Art of Starting Things (or How to Start Doing Things That You’ve Been Delaying Forever)

Background

Interestingly enough, it took me four months to start writing an article about starting things. I’m not kidding:

I did publish the bucket of sh*t one after two months, but this one took a while. Which I think is a perfect starting ground for analyzing what I wanted to write about anyway – why do we keep delaying and procrastinating with stuff.

This article is broken into two parts. In the first part, we will be dealing with all the reasons why we delay, procrastinate and generally avoid starting things. In the second part, we will discuss specific steps that you can (and should) take in order to actually start doing them. Lastly, I will provide a list of resources that you might find useful.

So, let’s start with – WHY.

Part I – Why?

Starting this section without referring to one of THE BEST articles I ever read on this subject would be absolutely unfair. It was almost eight years ago that a friend of mine sent me the article that “I just have to read. Immediately!”. Why Procrastinators Procrastinate is, to this day, one of THE MOST influential articles I ever read on the subject. Once you finish this one, I would urge you to go and read that one as well. It is listed in the “Useful Resources” section so you won’t miss it.

Anyway, why do we delay doing things that we want to do? And this can literally be anything – starting those yoga classes, changing a job, writing a graduation thesis, committing to a new diet or, in this specific case – starting an article about starting new things.

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone out there, but I surely can tell you what my problem is. And, in all honesty, what seems to be a common denominator for all of those that I’ve spoken to. It always boils down to – fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the uncertainty. Fear of failing. Fear of being laughed at. Fear of being afraid. Yikes!

Let’s talk fear.

Fear

Strictly speaking, what I refer to as “fear” is what my therapist calls “anxiety”. Here’s how he describes it (and I’m paraphrasing, obviously):

Anxiety is when you are afraid that there is a lion in the room, even though there isn’t one. Fear is when there actually IS a lion in the room.

Source: my therapist

Fear is a really useful emotion. Just stop and think about it. It’s what helped our species survive and evolve enough to argue politics and record TikTok videos. Seriously. Let me quote Wikipedia as well:

Fear is an emotion induced by perceived danger or threat, which causes physiological changes and ultimately behavioral changes, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a certain stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to oneself. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.

Source: Wikipedia

Again, think about it. Or, better yet, think of our ancestors. Hundreds of thousand of years ago, if they weren’t able to perceive a danger of being eaten by a lion, I wouldn’t be here writing this and you surely wouldn’t be the one reading it. It’s valid even today – standing on the edge of the cliff, if there weren’t for a fear, you’d have no problem jumping off. Or being hit by a car. My point is – fear is an extremely useful emotion and definitely the one favored by evolution. It helps you survive.

Let me share one anecdote – there was a period in my life when, for whatever the reasons were, I got obsessed with the psychopathy. And I’ve been reading A LOT about it. Yep. It sounds crazy, I know, but there was some reasoning behind it. If you’ve never read anything of the kind, you’re probably thinking of “psychopaths” as a crazy axe swinging murderers who butcher people for fun. Well, sorry to disappoint you but that’s just Hollywood (mostly). Psychopathy, in a very layman’s terms, refers to a different structure of a brain which, among other things, causes a complete lack of empathy. As in – they have no sense of regret. Now, without going into too many details of it, one of the things that psychopaths experience is – lack of fear. They don’t have any sense of fear (or it’s a very very weak one). And you know what the problem is? They have HARD time surviving! Which explains why’s there not that many of them. In order to live long enough to be portrayed in movies, they actually have to LEARN what things are dangerous and what can (and will) kill them. Yep. So, without spending too much time on the topic, I just want to say – be grateful for that sense of fear that you have.

Anyway, let me go back to the original story. Fear and anxiety. So, fear is a useful emotion that helps you survive. But anxiety? Not so much.

Let’s talk anxiety now.

Anxiety

Here’s what Wikipedia says on the subject:

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior such as pacing back and forth, somatic complaints, and rumination. It includes subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over anticipated events.

Source: Wikipedia

Looks similar to fear, right? And yet, it’s not. Fear is helpful. Anxiety is rather opposite. Fear is what helps you live to see another day and watch Netflix. Anxiety is what prohibits you from living long, happy and healthy enough to watch all those Netflix shows. Favor the fear, but be careful of anxiety.

From my point of view, and please do take this with outmost grain of salt, but – I believe that one of the main issues is that we confuse anxiety for fear. More specifically, we perceive anxiousness as a fear and, a natural behavioural response is – to get the hell out of that situation. Even if it’s only in our heads, the response is nevertheless the same.

Now, a logical question that follows is – how do you get rid of anxiety? Well, let me burst that bubble immediately – you don’t. I’m not a specialist of any kind but, from my investigation and experience, there’s not a single emotion that you can “get rid off”. What you can (and should) do is – learn the tools of the trade. Learn how to deal with them and, eventually, live with them. Easier said than done, but absolutely doable.

