Writing Unexpectedly totally cranking it out

A Hard Thing is Done by Figuring Out How to Start

The fifth version of Rands in Repose has been a long time coming, but it’s close. The design is done and the migration of content is mostly complete. The process of learning an entirely new publishing platform is underway and mostly painless. What remains is an ever-growing list of details supplied by the act of starting.

The length of time between major updates isn’t surprising. Since Rands was last updated, I’ve written over 170 articles and published two books. More importantly, there hasn’t been a driving need to update the site – just the increasing stench of death emanating from the MovableType platform.

What’s surprising is the amount of time I spend preparing to start via a vast array of impressive mental gymnastics on tasks I want to do. It’s shocking. Case in point, it’s been six years since the last major design of the site and my rough estimate is that for two solid months I’ve been not working on the site, but getting started. I’m not talking about actual measurable progress; I’m talking about the fussing, orienting, and random thinking surrounding getting started.

After the first three years of starting, I decided to get strategic. I decided to keep track. Clearly, I have starting issues, so rather than obsess about them I will enumerate and understand them. What, precisely, am I doing rather than working?

A Critical Analysis of Beginning

Beginning is a three-phrase commit: you’re either fretting about starting, you’re preparing to begin, or you’ve begun. It’s the middle state of preparation I want to explore, because it is during this time that we unnecessarily torture ourselves. We lie to ourselves about wasting time and beat ourselves up with guilt-laden words like procrastination, slacker, and lazy, and I believe we’re actually getting important work done.

I believe three things:

  1. Your brain is smarter about thinking than you think. I believe the many states of preparation are your brain cleverly and proactively trying to help you begin. Unfortunately, many of these states really do look like goofing off. This is why…
  2. Preparation, in its variety of forms, often gets a bad rap. You’re under a deadline and your boss walks in to discover you reading about a satisfying walk to Central Park West. He’s going to ask, “What the hell does this have to do with the deadline?” You instinctively know this creative excursion is somehow helping, but your inability to explain on the spot does nothing to help your plight. What your boss has done is his favorite move – he’s stressed you out – and…
  3. Stress is a creativity buzz kill. When you’re stressed, you’re in reaction and survival mode. Your mindset when you’re stressed is “How do I survive?” not “What is an elegant solution to this problem?” Survival – I’m a fan, but whatever immense task is in front of you will not be conquered by the defensive strategies of survival. The elegant solution requires offense, and the lower the stress, the better the offense.

As I’ve watched myself stumble through the various states of starting, I’ve discovered there are two base mental states where I begin, and they are tightly coupled with the time of day. Specifically, the moves I need are entirely different depending on whether it’s morning or evening.

Morning Stretch

The risk of morning is exuberance. Unbridled exuberance. Your body just spent a quiet night getting rid of all the mental and physical crap from the prior day and it’s ready to go – in every way possible. The issue with morning isn’t whether or not you start, it’s wrangling what you start on. Most mornings I’m just as likely to write an article as I am to read about EVERY SINGLE MARVEL MOVIE that will be produced in the next two years.

Rands, just start. You’ve got a big task. Just start it.


Those who do not understand creativity think it has a well-defined and measurable on/off switch, when in reality it’s a walking dial with many labels. One label reads “Morose and apathetic” and another reads “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out”. This dial sports shy, mischievous feet – yes, feet – that allow it to simply walk away the moment you aren’t paying attention, and each time it walks away, it finds a new place to hide.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life wondering where that damned dial is hiding.

For me, corralling and managing the creativity dial in the morning involves starting with an unrelated creative excursion. I have a bookmark group called Scrub and contained within that group is a set of sites intended to focus the crazy enthusiasm into the creative. All it takes is a click and I’m looking at aggregated sets of words, images, and ideas. The idea of the unrelated creative excursion: creativity begets creativity. The act of experiencing the end result of others’ creativity is the single best way for me to figure where the dial is hiding and conjure the demon I need to begin.

The risk of creative divergence is still there. These sites are not a sure-fire focusing lens, but they’ve been chosen carefully over time to be mentally deliciously while not overly so. For example, articles in the New Yorker are full of creative inspiration, but they have no place in the Scrub group because it is too easy to lose myself.

