I was lucky to be smart when I was a kid. I breezed through homework, rarely studied for tests, and scored in the 99th percentile every year we took statewide standardized tests from 1st through 8th grade. Other than asking my crush to hold my hand during Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” at a rollerskating party, I didn’t face many challenges.
Despite the unfortunate end of rollerskating parties, my private high school provided my first real challenge. Harder classes, more competition, more homework. The workload was especially bad during freshman year, where I later learned they purposely overwork students to break them in to high school.
This break-in period lead to my first exposure to procrastination. And my first attempts to beat procrastination.
I resorted to writing "STS = LTS" at the top of all my notes and papers: Short-Term Sacrifice equals Long-Term Success. (No, I was not one of the cool kids.) I wanted to remind myself to work through the hard classes, long days of homework, late nights, and endless frustration because it would pay off in the end. For someone who loved being outside and had trouble sitting still long enough to handle the workload, the short-term sacrifice was easier said than done.
I managed to win battles against procrastination in high school, college, and my career, but never felt like I could win the war. And I know I'm not alone. From focus apps and noise-canceling headphones to website blockers and time-blocking notebooks, there’s an entire industry built around beating procrastination.
Or, as Steven Pressfield calls it, Resistance.
Resistance is so pervasive, Pressfield wrote a book about it called The War of Art. In the three-part book, he discusses 1) what Resistance is, 2) the difference between amateurs and professionals (i.e., how professionals approach their work in order to beat Resistance), and 3) moving beyond Resistance.
Moving beyond Resistance is a powerful idea that warrants its own discussion, so I'll stick to the first two parts of The War of Art.
In a twist of irony, this is the second book written in my high school years to change my thinking (I write about Steven King’s On Writing here). Although The War of Art targets artists and creatives, especially writers, there is something for everybody.
Here are my takeaways from this little 160-pager that finally turned the tide of the war against procrastination.
What is Resistance?
Pressfield, the author of books like The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire, says Resistance appears during any attempts to better yourself: creative or entrepreneurial pursuits. Diet and fitness regimens or anything designed to overcome a bad habit or addiction. Further education or political courage. Anything intended to help others, any commitment of the heart (such as marriage and kids), and any principled stand in the face of adversity.
Pressfield characterizes Resistance as invisible, internal, insidious, implacable, impersonal, and infallible. It is universal, never sleeps, and plays for keeps. It is fueled by fear. It is most powerful near the finish line and it loves trouble, self-dramatization, self-medication, and victimhood. Resistance fuels and is fueled by unhappiness. Fear and self-doubt, manifestations of Resistance, are good because they prove something is meaningful.
These vivid characterizations help identify the different forms Resistance can take. But for me, identifying Resistance is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of obscenity: I know it when I see it.
I just feel it when Resistance hits. I'll hit a snag doing something difficult or tedious, so I'll check ESPN or the Wall Street Journal or Twitter. Or do a crossword puzzle. I'll walk to the coffee machine. Maybe check email or organize a file (this is the most insidious form of Resistance because it’s still "work").
Maybe I had the extra glass of wine at night, so I'll make up an excuse to skip my workout. If I have a good workout, I'll use it as an excuse to get a donut. I’ll scroll on my phone rather than read a book because I had a long day.
For me, Resistance makes itself obvious.
So how do we beat it? According to Pressfield, by becoming a pro.
Amateurs versus Pros
Pressfield says we all know how to be pros because of our jobs. We show up every day no matter what, stay on the job all day, and commit for the long haul. The stakes are high and we master whatever skills our jobs entail. Maybe most important is that we receive praise or blame in the real world.
In short, our jobs are real and have real-world consequences. We’re required to be pros if we want to keep earning a paycheck.
Compare this to how amateurs approach something new. Whether writing a screenplay or deciding to go for a walk every morning, an amateur’s commitment is shaky. If he fails to go for a walk or she doesn’t make progress on the screenplay, there’s no risk of missing the mortgage payment.
A pro, on the other hand, plays the long game. Pressfield says pros are patient, seek order, and act in the face of fear. They accept no excuses and show up prepared. They endure adversity. They self-validate and establish themselves as a business. To quote Jay Z, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.”
Pressfield empowers us.
There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.
This is the most powerful concept of the book and has changed my lens on procrastination: be a pro.
I already know how to be a pro. When I had a report due or a client call scheduled, my feelings didn’t matter. I finished the report and did the call prep. As the saying goes, there’s nobody more productive than a procrastinator with a deadline.
When it comes to beating Resistance, to use the already overused line, Just Do It. Whatever “it” is.
It doesn’t matter if I want to workout. Be a pro and get the workout done. Don’t eat the donut. Put down the phone and read the book. Write the essay.
My goal every day is to wake up and beat the all-seeing, all-knowing Resistance. I want to prove that I’m stronger than Resistance. I may not win every battle against Resistance, but I’m now winning the war.
And I don’t even have to write “STS = LTS” at the top of my papers anymore.