A couple of months ago I sent my Fast Company editor a list of 24 articles I intended to write in 2013 (my idea, not hers). She blessed 12 of them and set me to work.
And this article ain’t one of them.
I really tried to stick to the program. I looked up and down the list repeatedly, searching for some topic that I could get excited about. "What was I thinking?" I kept asking myself. "Who cares about this? What do I know about that?"
I gamely started article after article. I have an entire Dropbox folder of shame filled with scraps of articles, quotes, sentence fragments, and witty first lines. I squirmed and procrastinated. I made videos. I practiced guitar. I went running (to "clear my head"). And I kept coming back the list, feeling more and more frustrated and blocked.
Then it hit me: The list of articles was the thing getting in my way. I was trying to buffer myself into a productive and predictable future.
The Buffer Strategy
Buffering, in the positive sense (the negative sense being hypnotized by the revolving gears in front of a slow loading video), means building up a supply of something in advance of need.
If you have a pantry filled with canned food, you’re buffering. If you make seven videos on Monday and drip them daily onto YouTube for a week, you’re buffering. If you buy a 196-pack of toilet paper every three years, you’re buffering.
In these examples, buffering may make good sense. It can increase flow, as in having to set up and take down your video studio once rather than seven times. It can ensure against an unexpected spike in need, as in the full pantry. And it can save you frustration, as in always having plenty of toilet paper on hand (when you need it, you need it).
Buffering ensures against future scarcity. But that’s precisely why a list of article titles ended up stifling my creativity.
Buffering Against Presence
By creating this list, I was essentially telling my future self, "I’m not sure you’re going to have any ideas this good." And my future self began fulfilling this prophecy by withholding good ideas from the list itself. I suddenly felt like an unmotivated employee given a task he hadn’t asked for by a boss (that would be myself) who didn’t trust him.
Whatever we do, we do now. We literally have no other option. And how well we do it depends, mostly, on how present we are in this moment.
My friend Peter Bregman confided that he also had a folder with article ideas and snippets, just in case his creative well ran dry as a deadline approached. At one point his folder consisted of 57 articles that had been there for months, as moribund as the DMV line in hell.
When he realized that he always had something new and fresh to say—that in fact, having something new and fresh to say was his impetus to write in the first place—he deleted the folder and trusted the future.
Which is to say, he trusted himself to become full each time the environment required it of him.
Deadlines Are Acts of Faith
Being on deadline means always facing the possibility of being empty, of having nothing to offer. For me, each deadline raises the fear: "Will I be enough?"
When I go for that bait, I move right out of presence, of being here now, and into a cascade of worry about something that I can’t predict and can’t control.
What I need to remind myself on a regular basis is that each deadline that I agree to (and I agree to all of them, whether I admit it or not) represents my faith that I will always become full enough, clear enough, and generous enough to share something important with the world.
No Amount of Preparation is Enough
Preparation is a common form of buffering. And I’m a big believer in preparation: I believe that it exists, and that I might try it some day. (Note to clients and prospects: That is a joke.)
But even people who prepare like crazy—especially, perhaps, people who prepare like crazy—never feel prepared enough. Many people I know drive themselves nuts because of this. Whenever they stop preparing, they feel like they’re sabotaging their future. Their sacraments of success include Red Bull and coffee and self-deprivation.
But the truth is, it’s impossible to be fully prepared for anything. At best, preparation creates a framework in which we can be fully expressive in the moment, in the face of the freshly unfolding present. When our preparation crosses a line and starts to hinder that expression, it renders us dull, distant, and dead. Even when we’re in the room, we’re "dialing it in" from the past.
I never have everything I need when I sit down to write an article. But when I open myself up to the present moment, stuff comes in.
I never have everything I need when I get up to give a speech, or a workshop. My finest, most impactful, most honest moments are never scripted, never prepared, never expected.
My strongest performance anxiety occurs not in public speaking (thanks to those unplanned yodels during my Bar Mitzvah that lowered the bar far beyond anything that could happen now), but in private coaching and consulting. My client is paying big bucks. The stakes for their business are high. And I’m supposed to be clever and wise. Yikes!
Yes, I prepare. I research before I write. I create presentations and handouts before I present. And I study my clients’ situations before I meet with them. But all that preparation does not and cannot serve to excuse me from being present in that moment. And the only way I know to be present is to let go of all my preparation and simply face this moment as it is, right now.
At this point, it’s no longer faith in myself. It’s faith in whatever source of creativity and generosity flows through me when I let it: When I release the fear of not being enough. The fear of the well drying up. The fear of entering this moment with nothing to offer.
What About Long-Term Projects?
I realize that some projects require advanced planning. When I wrote my book AdWords For Dummies, I started with an outline and pretty much stuck to it for several months. Had I not, my ADHD would have produce a title like AdWords, Facebook, YouTube, Green Smoothies, Juliette Binoche Was Totally Hot in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I Wonder if the Fluorescent Lights in My Office Are Draining My Life Force For Dummies.
The outline provided a framework and kept me focused. But because I wrote it as an act of faith rather than doubt, it didn’t keep me from writing.
That’s all for now. Look for my next Fast Company article in a couple of weeks, when I talk about…
[Image: Flickr user Giulio Nesi]