Tools of the trade

Let me tell you two more anecdotes. I have no idea why, but I seem to be all about anecdotes today.

I was listening (well, technically I’m re-listening to it almost every day during a workout) to Pavel Tsatsouline talking about muscle hypertrophy. For those who are not familiar with the guy – he’s an amazingly respected fitness instructor who, among other things, “brought” kettlebells to USA. And muscle hypertrophy is, well, the process of growing your muscles really. So, what he was saying is – “when it comes to muscle hypertrophy, we pretty much have no idea what’s really happening. But we do know which buttons to push and we do have the tools of the trade that help us get there”. Hence, we have no clue WHY or HOW the muscles really grow, but we do know how to get them to do so.

Another one is from the book written by Robert C. Martin, famously known (to developers) as Uncle Bob. It’s about agile development. And one thing that I highlighted and that I’m quoting in its original form is – “Some folks think that Agile is about going fast. It’s not. It’s never been about going fast. Agile is about knowing, as early as possible, just how screwed we are.”.

Now, one might wonder, and rightfully so – what the hell am I talking about? And what exactly is a connection between muscle hypertrophy, agile development and dealing with anxiety, right? Well, let me help you make that connection. Both are amazingly complex processes, for which we mostly have no idea what exactly is happening, but we do have enough data and knowledge to tackle them properly. And that’s exactly how you should tackle any anxiety – by using the battle tested tools of the trade that we have. That’s what the Part II is all about anyway.

I’ll close this section with a quote from Jordan Peterson who happens to be, among other things, a rather famous clinical psychologist. I’m paraphrasing his words: “Do you know how we approach and help people who are extremely anxious? We first explain to them that they will never be ‘free’ of anxiety. They will always remain anxious. But through careful chunking and constant work, we help them get used to that feeling, until it loses its intensity. It’s still there, but it’s not blocking you any more. And that’s how you beat anxiety“.

Part II – How?

If you read the Part I, which I hope you did, you probably concluded what I believe is the biggest obstacle to embarking on anything new. If not, well, here’s a quick summary – it’s all about fear. Yep. Whatever the reasoning you come up with, if you dig deep enough, you will end up with some sort of fear. Or, shall I say, anxiety? 🙂

Now, does that make it any easier to deal with? Hell no! Quite the contrary. Starting anything new is HARD. Especially if it’s something that you never did before. Not to mention if you tried and “failed”. Ouch!

So, let me repeat that. Starting anything new is DAMN HARD. Just like growing muscles or starting a new project is. But here’s the most important thing – once we accept that it’s hard and that it’s ok for it to be hard, and trust me, sometimes acceptance is the hardest part, we are ready for the next step. And the next step is – using the tools of the trade that were battle tested by many before us.

Very first step – write it down and let it sink in

Yep, when it comes to myself, and, I’m sure, for many others, one of the issues is that we want everything at once. Immediately. No time to waste. Or, as we sometimes put it – “I don’t want to half ass something. Either I do it properly or I don’t do it at all”.

The funny part is – sometimes we waste so much time because we didn’t want to waste any time. How crazy is that? Just stop and think about it.

So, the very first step is actually the SIMPLEST one. It’s not EASY, because you actually have to, as my dear friend and colleague says – “overcome the static friction”. You have to get the ball rolling.

Here’s what I want you to do – write down what is it that you want to do. Ideally, write it on a sticky note and put it somewhere visible (e.g. on your monitor, or on your bathroom mirror). If you don’t have any sticky notes, that’s OK. Write it on a piece of paper or in a text document. It’s cool if it’s visible, but it’s not mandatory. I’m using a “Stickies” app that comes preinstalled in OSX, so that’s a possibility as well.

Let me give you some examples:

  • I want to start exercising
  • I want to lose weight
  • I want to write my graduation thesis
  • I want to start blogging

Whatever it is – just write it down. No need to detail it out. Keep it brief and simple. “I want to ________”. Write it down and LEAVE IT. Yes, leave it. No need to do ANYTHING else. Let your unconscious do the heavy lifting for you. Now go and do whatever it is that you would be doing anyway – watching Netflix, running errands or … well, whatever. Leave it be for as long as needed. You’ll know when you are ready for the next step.

Hidden power of “sinking in”

Let me tell you another interesting anecdote. Sleep. Most of us (myself included) consider a sleep as a state where you are pretty static, right? Not much (if anything) going on. Hibernation. Well, you’ll probably be as surprised as I was to learn that, during the state of sleep, our brains are ANYTHING but inactive. Quite the contrary! During the sleep, our brain and our whole body go into a crazy state – endocrine system goes wild, brain goes into sixth gear and well, apparently, a LOT of things seem to be happening all at once. Pretty much everything except nothing.

