a danger hidden here. What if you pick someone who is even less motivated and has lower standards and only drags both of you back? This risk always exists. It is an art to find someone with similar goals and similar mindset. It is in your best interests that your partner is more motivated that you are and has higher standards, at least in the beginning, and pulls both of you forward. In such a situation be receptive to the force and let yourself being pulled. The best case scenario for both parties is when you complement each other in different aspects of the project and push each other further.

 Rule 4: If possible, find someone with whom to share the project either partly or entirely. 

These were my tips. Different people will probably have different ways of getting there. What are yours? Comment below…

P. S. Thanks to Osmo for the featured image suggestion (which I modified)!

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