I get a lot of questions about productivity from my students and colleagues. I suppose by being relatively well read on the subject of productivity, and by being “perceived” as productive, I have brought this on myself. I could easily channel the advice of Cal Newport or David Allen, but I want to discuss a less regimented and more philosophical approach to doing work.
One of my favourite books is Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work which provides a template for how to battle “Resistance.” Pressfield argues that there is an internal force – a part of our ego which he describes as the dragon – that is holding us back from doing creative work. He is very clear that Resistance is an internal force, not an external one. The dragon represents our fear of failure and our sense of self-doubt. The more we give in to our anxieties, the stronger the dragon becomes. Each time a writer, a painter, a scholar, a scientist, or a musician sits down to work on their craft, their inner knight does battle with this dragon of Resistance. It’s a battle that’s fought every day.
The metaphor of Resistance has always stuck with me because it’s true. I love to write. I love to play the guitar. I love to lift weights. I love to do chores (believe it or not). But I procrastinate like nobody’s business because there’s a voice in my head constantly pushing feelings of fear, guilt, or excuses.
Pressfield’s book has had such an impact on me that I started reading through his other titles about writing. The War of Art, which is probably his most famous book on artistic productivity, covers much of the same ground. While Do the Work provides a battle plan for each creative session, The War of Art takes a step back and outlines not only the internal struggles that artists face but also how to conduct oneself professionally as an artist.
Pressfield makes a hard distinction between the professional and the amateur. But, the distinction is not based on financial success. He identifies several aspects of the professional. The following list includes many, but not all, of the “professional” qualities.
• The professional shows up to work every day no matter what (in sickness or health).
• The professional stays on the job all day. He helps the customer, answers the phone, and puts in the time required. It’s his duty.
• The professional is in it for the long-term. Professionals understand that there will be good days and bad days, but they keep on trucking regardless.
• The professional is patient. They understand that success takes time. This is similar to David Goggins’ theory that life requires “reps.”
• The professional seeks order. I love this one. Professionals make sure their house is in order (literally and metaphorically) so they have a proper work environment for the day. My Dad, who was a writer, used this strategy. The floor is swept and vacuumed. The bathrooms are clean. The dishes are done. Your workspace is organized. This habit makes a world of difference.
• The professional doesn’t make excuses. They own up to their mistakes and they strive to learn from each experience. The day of full of hills and valleys. When something goes wrong a professional sees it as his/her responsibility to correct the situation.
• The professional is prepared. Whether it’s getting up early to work out before you hit the books (like Pressfield does), cultivating a pre-work coffee-making ritual, or planning your weekly tasks every Sunday afternoon, professionals have a system that sets them up to succeed.
• The professional doesn’t show off. They are humble in their successes and resilient in their failures. Because professionals are in it for the long-term, they take only take a couple of minutes to be proud of their accomplishments and then start working on the next project.
• The professional reinvents himself. Pressfield worked in advertising and was a screenwriter before he was a novelist. Artistic endeavours, even within the same general field, can lead to different paths. Professionals are willing to take risks and reinvent themselves in the face of success or failure.
The amateur, not surprisingly, is characterized as having the opposite traits. Amateurs don’t treat their work with the same respect. They don’t show up to the “job” every day no matter what. Instead, they make excuses about why they didn’t get to it. Pressfield sums up the difference beautifully by describing how professionals and amateurs are connected to their work. A professional’s ego isn’t tied to the work. This is important because the professional realizes that any given work is just one expression, one example, of what they’re capable of. The amateur, in contrast, is too emotionally tied to each work. Failure leads to depression and success leads to euphoria.
Pressfield describes how Hollywood screenwriters insulate themselves from this amateurish nature by creating a corporation of one. By self incorporating, you can wear two hats. There’s you the individual and you the professional. Your professional self has separate credit cards for business expenses, separate stationery for notes, a separate workspace, etc. You hire your professional self out to “get the job done.” This professional persona keeps on plugging away regardless of a work’s success or failure. The professional self is bullet proof. In other words, the professional treats the art like a 9-5 job. There is no task or contract below the professional; this is the person you call when you need to sell your skills.
Furthermore, Pressfield also says that becoming a professional is a decision. It can just be made. As long as you act like a professional, as described by the points above, then you are a professional. Financial success might never come, but that doesn’t matter because you walk the walk.
The lessons that Pressfield outlines are incredibly practical and widely applicable. They are not that different from what I’ve told students for many years. Treat your studies like a 9-5 job. Learn from failures. Keep plugging away at the work. Much of the advice in The War of Art is geared toward writers, but I think it holds for anybody doing a challenging task – bodybuilders included.
The War of Art isn’t new. This title was published in 2002. But, the advice is as true then as it is today. When I think back to the 5000-word papers I wrote for university political science and history classes, I can recall the ups and downs during each session. I remember working on a paper on the second floor of the university library during one particularly cold November. I had my Mac laptop in front of me with a mile-high stack of books on each side. Everything was crammed into the small brown wood veneer cubby I was inhabiting. I must have sat in that chair for six hours. And, during those six hours I lived several lifetimes. I experience joy, loss, resentment, exhaustion, and exhilaration. I remember experiencing that session over and over again throughout my university career. Each paper I had to write was an epic battle between my inner knight and the dragon of Resistance. Every day I showed up like a professional and got my work done.
It’s a cliche to point out that we live in an “age of distraction,” but it’s true. Focus and gratitude are in very short supply in today’s society. I get a question from all my students: “How do I get started?” This could apply to any project they’re working on – whether it’s a paper, presentation, or lab report. I always give them the same answer: “Start now.” Saying you’ll start later isn’t going to cut it. Sit down and get right into it. If you can suffer through the first two or three minutes, you’ll be on your way to battling Resistance that day and acting like a professional.