So back to that discussion I was having on my front lawn about goal-setting (it was a great discussion; got at least three blog post topics out of it! This is number two). As I mentioned, we were talking about my desire to create not just blog posts and short fiction and scintillating rhetorical masterpieces putting thing right, but a Great Work. Something that would express and convey some of the vast antinomy and beauty and contradictory sublime nature of the world.
“So do it a bit at a time,” she said. “Spend five minutes less on LifeHack, or wake up five minutes earlier in the day. Spend that time writing.” As she expanded on this idea, I felt some resistance – not Steven Pressfield capital-R Resistance, but some innate idea as to why this would not work.
After some reflection, I realized what it was: it broke one of the rules of creativity as defined by John Cleese in a memorable speech (well worth the watching). Specifically, it has been scientifically proven that time is one of the requirements (actually, two of the requirements) for truly deep creativity. It’s basically the law of momentum applied to your brain: if you are in motion, getting stuff done and working in a “productivity” mindset, you can’t just switch gears and suddenly go into a “playful” mindset (required for creative work). It takes time – again, the studies cited by Cleese suggest at a minimum an hour and a half – to calm the brain, give yourself permission to play, to let go of the responsibilities just for a while.
That’s the other “time” requirement, by the way, a finite term of play before you again shift into “work” mode. And work mode is easy: you suddenly have well-defined tasks, easy incremental steps to point to. Creativity, on the other hand, is more amorphous; you can spend an hour and a half staring at a blank page, with nothing to show for it at the end except that nagging feeling that there is something, some idea, some expression of your deeper self that is struggling to make its way to the surface.
I call it percolating, and like coffee, it can’t be rushed; if you want it, you have to take the time to let it happen. And five minutes here or there is not going allow that kind of growth, any more than a plant that was given 30 second of sunlight every hour is going to flourish.
The Great Contradiction
Please don’t think I’m saying there is no point to incremental progress – it is a great thing for some projects. Flossing, exercise, decluttering, email, focus…all of these are worthwhile practices that can be accomplished by incremental progress.
However, it is interesting to me to note that even Leo Babauta, a champion of incremental habit generation through rewards and ritual, links the idea to one of the New Evils of productivity. When asked by Mike Vardy why multi-tasking was ineffective, he replied:
Doing several things at once usually means that we are only making incremental progress on each thing. Focusing on one thing means we can actually complete it.
I think that was what the resistance was to the idea of incrementally writing a Great Work. There’s no way to slip into the Flow state when you are only allowing five minutes for a project; suddenly the word “great” is removed and it’s just a “work.” The other problem lies in the measure of commitment; we talk about taking incremental steps because they are easy, but that also means they are easy to let go of as well; it’s a slippery slope back down the road to take that extra five minutes for a really good article on Lifehack, and “just this once” rarely is.
Sometimes Ya Gotta Trad Lead
The fact is, there are some goals which you cannot achieve through incremental practice. When I decided to move to Seattle, if I had decided to do it in increments of five miles, or twenty, or even a thousand, it would have not worked. Sure, there were a lot of steps in between – packing, storing, finding a new place, etc – but when the time came to actually move, I just had to move.
In researching this article, I found a nice comparison of incremental progress towards goals with rock and mountain climbing by Peter James Thomas, a business intelligence and cultural transformation expert. He’s also a champion of incremental progress, so what I got from the article may not have been what he intended, but that’s ok (also, I’m not a climber, so errors in technical terms are entirely mine).
…often the biggest deal is to start climbing and once you are committed then things become easier (though of course this advice can also get you in over your head on occasion) – Peter James Thomas
He talks about various kinds of climbing, but the key thing I was looking at was the difference between bouldering and lead climbing. “Bouldering is regular rock climbing on steroids, it is about climbing ultra-hard, but short climbs,” he writes, and that’s what I’ve heard from other enthusiasts as well. You stay low to the ground, focusing on the “boulder” you’re on, the tiny handholds and footholds and moving (mostly laterally, depending on the size of the wall). At climbing gyms you’ll see people bouldering with mats underneath them, since there are usually no ropes – it’s just you and the wall. If you fall, it’s a very short distance, and you pick yourself up and keep going.
That’s great if your goal is personal fitness, or a certain state of focus, or developing your skills. What if you want to climb a mountain? Especially if it’s a mountain no one has ever climbed before?
Bouldering can help you develop the skills necessary, of course. It can help you get in shape, toughen your hands, build your endurance, refine your skills. But it’s not going to get you to the summit. To do that, you’re going to have to do some “traditional” (“trad”) climbing, and if you’re the lead, it means a whole extra set of skills, equipment, and bravery is necessary.
When you’re trad leading, you have to place the right piece of equipment in the right place and hope it holds. You have to hope that you haven’t just used the piece of equipment you’re going to need later on in the climb. You have to hope that your ability to place it well wasn’t compromised by the fact that you have a cramp in your left calf, there’s sweat going into your eyes, and you just put your hand into a ledge covered with bird droppings.
There’s a lot of pressure in that environment. It requires focus, but also the long view – it takes time to prepare for it, but at a certain point, as Mr. Thomas points out, you just have to start climbing. And it’s riskier than bouldering, because you have further to fall. Sometimes that results in “unzipping”, when the cams and hexes you’ve placed your confidence in rip out of the rock and you fall even further.
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to bouldering. Just as there’s nothing wrong with sticking to blogs and short stories. If you find yourself well-established in incremental progress, and you’re happy there, there is no virtue in changing just for change’s sake.
But if you find you keep looking over your shoulder at that mountain, wondering what it’s like at the top…remember that increments can only get you so far. At a certain point you have to commit to a longer journey if you want to get to the top. It’s risky, and I can’t even say it’s always worth it – but there’s no other way to find out except to try.