The Scrub group might strike you as avoidance, but it’s not; it’s an alternative. There is something daunting about the task in front of you and my suggestion is to admit that it’s daunting. A frontal attack on daunting works for some, but creative solutions rarely involve straight lines. A random search for unrelated inspiration allows your brain to sidestep whatever weight you’ve built around the task. You get to sneak in a heretofore hidden side door that can only be discovered with the help of an unknown creative stranger.

My Scrub group is full of strangers. A current favorite is Hacker News. Look, someone is describing how they did the effects for Tron Legacy. They really did go out of their way to make those Unix screens authentic. You know, I have an article about the beauty of the command line. I should write…

An Experienced Evening

The dial reads “Tired”.

Whatever magical chemicals my body stockpiles during a night of sleep are gone in the evening. The day has occurred and when I sit down at my desktop to look at my Scrub bookmark group, it feels as if gravity has increased and my mental wiring has been clogged with all the crap I’ve seen and heard during the day. I see words and images, but nothing gets through the heavy haze of the working day.

No… no work for me. How about some mindless World of Warcraft?

Mornings have the gift of optimism because nothing has screwed up your day, yet. Evenings are dark, repetitive reminders that no matter what you do, time is going to pass and you’ve likely wasted some of it. In this mental state the creativity dial easily moves to depressingly lowercase “uninspired and listless”, hiding not just under your couch, but inside of it.

I discovered that I need to switch sides in my brain in my quest to find and adjust the dial in the evening. Rather than stimulating the creative side of my brain, I work the logical side. I give myself a task like: what is the smallest piece of research I can do relative to the project? The new site needs footnotes. Ok, I will find a single webpage that describes the history of the footnote, I will take notes, and I will form a footnote opinion.

This exercise is not the creative wandering of the morning. This is using my structured research skills to understand and build a thing. It is a discernible to-do that, when complete, I can productively check off. It is a practical excursion in intellectual illumination geared to focus my tired brain so it can approach inspiration.

I have less success in evenings than mornings, but structure, logic, data, and facts — for me — are the best starting recipe to invoke an evening creative progress.


I need to disclose that I wrote a good portion of my last book in the evening after watching re-runs of Sex and the City, and after weeks of thinking and writing about the act of starting. I cannot tell you why, but I can tell you why it’s important.

Perhaps it was the show’s complete dissimilarity from my day that reset my brain. Perhaps it was Carrie Bradshaw’s Doogie Howser-like closing where she sums up the key lessons of the episode on her MacBook. Maybe seeing her write reminded me that “Hey, she can write, so maybe I can start, too.”

My Sex and the City kick-start wasn’t a creative excursion or a piece of research, it was happenstance. I watched a few episodes two weeks back to see if I could repeat the effect – nothing. Thank god.

Whatever it is that you’re not starting, I know it’s hard to do, otherwise it’d already be done. Otherwise you wouldn’t have spent weeks of time considering it rather than doing it.

We’re addicted quick fixes, top ten lists, and four-hour work weeks, but the truth is – if it wasn’t hard, everyone would be doing it and a hard thing is never done by reading a list or a book or an article about doing it. A hard thing is done by figuring out how to start.

You’ve been spending a lot of time thinking the result is what matters. You have a bright and shiny goal in mind that is distracting you with its awesomeness. It is this allure of awesomeness that is the continued reason why you keep searching around your house looking for that mischievous walking dial.

My guarantee is that what is going to make this bright and shiny thing awesome isn’t finishing. It’s all the little, unexpected details you discover trying to start. It’s all the small pieces of unexplainable execution that will not only make it yours, but also continue to teach you how you get things done. And when you’re done, you’ll discover finishing, while cathartic, is just a good reason to go start something else.

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18 Responses

  1. Gui Maso 13 years ago


  2. Chris 13 years ago

    I have long suspected that rands is smarter than the rest of us. This shows I was right.

  3. First, this article made more sense for me once I switched the morning and evening sections. Morning is my time for organized, purposeful, uncreative progress on well-defined goals; evening is my time for uncovering new ideas hiding in the dark recesses. (Afternoon, by contrast, is my time for naps and mindless web surfing, or for getting nothing done if at my day job.)