Now why I mentioned that? Because I think most of us underappreciate the value of “doing nothing”. Or, to be more precise – what we perceive as “not doing anything”. Specifically, we underappreciate the power of “letting the things sink in”.

The main issue is that, when we say “let that sink in”, we perceive it the same as sleep. A state where you are not doing anything towards the goal that you want to achieve. And I can’t even start to tell you how wrong that is!

By writing down “I want to _________”, what you are actually doing is kicking your unconscious into a sixth gear. Not even figuratively, but literally speaking. You are sending a command to your brain that there’s some unconscious work to be done and, by “sinking it in”, what you are doing is letting your brain do the work for you. Just like when you’re sleeping.

Next – find the ONE simplest step towards the goal

As I said, once you do the first step, you need to let that thing sink in. This is because there is some pre-work to be done and you really have to let your inner worker do that work first. This might take anywhere from an hour, all the way up to a month or a year. The important thing to keep in mind is that the time it takes doesn’t really matter. If it takes longer, well, there surely was quite some work to be done upfront. Don’t rush it.

And how do you know when you are ready for the next step? Well, trust me – you will feel it. Literally. It will start itching your ass and you will just have to do it.

Now, once you get that itch, it’s time for the step #2 – defining the most simple step that you can make towards whatever it is that you want to do. Now this is really important. Your job is to define what is the SIMPLEST and EASIEST thing that you can do towards that goal. The goal here is to pick something that is VERY DOABLE, but still not overwhelming. And this is really tricky so you have to think carefully.

Let me give you some examples:

  • If you want to start exercising, the first step would be to look up the gym where you want to go. Or, if you’re more into doing some home workouts – lookup some youtube videos.
  • If you want to start writing something (e.g. graduation thesis), sit down and write only a title. Or just one sentence. Really. Just write ONE sentence and that’s it.
  • If you want to start a new diet – look up which one you’d like to try. Then, note down what needs to be done (e.g. purchase required groceries).

The point of this step is to find anything that is mildly uncomfortable, but yet still doable. And there’s just no silver bullet here really. If you are one of those people who want to jump right into the thing – perfect for you! But if you are more of a cautious type (like I am) – you don’t really want to overwhelm yourself.

So, ask yourself – “What is the simplest and easiest thing I can do towards my goal?”. And whatever the answer is — DO IT. If you are feeling mild discomfort – that’s perfect, you’re in the sweet spot! If you’re feeling overwhelmed – you bit off more than you could chew; pick something easier.

Alternative next step – chunk it up

I would say that this is a more advanced version of “Art of Starting Things”. Hence, I recommend it only if you had enough practice with “picking the smallest possible step”. Art of Starting things really takes some serious practice and confidence building. Just like anything in life does, really.

Chunking things up is, probably, one of the simplest and yet the hardest tools that you can have in your toolbox. And it probably deserves an article on its own.

General idea is – whatever the “problem” is, what you need to do is – define where you are now, where you want to be, and what are some steps that you can take to get there. And “problem” can be anything ranging from starting to exercise to planning how to tackle a next big development project. So, you take the problem, break it up into smaller pieces and you attack them one by one. Rinse & repeat until the goal is achieved.

What’s the logic behind it? Well, the logic is actually really simple – sometimes the “problem” is just a big unknown. And those big unknowns are, well, usually scary and overwhelming. But once we break that big unknown into manageable pieces, it takes way less energy and confidence to attack them. This is true for ANYTHING in life really.

Interesting example of a “Big and Scary Unknown”

Let me give you one great example of a big scary unknown. I’ve listened to a bunch of podcasts with Navy SEALs where they discuss how they go (and survive) the hell week. For those unfamiliar – hell week is a fourth week of their training, where they literally go through hell. It’s five days and five nights of constant training in the most harsh conditions (water, sand, etc.) and they get maximum of four hours of sleep. Yes, four hours of sleep (in total!) for five consecutive days.

So, as you can imagine – quite a hell and many of them give up on it. Now, how do you survive those five days with no sleep? That’s a big unknown right there. You know how most of them tackle it? They chunk it up! Literally. They chunk it up into bite-sized pieces that they can live with and they attack them one by one. Some of them break it into number of six-hour timeframes, which is, I think, time between meals that they get. Others break it into 120 one-hour units hours and they just attack it; hour by hour.

But the whole point is – instead of thinking of it as a whole (five days and nights of no sleep) they think of it as small chunks of things (e.g. 120 one-hour units to go through). That’s your tool of trade right there – chunking at it’s finest.

Okay, I’ve made a first step. What now?

