For Me, The Hardest Part Is Not Starting

Some people find the hardest part to doing something is starting:

The hardest part is often just starting. I’ve found that it’s especially hard for me to start when a task is difficult or complex. The more importance and weight a certain activity has in my life or business, the more I seem to put off starting.

However, if I can just get moving on it, even for a few minutes, it tends to get easier.

Because I know this about myself, rather than setting the intention to finish something, I resolve myself to start. The more often I start, the easier things get finished. Overcoming that first bit of inertia is the biggest challenge (just like getting started on a run, or the first push of getting a car moving).

Once things are moving, momentum is on your side.

If only starting projects were my problem. (Aside from either using the subjunctive incorrectly or knowing about the existence of the subjunctive to know enough to worry if I’ve used it wrong. But that’s another, lesser, problem.)

I have found this is not true for me; I start projects pretty easily. I’ve got a half dozen or so incomplete novels dormant on my hard drives, started over the course of a decade and sometimes extending a couple thousand words before petering out when something else attracted my attention or I said, “Why bother going on with it?” I’ve got fantasy novels, literary novels, genre novels. I’ve only actually completed two and self-published one.

I’ve also got dozens of incomplete short stories and essays, which are relatively short things to write if you blow through them. Want to know why I was going to vote for George W. Bush in 2004? I don’t know if I made it through the introduction to it. I’ve got a short story called “Gunther Escapes” which I started in the early part of the century, but I ran into difficulty getting Gunther to escape, so I’ve only pecked at it from time to time in the last decade.

I’ve tried to teach myself to program in Java and in Visual Basic.NET, and I’ve even gotten 30% into writing a desktop application that actually could work on a happy path for demo purposes. It was a little application to take a list of fields and create different sorts of files of test data. The happy path was that it would take instantiate, make the window, allow you to specify the number of columns and the type of information in a column, and generate a comma-separated value file with junk values according to the specifics entered. I was gonna make it do tab-separated value files, Microsoft Excel files, and XML. I was going to improve it from the basic info entered into the columns to make it use regular expressions or select from certain dictionaries. (You want a first name? It would have a separate data store of hundreds to randomly choose from. You want a last name? Thousands to randomly choose from!) And then…. Something came up. I’ve migrated machines a couple of times since then, so I don’t remember which of the derelict computers in the testing lab has the project file even. I’m pretty sure I’ve installed VB.NET on a machine since then, but I don’t think it’s installed on the current box. Something else came up.

When I was younger and on a self-improvement tear, I started taking bujitsu. For about three months. I took a class in fencing and even went to a meeting of the St. Louis fencing club to get put into my n00b place by sixty-year-old overweight gentlemen.

Oh, so many self-improvement or other projects created and abandoned over the years. Starting is not my problem.

Sustaining is my problem.

In each case above, I’ve either encountered difficulty, frustration, or disappointing improvement. The novelty of starting the project only sustained me so far, and when it was time to get to work, I didn’t want to put in the effort or the time to continue improving or overcoming the obstacles, or I would find something else. In the case of the martial arts, after a couple of months, I didn’t think I was improving or that I’d ever advance a belt. Even though I knew if I just stuck with it for a long time, I’d improve. Unfortunately, the discouragement couple with the fact that it was an expensive hobby that cost $70 a month at a time when I was working retail and light industrial jobs to pay off my student loans. I think I stiffed the shidoshi for the last month or part of a month I was there, too. In fencing, the sport turned from a bit of swashbuckling fun into a bit of wrist-turning where I could be shamed by people who’d stuck with it for a long time.

Maybe I’m just too impatient.

If I don’t see easy success or am not in a formal framework of progression, I get don’t keep at it. The things that I’ve “accomplished” have been more about endurance and sticking to a goal, along with a bit of luck, mixed in with easy competence.

I made it through Marquette University in four years, paying my own way while working up to 60 hours a week after losing my scholarships to the Freshman 15 (which, for me, was the number of hours a week I was cutting class to read in the Memorial Library). It was a cinch. You just put one foot in front of the other, rode the bus an hour to the University, sit through classes and caught catnaps in others, ride the bus an hour to work, get out and maybe read some of the material you should have already read. Eventually they’ll give you a degree. Early in my college career, a professor mentioned that 50% of freshmen dropped out. Other students talked about transferring to state schools in the distance to cut costs or taking some time off. Those options never occurred to me in any real sense.

My career was sort of similar. I lucked into a technical writer job when I made the leap from industrial and retail into the white collar world and proved pretty good at it. I bounced into software testing and proved good at that, so I moved upward from position to position until I hit an executive level title and pay and then left that to be a part-time consultant and father. So that’s not a goal-based accomplishment, but it is something that happened just because I kept going at it.

I managed to write a novel that I think is pretty good (at least, it makes me laugh in spots, but I always crack myself up. Your mileage may vary) in much the same fashion. A couple hours a night most nights over the course of, what? A year and a half? Two years? Not the five pages a day, no more, no less that Robert B. Parker favored. Mostly less. People applauded me for my accomplishment when I finished it sometime after my 30th or 31st birthday. That wasn’t the hard part, I told them; getting published was the hard part. So I went the route trying to interest agents and publishers for a couple of years. I entered it into a contest, cash on the barrel. I lost. Eventually, I self-published it, and sales have been underwhelming. So I don’t know if I should count writing and publishing books as an accomplishment, since they’re proving to be nothing more than a money-draining vanity project at this time.

Ask me about any recent accomplishments or projects I’ve been proud of, and it’s pretty small beer. I’ve done some elementary pyrography, some craft things, small home improvement projects, some gardening with varying levels of success. I write professional articles about quality assurance topics, and a couple of magazines are happy to publish them at no charge to me. I read 100 books a year (and buy far more than that, unfortunately), but that only really breeds short book reports on my nearly decade-old blog and more obscure and esoteric material for my sometimes incomprehensible sense of humor. It’s not a lot to be proud of, not anything to bring up in conversation, really. I haven’t even really started much because I expect fully that I won’t keep with it or that it won’t succeed in my goals for it.

Incomplete projects and half-arsed efforts don’t breed a pattern of success. If I stick to something and have success with it, it breeds a habit of trying and succeeding. But when I don’t sustain, that breeds the habit of why sustain? Why spend a couple of precious free hours at night when I could be…. I don’t know, reading a book, watching a film, watching a sporting event, or wasting time. Mostly wasting time.

Hope, or insanity, breeds eternal.

My favorite film is Groundhog Day, in which Phil Connors wakes up every day in Punxsutawney, Philadelphia, and it’s the same day. Nothing has changed. He goes through a phase where he tries to game the system, to take advantage of the fact that there are no external consequences to his actions. He goes through a self-destructive phase. And eventually, he learns that every day is an opportunity to learn something new or to practice something or to continue his personal improvement so that he becomes accomplished at piano, learns French and can quote French poetry from memory, and so on and so forth. Continuous improvement through sustenance as sustenance.

Me, I’ve just picked up a Mac Mini and a couple of books about programming iPhone applications. I’ve invested a not small amount of money in the project, so I should see this through. I guess I’ll know in two weeks or less.

(Link breadcrumb trail: Ace of Spades HQ : Marginal Revolution : Illuminated Mind)