    For me, when it’s time to start, the key is a combination of a low bar for success (it’s okay to write crap; it’s okay to write only a couple of sentences) with rigid inflexibility about achieving success (writing must occur EVERY NIGHT before I leave the writing room). There are other rituals, like the making of tea and the arranging of the desklight and overhead lamp, but ultimately it’s the physical commitment to sitting in front of my computer or notepad for as long as it takes.

  4. Really? Sex in the City?

  5. Rands, as always, you’ve motivated me. Just in time, too, for Monday morning. Thanks.

  6. i use a library of hacker movies(anti-trust, hackers, the matrix) to get me motivated to do things. seeing someone else’s enjoyment and passion gets mine going.

  7. Never understood why starting is so hard for most people. Here’s my easy “Socratic dialogue” system. In involves just asking myself a series of questions. “What project do I want to work on today?” “Project X.” “Where are the files?” (I navigate to the folder.) “What file was I working on last/want to work on next?” (I navigate to it and open it.) “What did I want to do next to it?” (I open my to-do list) And before I know it, I’m moving and getting stuff done. Again, for me, it just boils down to answering a series of questions. But it also helps to close your Twitter app and browser. Hope that helps someone.

  8. haha Sex and the City, who would have thought!

    Mornings are my time for lists and structure and goals whereas the evenings are more for free-formed writing and creativity…the mindless wondering of inspiration πŸ™‚

  9. I am glad to know I am not the only that has trouble starting. My bad day has some glimmer of hope! πŸ™‚

  10. How can I tell the difference between this and–how shall I put it–lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did?

  11. Jeremy Powers 13 years ago

    I didn’t see the “Sex in the City” solution coming, but then again, I have been watching an awful lot of “Heroes” on Netflix lately.

    Now if you could just tell me how to turn my mind off once I get the motor firing at high RPMs. . . . I would be grateful.

    Dinner is ready, the kids need a bath, but once I get started, I have a hard time letting the work go.

  12. Eugene Jorov 13 years ago

    “Preparation, in its variety of forms, often gets a bad rap.” To alleviate it somewhat: If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax” (attributed to Abraham Lincoln).

    About the Scrub – keeping a couple of art albums on my desk works for me.

    The “four-hour work week” comment was a stunning blow. As someone who’s been struggling to live up to this philosophy, this calls for some major thinking, again…

  13. Cubicle Generation 13 years ago

    Always a great read, and you’re absolutely right … sometimes the hardest part is figuring out how to JUST START. Btw, backseat-editor’s note: We’re addicted ^to^ quick fixes, top ten lists, and four-hour work weeks.

  14. (Kinda in response to Chris.) I don’t think Rands is actually much smarter then the rest of us. He’s just experienced. And also can put it in words and sentences in very understandable way. So Rands is smart just by thinking about things he and the people around him do and by writing about them really well. At least this can be said from what I’ve read on this blog :-).

    And by the way – very good post, indeed.

  15. pnathan 13 years ago

    I have some pretty clear slices in my day:

    Mornings I have a clear head, and can get a ton done in a compressed timespan. Afternoons are good for a grind; I’ve mostly blown my clarity for deep cognition. And after about 8pm, I can start coming up with innovative ideas, most bad, some good.

    I try to keep myself on track by continually asking myself, “What do you need to do? How do I get there”, and sketching it out.

    Often, like Rands, I just need to stare at Hacker News or some other site until my creative thoughts come together and a strategy forms. Usually I am at work, so I have to go to lunch instead when that happens, or find something else to occupy my time with instead of doing the ‘creative disengage’.

    Ah well.

  16. Randy 13 years ago

    I use Rands to inspire me.

    I’m off to get creative now. Thanks!

  17. Mornings I have a clear head, and can get a ton done in a compressed timespan. Afternoons are good for a grind; I’ve mostly blown my clarity for deep cognition. And after about 8pm, I can start coming up with innovative ideas, most bad, some good.

  18. Rands your a modern day Natalie Goldberg.

    I have a hard time starting. Everything.

    I come home from a CRAPY and i mean CRAPY day and i read this. Laughing and crying is the only thing i do when reading Rands in repose.