Well, first of all – you need to congratulate yourself. Reflect on what you did. You started from the null position and you managed to overcome that static friction by applying some mental force over it. And since there’s a high possibility that you’ve been delaying it for a while. Congratulate yourself for doing it!

Next step is actually even simpler – find the next simplest step that you can do and just keep repeating it. Over and over. Rinse & repeat.

There is a famous quote that says – Showing up is half the battle. Just think of that and let it sink in.

Common misbeliefs

I’d like to tackle some of the common misbeliefs that we seem to hold dear, which, in turn, do an amazing way in preventing us do things.

It should be easier

This is, by far, the biggest misbelief and the biggest showstopper for most of us. Especially the ones who have no clue about it (because, how WOULD you have clue if no one told you about it, right?).

I refer to this as What You See Is All There Is and I wrote about this phenomenon extensively in another article – I’m as anxious as you are; I just choose to do it.

The short answer is – NO. It should NOT be easier. The problem is that you are seeing the problem as one big and scary unknown. Chunk it up and it becomes easier. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I will suck at it

Yes, you will. But you also sucked at walking and talking when you were little, and yet, I’m assuming you improved, eh?

We all suck at doing something new. But that’s the beauty of it. I wrote a whole article dedicated to it – Do something that you suck at.

It has to be perfect

If you are one of us who, along with other shit things, suffer from perfectionism, well – welcome to the family 🙂

There is one really good quote that says – Perfect is the enemy of good.

Not everything has to be perfect. Most of the time good is good enough.

“If I knew what had to be done before I published a book, I would have never published it”

This is something that I’ve heard on some podcast and it really kind of stuck with me.

Sometimes, it pays to just “do it first and observe later”, rather than getting paralysed by analysing it. This is exactly what I did when I started this blog – I’ve been paralysed for so long trying to analyse the best approach that, eventually, I just freaked out and started writing the hell out of it.

Your turn!

Now that you’ve hopefully read everything, it’s time to make that first step (if you haven’t done so already). Write down what is it that you want to do, let it sink and wait until your inner self tells you you’re ready! Then figure out the smallest (and easiest!) step that you can make towards your goal and DO IT! And don’t forget to let me know how it went 😉

Conclusion

Starting anything new is hard. Doubly so if you’re not used to it. What makes it hard usually boils down to a feeling of fear. Fear of failing, fear of not being good enough or fear of just not knowing what to do. Fear of the unknown. The thing is – you never get rid of the fear. Neither you’d want to do so. What you do instead is apply the tools of the trade to work around that. Those tools boil down to – noting down what you want to do, breaking it down into smaller chunks and dealing with smallest and simplest chunk first. And, on top of that, being aware that it takes time for things to settle.

That’s pretty much it when it comes to starting of things. Next article will tackle the “Art of Sustaining at Things”, but that’s a story for another time.

Useful Resources

As usual, here are some the resources that you might find useful:

  • Why Procrastinators Procrastinate — amazing article published on Wait But Why blog. I read it seven years ago but, to this day, it still resonates with me.
  • Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss — I’ve mentioned this book couple of times so far and I still find it by far one of the best books when it comes to motivation. I’ve read it three times and here’s my review of it.
  • Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins — if you’ve been reading my previous articles, you might have noticed I’ve mentioned this guy on number of occasions. I honestly didn’t enjoy his book that much, but I think it’s because I knew 95% of the story from listening absolutely every single podcast where he was a guest. However, people seem to be finding it amazingly inspirational, so, make sure to check it out. Here’s my review of it.
  • Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear – I didn’t read this one yet, but it has been on my reading list for a while now. Judging by the reviews of the people I “steal” the reads from, it seems to be an amazing.
  • If you’re interested in the science of sleep topic that I mentioned above, this is the original podcast with Matthew Walker. Matthew is an is an English scientist and professor of neuroscience and psychology. He is one of the most high-profile public intellectuals focused on the subject of sleep.
  • If you’re interested in the Agile Development stuff that I quoted from Uncle Bob, that comes from his book – Clean Agile: Back to Basics. I’m still reading it so I have no comments to make yet..
  • If you’re interested in all the stuff behind muscle growth and hypertrophy that I mentioned, that comes from the amazing podcast with Pavel Tsatsouline. I’m literally re-listening to this almost on a daily basis. For those with short attention span, here’s a 10-min version extracted from the 3-hour podcast (which, I highly suggest!).
  • If you’re interested in all the stuff I told about how I listened to Navy SEALs to about chunking their hell week into smaller chunks, that comes from a podcast with Andy Stumpf. Again, for those with shorter attention span, there seems to be a shorter version, but I haven’t listened to it so I can’t make any claims. If you ask me – go and listen the whole one. You’ll learn, among other things, of all the ways to wipe your bottom WITHOUT the toilet paper.

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