I had a friend in middle school who used to say that a blank page was one of her favorite things. It was open, freeing, and she could put on it whatever she wanted. Sometimes I agree with her. But other times, I want to begin an essay, an email, or any kind of creative work, and I just don’t know how to start. The blankness of the page isn’t freeing it’s just empty, and there’s no structure on which to hang my ideas. That’s scary stuff. Where to start? How? Commence procrastination.
Think about why that blank page is so overwhelming. What are you afraid of?
I’m not the only one who’s had this problem, and it isn’t restricted to writing. Feeling overwhelmed, not knowing how to begin, is common to all sorts of problems. Maybe you want to go to the gym but have no idea how to work out. Or you have to write an essay but you can’t wrap your mind around what you want to say. Or you’re working on a new painting but what you want to paint just won’t take shape.
Turns out procrastination is based in fear, not laziness. If we recognize it, own it, and work through it, we can start.
Fear that you’ll fail or do badly. Probably the most common one.
Fear of the unknown — the task is not familiar to you, so you don’t know what to do or where to start.
Fear of the uncomfortable. It’s easy to do things we’re comfortable with, but doing new things is uncomfortable so we put them off.
Fear of starting in the wrong place. You don’t start because what if you’re not starting the right way?
These are all obviously related, and they can be summed up as “fear of failure or not being good enough”.
There’s a common solution to all these problems: start.
No matter how bad your start is, just start. And I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t know how! That’s the whole problem.” But it isn’t. The real roadblock here isn’t not knowing how to begin, it’s a lack of structure. Oftentimes, it’s easier to tweak and fix something that already exists than to create something out of nothing. And that’s the real problem you’re facing.
Let’s take the essay as an example. It’s pretty darn difficult to just sit down and write an essay. That’s why in school we learn how to do pre-writing. But what do you do when you’re looking at the mind map your teacher wants you to fill in, and you don’t know how to start that either? Your situation makes perfect sense. We make mind maps to connect ideas together, but the first idea you put down on the page isn’t connected to anything yet, just floating around in a sea of white.
So what do you do when you find yourself in this situation? Write down anything. Pick a single word from the title, or one word that comes to your mind when you think about the book, or a quote that you’ve highlighted. Write that down, no matter how silly or trivial it seems, and even if it’s not what you want your final essay to be about. Use it as an anchor to start branching off to other ideas.
Bring something into existence and then you’ll have full access to edits, fixes, and improvements.
Begin at the beginning. Begin in the middle. Point is, do it.
Have you ever noticed that usually when we finally get around to the thing we’ve been so worried to start, it gets a lot easier? Walking into the gym for the first time can be overwhelming, but a seasoned gym-goer has no problem making edits and tweaks to her workout plan. What’s the difference? You can’t tweak something that doesn’t exist yet. So just bring something into existence and then you’ll have full access to edits, fixes, and improvements. Begin at the beginning. Begin in the middle. Point is, do it.
Starting is tough when you don’t know what to do. And knowing that you really just have to do something doesn’t actually make it much easier. But you can follow these tips to make the feeling of starting a little bit more concrete. Pick something simple to start with, just a phrase or a word, not a whole paragraph. In a mind map, that can be a thematic word like “love” or “power.” In an essay, a short phrase like “Jon is a reckless character.” For a visual creation, just put a circle on the canvas, or a line. For musical composition, a simple beat.
The basic idea is this: Don’t be afraid. It’s a lot easier to improve something than to create it perfectly the first time, but you can’t improve something that doesn’t yet exist. Make something, anything. To begin, start. Risk the failure, it’s where the good stuff happens. It’ll all work out from there.