Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Start Small: Why Tinkerers Get Things Done

It’s easy to feel intimidated at the thought of starting a big creative project. Whether it’s an ambitious commission from a client, a challenging assignment from your boss, or the book/album/movie/website you’ve challenged yourself to produce, you picture the whole thing like a huge monolith looming over you… and feel overwhelmed.

So you find all kinds of excuses to put it off: you need to do more research; you need to get the right equipment; you need to “warm up” with a smaller project first; you need to clear your desk, your inbox, or that cupboard under the sink… in short, Resistance has a field day, and you procrastinate as if your life depended on it.

But suppose you don’t actually need to start the project just yet. Well, not properly, anyway?

Suppose you just set up the equipment in your studio… or just create a folder on your hard drive… or just make a few notes or sketches… or just collect all the relevant books and papers into one place…

Because a funny thing often happens when you “just” start setting up and tinkering: you forget about the big, intimidating picture, and start taking small actions that will actually more the project forward. You begin by tweaking and tinkering, and before long, your imagination sparks into life and you’re happily absorbed in the work. You’ve started in earnest without even noticing it.

A funny thing happens when you “just” start tinkering: you forget about the big, intimidating picture.

As the oft-quoted Chinese proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The idea of walking a thousand miles is instantly exhausting – but it’s also a distortion of reality. Because no one ever had to walk a thousand miles instantaneously. All you ever have to do in the moment is take just one step, and before long you find you’ve got into your stride and you’re enjoying walking and looking at all the interesting sights and people you encounter along the way.

I’ve been using this little trick to get going on my new book. A few months ago I just created a file in my book writing software and laid out the chapter headings, and just started playing around and rearranging them. And each time an idea came to me during the day, I just added a quick note inside each chapter. Recently I’ve been opening up the doc in the mornings, just looking at the table of contents, and just adding a few more notes here and there. It’s a slow ramp up where I just tell myself to add a few things here and there, no pressure.

I’ve written 12,000 words this way. I haven’t really started writing it yet. And since I’ve not been officially working on the book, resistance and procrastination hasn’t shown up for work either. It’s been fun. 

How to start without really starting 

I originally got the idea from Mark Forster’s book Do It Tomorrow, in which he suggests tricking your mind by telling yourself the following:

I’m not really going to [the task] right now, but I’ll just do [its first step].

The trick is to make the first step so small and easy that it doesn’t create Resistance. The idea of “writing a novel” or “designing a brand identity” sounds so big and difficult it instantly creates Resistance. Your brain easily freezes up. But “just” opening up MS Word or Photoshop and creating a new file is so trivial there’s no Resistance. It’s the same reason saying “I want to learn another language” doesn’t inspire us to action. But saying “I’m just going to sign up for a once-a-week French class” does. The latter is the first step. It’s tangible. It excites us.

Once you get the idea, you don’t even need the full sentence – I find it works (ahem) just fine if you just use the word ‘just’: 

“I’ll just prime a canvas.”
“I’ll just play a few chords to warm up.”
“I’ll just write the characters’ names out.”
“I’ll just copy out the previous design.”
“I’ll just get the folder out of the filing cabinet.”

And so on. With the pressure off, feel free to just tinker as long as you like. You may be pleasantly surprised how much you get done.

Over to you…

Think of your next big creative project – the whole thing, all at once. What happens to your motivation?

Now imagine “just” doing some small insignificant task associated with the project. What difference does that make?

More insights on: Creative Blocks

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
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