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Resistance is Useful

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I have written before about Mark Forster’s helpful approaches to overcoming the struggles that lie at the heart of procrastination. Indeed, when I went back to see what I said last time I reflected on them I found quite a few of the ideas I thought I had just had when mulling over this post. Ahem.

Anyway, his key point bears repeating: that it’s rarely the outer game of time-management that is the problem, but the inner game of just not wanting to get on with that right now. Or as he calls it, resistance.

The particularly astute bit of his analysis is that the strength of your resistance is often directly proportional to the importance of the task. Importance in this context is somewhat subjective – sometimes to do with scale (big jobs take a lot of oomph to start on because you know they’re going to take a lot effort to complete), sometimes with difficulty (it’s harder to get started when there are bits of the task you know you don’t yet know how to handle), and sometimes with emotional investment (if you care a lot about something you are tentative about screwing it up).

Forster’s descriptions of how this feeling of resistance grows as you procrastinate tells you that he knows this from the inside. Delay invites self-criticism, and the anxiety that you have wasted valuable time that you should have spent on the important thing magnifies the surface tension around starting it. You find yourself spending a lot of time in what the Waitbutwhy blog (another perceptive analyst of this experience) refers to as the Dark Playground.

Many of Forster’s tips are techniques of the self to help rescue you from this kind of funk of overwhelm, and there are a cluster of them I return to periodically when I hit a sticky patch.

Put in these terms, resistance is an entirely negative experience. But my recent musings have led me to inflect that judgement, for two reasons.

The first is implicit in Forster’s own formulation. When you have rescued yourself from a state of complete funk, the feeling of resistance can become a useful guide to prioritising. It represents a holistic aggregate measure of what most needs your attention, taking into account the various factors of scale, difficulty, urgency, emotional investment and sense of obligation that influence your feelings about a task.

So, when you are in a state of relative equilibrium, you can organise what you give your attention to according your feelings of resistance. As a weather-vane turns towards the wind, your attention turns towards that which your emotional response tells you matters the most.

The other reason to consider resistance as useful somewhat contradicts this analysis, and goes back to my previous ideas about background processing. Sometimes you’re just not quite ready to start on something. Your subconscious holds you back. Thinking is a bit like cooking – there’s a limit to how much you can speed up or cut short the process without spoiling the result.

Paul Graham makes the distinction between activities that are your life’s work, and errands.* My hunch is that we mostly feel resistance towards the former category – we may put off errands because we’re not terribly interested in them, but don’t experience the emotional turmoil of procrastination with them less because we fundamentally care less about them.

And thus it is often errands that get done when you are experiencing resistance towards something that is significant to you. And work as work-avoidance is actually quite a good way of getting dull stuff done. The satisfaction you get from it is legitimate – these are things that needed doing at some point, so it feels good to get them off the to-do list – and whilst errands don’t diminish your awareness of the big scary thing you’re resisting, they keep you from feeling too bad about yourself while it brews.

So the second way in which resistance is useful is itself double-sided. On one hand it serves to keep your mental processes safe from untimely openings of your creative oven door. On the other hand, the energy it diverts into your errands means that when your brain is ready to engage more overtly with the big thing, you’ve got a much clearer space in both your head and your diary to dedicate to it.

The question all this leads to is: how do you tell the difference between the resistance of overwhelm from which you need to rescue yourself, and the helpful resistance of creative latency? I think that if you are honest with yourself you can probably feel the difference; the two have different emotional flavours. But if you want a means to test that internal measure, then looking at what you do during the experience of resistance is probably a good indicator.

Spending a lot of time in the Dark Playground? You need to find a way back to face the stuff your subconscious is anxious about. Got all your filing done and the bathroom cleaned? You’ve probably got something simmering usefully on your mental back-burner.

*And having gone back to refresh my memory of his article, I find that my point today is pretty much the inside-out version of his. YMMV.
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