Ritual, Willpower, and the Final Push
excerpt from uncertainty by jonathan fields
When writing his most recent book, Be Excellent at Anything (2010), Schwartz structured his day into three ninety minute writing bursts that allowed him to complete the book working only four and a half hours a day for three months. Our brains, Schwartz discovered, become easily fatigued. They need breaks in order to refuel, to be able to refocus, create, and produce. When we don't give them the needed time to refuel, they more or less start to shut down and ratchet up the mood crank factor until we have to listen. By then we've often spent hours at work, without actually accomplishing a whole lot of work.
But it's not just the lost creativity, cognitive function, and productivity that take a hit when we don't stop to refuel on a regular enough basis. Willpower is annihilated and fear and anxiety run amok when you don't give your brain a chance to refuel.
In his book How We Decide (2009), Jonah Lehrer points to the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as the seat of self-control or willpower. The problem is, the PFC is easily fatigued.
Willpower, it turns out, is a depletable resource. Tasks that involve heavy thinking, working memory, concentration, and creativity tax the PFC in a major way and ... it doesn't take all that much to draw your willpower tank down to near zero.
Why should you care? Two reasons. What we often experience as resistance, desire, distraction, burnout, fatigue, frustration, and anxiety in the process of creating something from nothing may, at least in part, be PFC depletion that reduces our willpower to zero and makes it near impossible to commit to the task at hand—especially if the task wars with our creative orientation. In addition, what so many creators experience as a withering ability to handle the anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty as a project nears completion may actually be self-induced rather than process-induced suffering.
Think about your own process. As you near the launch of a new venture, the completion of a manuscript, or the creation of a collection of artwork for an upcoming show, you tend to put in more hours. You work for longer periods of time without breaks. You sleep less and do so more fitfully. You stop exercising, meditating, listening to music, and creating deliberate space in your day. You eat like hell (or don't eat enough) and push away conversations and activities that take you away from your endeavor because you just don't have the time (or so you think). You abandon your more humane creation routine and rituals in the name of getting it done.
What happens? All those things stack on top of each other to systematically juice your PFC and empty your willpower tank, then keep it empty. You'll very likely experience that loss of willpower and hit to your ability to self-regulate your behavior as the evil, nasty resistance getting stronger as you get closer to completing your endeavor. In reality, a series of subtle shifts in your own behavior are causing much of the distress.
If you're someone who creates largely in a vacuum, as you get closer to the end of your endeavor you're also starting to get to the place where you've got to go public or at least reveal your creation to the first line of your potential "judges." Exposure to judgment and risk of loss begin to become far more real to you. That kicks the amygdala's fear and anxiety responses into high gear at a point when your PFC is too wiped out to do much to counter it.
Well-planned, burst-driven creation rituals with recovery periods go a long way toward taming the evil nasties that arise as a project progresses by allowing the PFC to refuel along the way. I experimented with this when writing this book. When I wrote my earlier book, Career Renegade, I spent the final week slumped on the couch in the tattered remains for an extra-heavy Champion sweatshirt from college-writing, sweating, thinking, muttering, spinning, and randomly cursing for the better part of sixteen hours a day. Not fun. I felt a bit like I was waging creative warfare.
This time around, I committed to a ritual that was much closer to Schwartz's. I still donned the ancient sweatshirt. And the week before the manuscript was due, I still had a ton of work to do on it. But i stuck to my bursts, took breaks to meditate, eat, play guitar, walk outside, play with my wife and daughter, and talk to friends. Amazingly enough, the work still got done, the the process became substantially more humane. lesson learned.