All too often, the creative work we most value, the stuff that brings the greatest meaning and satisfaction to our lives, gets shoved aside for other priorities. No matter the creative work you’re doing–writing, designing, composing, coding, or just brainstorming ideas–if you want to make real progress, it’s essential you treat your work not as a hobby or side note, but as a job.
The writers who finish books, the artists who complete paintings, the coders who write successful programs–all of them don’t fit their creative work in when they have time. Because there is never time. They show up no matter what and do the work.
What sets the pros apart from the amateurs? It’s not simply external validation or success. “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance,” writes Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, his seminal book on the creative process. The pros are the ones who successfully overcome that resistance and thrive in the face of it.
The first step to feeling more satisfied by your creative work and making significant progress on it is changing your attitude toward it. But what are the steps one needs to take in order to become a professional rather than just an amateur? “The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself. Is he scared? Hell, yes,” writes Pressfield. “If you’re paralyzed with fear, it’s a good sign. It shows you what you have to do.
A common mistake many creative people make is feeling too emotionally tied up in their work. When your work becomes your identity and main marker of self-worth, you put a lot of pressure on yourself, says Pressfield. And that pressure can become debilitating. Pros understand this and steel themselves against it.
It’s not about the success of the work. It’s about the process of creating it. “Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure,” writes Pressfield. “The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.”
Pressfield identifies what he calls the Principle of Priority: a simple two-step approach to prioritizing the work that comes your way.
Those two steps, according to Pressfield, are:
- know the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important.
- do what’s important first.
Doing what’s important first is of course easier said than done. One way to get there is to create what Cal Newport calls “daily focus blocks” or periods of uninterrupted time exclusively reserved for creative work. That means no distractions are allowed to worm their way to the forefront.
Don’t be overly ambitious in how much time you think you can concentrate when just starting out, warns Newport. Start with an hour of uninterrupted time and gradually add 15 minutes each week, he suggests.
Fear can be the big resistance we face. What if you invest all this time and effort and the result is a failure? What if you get scathing criticism once you send it out into the world? Or finally realize you really aren’t cut out for this kind of work? “Remember our rule of thumb,” writes Pressfield. “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Creative work takes copious amounts of time. It rarely comes out right your first stab at it. Trial and error and a willingness to screw it up are par for the course. “The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work,” writes Pressfield. “He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality.”