06/22/2011 03:35 pm ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Being Creative: The Pain of Discipline Trumps the Pain of Regret

Are delaying techniques the scourge of productivity or a necessary evil? I've never missed a deadline on a project or arrived unprepared for an investor pitch. Nor do I wait until the last minute to do my work. But that doesn't mean I never suffer from pre-project paralysis when confronted with a challenging brief.

Whether you're sitting in front of a blank page, a newly-prepared canvas or a PowerPoint that awaits your bullets, the beginning of any creative or business project can be daunting and anxiety-ridden, though many of us may not be aware of it. It may manifest as procrastination. But in my case, and I think with most workers, it's not laziness, but fear.

What's the root of this fear? It may be that it won't be good (even though all our other work has been), or that we won't finish on time (even though we always do). But in a word, it's fear of judgment of our work -- by our peers, our boss or the public. And worst of all, by ourselves.

Of course, if we're in business and have bosses we are risking judgment with every new piece of work we create. If we're running the place, we may have fear of our employees' opinions, and our customers pass judgment with each purchase they do or don't make. As a brand development consultant, I risk it with each proposal, business plan or project result. As a writer, it's worse. It's just me out there. And with the internet, it's me out there, forever. I recently begged The Huffington Post to remove a piece I wrote. I was young and foolish when I started blogging -- all those four years ago -- and hadn't fully appreciated the permanency of the Internet.

My most recent paralysis? The piece I'm writing here was originally intended to be about some very different aspect of productivity and creativity. But my delaying techniques were out in full force this morning, mostly because I hadn't had what I thought was the "big idea." So I actually sat down at my computer three times before typing the first word.

What were my thoughts and actions in between? "Did I leave a light on in the bedroom? I'd better make a cup of tea. Need to check the weather. Those earrings sitting on my desk are going to annoy me, I'd better move them. Oh, I heard the dryer stop, better fold the clothes."

I regained my sanity momentarily and did not pick up a phone call that could've wasted 20 minutes.

Like a dog who turns continuously in circles before finally laying down, I eventually settled in. And I had my idea. So maybe my delaying techniques were worthwhile this time, a time for incubation. Or maybe they're just a part of my process.

Excuse me a minute, I'm not sure what to write next. Think I'll file a nail.

As I was saying. All of us engaged in work -- including work we love -- must eventually get down to it. More often than not, I just dive in (especially easy when I have a clear brief and am not creating from "scratch"). But there's another, more insidious delaying when no one is keeping tabs on us. It happens with the "extracurricular," which is often around creative projects we've been threatening to do for months or years or even decades. And we've procrastinated to the point of never picking up our pen or brush or finishing that business plan for our start-up. We never finish the novel. Or we finish it but don't try to get it published. Or we send a few letters to publishers and then give up. Because it wasn't easy. Why do we expect things are supposed to be easy? Really, the first thing we should be taught is that life is work. It can be fun, too, but you're going to have to work hard if you want results, or if you want financial or creative fulfillment.

How do you combat this reluctance to commit to a creative project? With courage, discipline and a willingness to take risks. By taking action despite the fear and by holding yourself accountable. Perhaps the lucky ones are those who like to create just for themselves, who don't seek the approval of others for their work and don't wish to sell or make their work public.

I finally started doing those things I had threatened -- I had a little extra time during the recession. I did not want to turn around in a few decades and feel that I had lived a life, well, un-lived. I decided I preferred the pain of discipline over the pain of regret. With each action I've taken my fear of judgment became weaker than my fear of future disappointment in myself for not having taken risks. Sometimes, I don't even care what people think. Wait, that's going a bit far. But it's better.

So, how do I combat my tendency to delay the inevitable?

  • I turn off my phone. Of course, this sounds like a no-brainer, but for a lot of people it's putting down the pipe. And if you can't do it because of responsibilities -- such as kids or elderly parents -- be very judicious in the calls you do pick up.
  • Close my browser. No emails, Facebook or any other attention stealers. You don't need to immediately know who "liked" your clever Facebook comment this morning.
  • Set either the amount of time I'm going to write or other milestones (number of words, two new scenes, etc.). I do this at the beginning of the week and at the beginning of a day. If I have just an hour before work to write, that's what I'll do.
  • Set attainable, not insanely-ambitious goals.
  • I have a "creative partner" -- we speak a few times a week and hold each other accountable. Some people prefer working in writing groups.
  • Take breaks. After two hours, my mind needs a 15 minute breather.
  • Reward achievement. When you reach an important milestone, do something nice for yourself.
  • When you finish it, market it. Being a marketer, you'd think that would come easy, but it's much more difficult doing it for yourself and putting yourself out there.

Amazingly, gradually but surely, my creative projects get done, get edited, move forward and get pitched. And if rejected, they get pitched again. And even if I don't make my fortune through this, I will not have to deal with the pain of regret, or for not having tried. It's definitely not always easy. Writing is sometimes excruciating. As many writers have said, "I don't like to write. I like having written." I hear you.

So, what are you waiting for? Are you struggling with this and, if not, if you joyfully skip to your desk or easel and commence work with wild abandon, what's your secret?