Contributed by: Toni Witt from The Utopian.
Ironically, pounding through self-help books is sabotaging your efforts for real improvement because most self-help books are just fluff. I read too many thinking they’ll make me a better person, only to realize they all point to the same few ideas over and over again.
It turns out most of those key ideas can be found in just two books (take it from me, I’ve read them all), The War of Art and Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. But you don’t even have to read them, because below is all you need to know, from flow to the curse & blessing of small actions to Pressfield’s framework for understanding personal improvement called Resistance.
First, what is Resistance?
It’s a negative energy that prevents you from creating, improving, and changing. It’s the only thing standing between your current reality and the unlived life within you. It’s the root of more unhappiness than poverty, war, and crime combined.
It’s inertia. When you try to change yourself, improve your life, or create something beautiful, Resistance will be standing in your way. It’ll be there for anything that delays gratification or appeals to higher natures because it wants you to take the easy path.
“Every time we fail, we are secretly relieved… Its payoff is incapacity. When we fail, we are off the hook.” (Turning Pro, 37)
But where is it?
The tricky thing is, Resistance takes many shapes. It might be thoughts you always tell yourself, or music you listen to, or distractions you turn to, or dependencies you develop. It might be that voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough. It might manifest in the people you spend your time with or give you excuses that sound convincing. Are they helping or hurting you? Or it might just be fear, sadness, boredom, restlessness, or nervousness.
“Fear is the primary color of the amateur’s interior world.”Steven Pressfield, Art of War, pp 53
Don’t let it beat you.
The more important or impactful the action is, the more Resistance you will face. You’ll know if something is truly worth doing if everything is trying to keep you from doing it except your heart.
Think stepping onto a stage in front of hundreds of people, asking someone to marry you, deciding whether to take that job. It’s even more important that you don’t let Resistance win those big battles.
However, I believe Resistance ruins your life in much sneakier ways. Those big moments are rare and you already know they’re important when you’re in them.
What about small decisions made frequently, such as choosing to have another beer after dinner or pressing that snooze button one more time? These things seem insignificant in the moment, but have major impacts on every aspect of your life over time.
The curse and blessing of small actions
My mom has a story about her time working at the Mercedes factory in Stuttgart – she said at the end of every workday, they would check to make sure you didn’t have anything hidden in your pockets or overalls. They check specifically for small things like nuts or bolts because they often went missing.
Each nut and bolt cost at most a few cents. Why would that be an issue if a few workers stole them? Well, Daimler AG has almost 300,000 workers. If each made the decision to steal one bolt after their shift, each costing 10 cents, Mercedes would lose 30,000 euros a day (the value of many of their new cars).
In the same way, if you watch one thirty-minute Netflix episode each night, after one year you’ll have spent over 180 hours of watchtime. But if you choose to spend a third of that time a day reading (finishing 6 pages in 10 minutes, say) you’d finish over 2000 pages after one year – somewhere between 5 and 10 books.
Small actions combined with consistency have enormous power, but that power is invisible because it takes action on a larger timescale than our day-to-day perception.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim.”-Anne Dillard
The problem is that resistance acts on those small actions even if you don’t feel their importance. This is why things like daily meditation, journaling, or reading are so damn difficult. Resistance is pushing on it, and it seems unimportant at the same time (at least in the beginning).
Just remind yourself that those actions are what actually define your life, even more so than those big moments. And if you cave in today, you’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. But if you do it today, the action crystallizes into habit and it’ll be 1% easier tomorrow.
How to fight resistance
Pressfield defines the person who fights Resistance day-in and day-out as the professional. The professional (artist / self-improver / leader / changemaker / learner / etc.) is like a soldier: they fight Resistance all the time without complaining.
They win ground inch-by-inch by taking actions even on bad days. I mean waking up twenty minutes earlier to add a little to that piece you’ve been writing.
Professionals conserve their energy because they’re playing the long game. Don’t overextend one day to sabotage tomorrow. As we saw in the last section, consistency is more important.
The professional doesn’t take criticism and humiliation too seriously. Tomorrow the hater and the critic will move on, while you’ll still be sitting here, working. All you can do is fight Resistance, and things will come.
The book references a line in the Bhagavad-Gita: “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.”
Essentially, you can’t be sure if you sit down to paint that a masterpiece will emerge. Nor can you be sure if you work 80+ hours a week for years on a startup that it will be successful. You only have the decision to try or not to try, and not trying = 0% chance of success.
As Pressfield puts it beautifully, fight the monster (Resistance) at the front door and let the Muse walk in through the back.
“Mystery can be approached via order”Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro, pp. 113
Great ideas come from a source we can only tap through consistent dedication.
Research shows that the period in Beethoven’s life that led to his most famous works was also when he produced the most failures you’ve never heard before. The only path to creative output is increasing your output overall, and that means fighting Resistance every single day.
“Each day, the professional understands, he will wake up facing the same demons, the same Resistance.”Steven Pressfield, War of Art, pp. 74
You have to fight your battles anew every single day.
This will also boost your chances of entering flow, a mental state described often by Joshua Graner in his blog posts:
“In flow, you’re improvising with life at such a high level that your confidence, creativity and competence multiply tenfold. It’s this state of consciousness that underlies every major achievement of science, literature, art, and athletics.”Joshua Graner
So, Resistance is inertia to meaningful change. The first step to fighting Resistance is recognizing its fraudulence day-to-day. Then wield the power of consistent small actions and set yourself up for entering flow. This is a battle you’ll have to fight anew each day, but luckily one that gets easier if you do.
So, do you really want to improve? Put down all those self-help books you’ve been reading to avoid doing your real work. Dive headfirst into the arena with the bull. It’s better than watching in the stands.
For more articles by Toni Witt check out his blog, The Utopian