Perhaps you want to be a better coder, a better writer, or a better musician. Perhaps you want to start a new business or begin an exercise program. You are full of good intentions, but your efforts seem to sputter out. You’re not alone.
Resistance Against Meaningful Goals
When you work towards a meaningful goal, expect to face “a repelling force.” Steven Pressfield calls it “Resistance.” In his journey of becoming a best-selling author, Pressfield came to know well the many faces of Resistance.
In his book The War of Art, he explains the aim of Resistance “is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” Pressfield warns, Resistance arises whenever we attempt “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower.”
Pressfield shares this insight:
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Pressfield spells out the mindset of a professional and that of an amateur. The amateur gives in to Resistance, placing blame for unmet goals on life circumstances—their upbringing, their partner or lack of one, their busy schedule, and on and on.
Using external circumstances to rationalize our lack of progress is self-defeating. Pressfield instructs,
Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated… Rationalization is Resistance's spin doctor.
Did you procrastinate today? Again, you’re not alone. Pressfield writes,
Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it's the easiest to rationalize. We don't tell ourselves, "I'm never going to write my symphony." Instead, we say, "I am going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow."
Resistance, Pressfield warns, “will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole.” Living with our self-deception, “we feel like hell,” there is constant low-grade unhappiness and misery.
Succumbing to Resistance, most of us have experienced the feelings Pressfield describes:
We're bored, we're restless. We can't get no satisfaction. There's guilt but we can't put our finger on the source.
If you think your stars have to align to beat Resistance, you’re wrong. What happens after you get a new desk and new computer? What happens after you find a quiet apartment or house, live with a supportive partner, and find a great job with a supportive boss? Resistance won’t retreat merely because you have changed your circumstances. When you’re still not ready to do your work, notice how your excuses morph.
Amateurs Don’t Show Up
There is nothing wrong with you. Everyone faces Resistance. Fear, self-doubt, and anxiety never fully go away. Resistance is always there in full force when we entertain its bad advice. Professionals realize these thoughts will fade away if they turn toward their work.
Amateurs resist Resistance, which only tightens its grip. Pressfield writes,
Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.
“The professional knows,” Pressfield counsels, “that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you're finished.” Heed his advice. Pressfield wrote The War of Art before smartphones were drawing our attention from our work. If you are constantly checking your phone while you are doing your work, Resistance will beat you. (Watch for my follow-up essay, “How to Break Your Digital Addiction”)
It took me years to learn a simple truth: To beat Resistance, show up and keep a regular schedule, whether or not you feel like it. The amateur thinks their feelings are providing important information; the professional knows they need to think about doing their work, not themselves. Pressfield shares this anecdote:
Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. "I write only when inspiration strikes," he replied. "Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp."
According to Pressfield here are three clear signs of an amateur:
One, he doesn't show up every day. Two, he doesn't show up no matter what. Three, he doesn't stay on the job all day. He is not committed over the long haul; the stakes for him are illusory and fake.
Don’t Be a Victim
Amateurs cast themselves as victims. Pressfield pointedly observes those playing the victim role seek:
to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution made out of one's experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat.
Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work.
Have you had a bad break? Get back to work. Pressfield explains,
The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.
Doing your work comes with no guarantees of success. Are you having “grandiose fantasies” of how the world will receive your work? That’s the sign of an amateur mindset. Pressfield observes,
Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.
I write almost every day. If I don’t show up, seeking to improve my technique, Resistance will kick my butt. Resistance will kick yours too, if you don’t practice. Be a professional; do your work.
Pressfield makes it clear, if you are seeking inspiration, begin by “mastering technique.” Toil “beside the front door of technique, [leave] room for genius to enter by the back.”
Practice, Don’t Focus on Goals
“Everything in life worth achieving requires practice,” writes Thomas Sterner in his book The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life. Sterner provides an excellent definition of practice:
When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal.
Sterner makes clear,
Good practice mechanics require deliberately and intentionally staying in the process of doing something and being aware of whether or not we are actually accomplishing that.
Here is the rub: The only way we can effectively practice is to suspend our attention to our goals. Sterner explains,
When you focus your mind on where you want to end up, you are never where you are, and you exhaust your energy with unrelated thoughts instead of putting it into what you are doing.
We torture ourselves by remembering past failures or dreams of future success. Our mind isn’t present, and our efforts are diluted. Sterner discerns, frustration results:
[W]hen your mind is only on the finished product, not only do you feel frustrated in every second that you have not met that goal, but you experience anxiety in every “mistake” you make while practicing. You view each mistake as a barrier, something delaying you from realizing your goal and experiencing the joy that reaching that goal is going to give you.
To a professional, the process they follow to reach their goal is not a nuisance. Process is a necessity that amateurs overlook. Amateurs are fixated on the goal, professionals
continue to use the final goal as a rudder to steer [their] practice session, but not as an indicator of how [they] are doing.
Sterner advises us to avoid comparisons. Using the metaphor of a flower’s development, Sterner asks, “At what point in a flower’s life, from seed to full bloom, does it reach perfection?” We can’t proceed to “full bloom” and skip the process. Comparing our lives to “ideal images” will create unhappiness:
Do you think that a flower seed sits in the ground and says, “This is going to take forever. I have to push all this dirt out of my way just to get to the surface and see the sun. Every time it rains or somebody waters me, I’m soaking wet and surrounded by mud. When do I get to bloom? That’s when I’ll be happy; that’s when everybody will be impressed with me. I hope I’m an orchid and not some wildflower nobody notices. Orchids have it all . . . no, wait; I want to be an oak tree. They are bigger than anybody else in the forest and live longer, too.”
Seeking perfection is an amateur’s false goal, steering us away from our process. Sterner writes, "Our impatience to reach some false goal that will not make us any happier than we are right now.” Absorbed in what we are doing, impatience “fades away.”
Go pro, face Resistance; watch your commitment to a process pay compound interest.
You know when you are not in process mode. Your mind is flitting all over the place. Should haves, could haves, would haves come and go. Resisting the process, you are sure—like everyone else in the grip of an amateur mindset—the world is to blame for your lack of focus and progress.
You won’t find more than fleeting happiness by reaching a goal. Instead, go pro, face Resistance; watch your commitment to a process pay compound interest. You’re may be in the valley today but progress up the side of the mountain occurs one step at a time.