Back in High School, I was leaning over a vast strip of paper with a shard of charcoal in my hand. I remember the black Martin portfolio propped up behind me, which I found abandoned after a life drawing course the year before. I’d filled it with gestures, paintings and studies throughout the semester in an effort to make it appealing to college art programs. I already had two dozen charcoal drawings in there that I loved. In that moment, though, I had a wide-open assignment. No prompt. No requirements. I could draw anything I wanted.
And I had no idea what to do.
I stared and stared and stared. Ideas came and went; I derided each for being terrible. The blank page stared back at me, radiating possibility and teasing me for my ineptitude.
Five minutes passed before my teacher noticed my hesitation. She knew exactly why.
Starting is hard
Wanting to start is easy. Planning to start is easy. Fantasizing to start is easy. But actually getting started? My room’s a mess. I should definitely go ahead and clean it first instead.
Writers fall into this trap all the time. We wait to be inspired, and fall victim to the trap of “I don’t feel like writing today.” Inspiration provides such an endorphin rush that you forget that writing, like most things, involves long, unglamorous work. It transforms a dozen excuses into full-on roadblocks.
- “I don’t have any good story ideas right now.”
- “Somebody else already did this.”
- “I don’t have time.”
At the start of any new project, you see a million possibilities and challenges arrayed in front of you. And, a few thousand tasks that need to be done. What’s worse, you imagine a near-perfect, completed state for your novel, your app, your handmade bookcase, but this imagined thing lacks details of how to get it there. So you don’t start.
Lowering the Barrier of Entry
Many people, consciously or unconsciously, find workarounds to the overpowering blank page.
GTD maestros swear by the two-minute rule, which commands:
- If it takes less than two minutes, do it now.
- If you’re starting a new habit, start with a task that takes two minutes or less.
This gets you past the blank slate and straight into work, putting you in a position to gain momentum.
Another trick is to hack a way to start in the middle. Instead of writing your story from the beginning, jump straight to that middle scene you thought about in the shower. Often you’ll find that what you thought was the beginning was just throat clearing. You’re better off without it.
Good design hides blank slates
Just today, I swiped a fantastic UX design book from my friend’s coffee table. I opened to a random page and discovered the writer’s secret for user experience:
For most people, a completely blank slate is a difficult starting point. It’s so much easier to begin where someone has already left off. A user can easily fine-tune an approximation provided by the application into precisely what he desires with less risk of exposure and mental effort than he would have from drafting it from nothing.
Infinite possibilities cripple the imagination. But if you give someone a glob to work with, the juices start flowing.
You have a thing to build on. UX designers work around the blank slate by giving you something to work with right off the bat.
Take Facebook’s status bar: rather than an empty field, the Facebook designers give you a meaty prompt.
Just like that, your brain starts thinking about ways to answer the question. The box’s use is clear even to someone who’s never used Facebook before. I’d love to see the A/B test numbers when they first rolled this out, and how just having a prompt increased usage.
Shut Up and Ruin It
I prefer one final trick. It’s the one my teacher taught me that day in High School.
As I stood there with a blank page bullying me, she walked over and wrested the charcoal from my hand. Leaning over the table, she made one long and noisy swipe, gashing the paper with a thick vein of black that stretched from corner to corner.
“Now go,” she said, and left to help another student.
It worked. With the pristine paper already ruined, I got started. I whittled away the gash, erasing it in parts and adding in others. The thick line drove my composition and lead to idea after idea. The final piece ended up looking nothing like it, but that hardly mattered.
Later on, my teacher expanded on her philosophy.
“I always start with a diagonal line,” she said. “Students get intimidated by the page. You can’t let it do that! Show it who’s boss and rough it up a little.”
Sometimes all you need to get going on a project is to ruin it.