Why is it difficult for us to do the things we know we should be doing? For instance, we might want to lose weight, but we end up eating too much, not exercising, and/or doing both of those things consistently. We want to read more books, but we don’t read as much. We might want to improve our business, but we don’t invest the time in our marketing efforts. We might want to learn new skills, but for whatever reason we never end up acquiring them. As artists, we need to ship regularly, but we don’t. We want to reach our goals, but we don’t want to do the work. All of this is because of the lizard brain.
The lizard brain is our preshistoric brain that is responsible for our fears, survival, anger, safety, and reproduction. It’s the part of our brain that warns against raising a question because people might laugh at us.
Steven Pressfield has given a voice to this lizard brain by calling it resistance. Seth Godin describes resistance as the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. He says that the resistance hates things like creativity, innovation, and starting things because those things might not work. It hates the creative process. Simply put, when we don’t do things we know we should, we experience resistance.
Resistance is the reason we don’t set high goals for ourselves. Artists face the most resistance because they are the ones challenging (and changing) the status quo. They are the ones who think differently.
In schools, when we don’t do the work and our teachers threaten us, we do the work, and so the resistance wins. Similarly in organizations, when our bosses pressure us to do something in a certain way (because of compliance or what have you, and not necessarily because it was the right thing to do), the resistance wins, again.
By the way, let’s not confuse resistance with inviting a critical assessment of our work from time to time (which we all need) from those we trust. There is a time and place for ideas and execution. I covered this in Divergence and Convergence.
Before we talk about overcoming resistance, let’s discuss the purpose of resistance. Our Ego is to relationships what resistance is to self. While our ego’s job is to keep us alone in our relationships, the job of resistance is to keep us safe (and to keep us from change) because it perenially lives in fear. It will do everything in its power to maintain the status quo. And because it loves the status quo, it keeps us from reaching our goals. It’s easier to be how we are now than to change into what we want to be.
Resistance loves compliance. It loves being a cog in the wheel. It loves when we follow instructions at work (or in life) without asking questions.
Resistance loves when we procrastinate (when we don’t do the work we know we should) because it’s keeping us from doing things that we will eventually ship. By keeping us safe, it keeps us from challenging the status quo. Change is risky because it moves us from what we know into what we don’t.
Resistance loves when we are doing “busy work”, like when we merely check things off our lists as opposed to doing things that matter. It makes us feel busy, productive, and measured. It likes anything that is measurable. For instance, endless to-do lists, following instructions, and overall compliance. All of these are things we can point to and say we did today, but were they important? Did they matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. They were perfect hiding places for resistance to hide itself to avoid the scary job of doing the work.
Resistance keeps us from making mistakes. There are times in situations when we feel afraid that we might do the wrong thing. It’s when you think twice before raising a question in a meeting or at a talk, which is when you might be worried about what others might think of you. That is the voice of resistance.
Resistance keeps you from showing up at work. It keeps you from doing the work. It will do anything to sabotage your work because if you show up and do the work, chances are whatever you work on might not work. Somehow if you manage to ship the work, you/your work might be laughed at, criticized, etc., and that is something that resistance or the lizard brain cannot tolerate. It will do everything in its power to keep you “safe” from public criticism.
Godin says that the resistance wants us to wander, quit things at the wrong time, and to seek out the sinecure of mediocrity. It wants us to compromise and get stuck with what we believe we deserve instead of what we are capable of. It wants a map when we really need a compass.
Resistance is akin to a bully who will not give up unless you tackle it head on. Like all bullies, resistance is also greatly insecure.
Now that we’ve discussed the motives of resistance, let’s talk about what we can do to overcome it. First, understand that resistance (akin to ego) never goes away. If you’re going to wait for it to go, you’ll wait forever. What you say is, “I feel the resistance and I’m going to do this thing anyway”. You can’t make the tiredness go away (in a marathon), but you can learn to put it somewhere.
When you experience resistance, it’s precisely when you should be moving forward with your work. It’s an indication that you’re doing something right. Remember, the obstacle is the way through.
There are things happening inside our heads all the time. If/when we identify with the “wrong” things, then resistance has overcome us instead of us overcoming it. Here are some ways to do the latter:
One of the ways we overcome resistance is what Steven Pressfield calls turning pro. That means we show up every day and do the work because we are professionals. We do this by having the self-discipline to show up. When we show up, we acknowledge resistance so we can ignore it and do our work anyway. We do the work for work’s sake (and not for the fruits of it), to paraphrase a line from the Gita, because the journey of doing the work is the reward in itself.
Another thing we can do is stop taking success or failure personally and focus on doing the work. Never take failures to heart, and never let success go to your head.
We need to stop over-identifying with our work. As James Victore says, make work that matters, have a damn opinion, and love something other than yourself.
Get into the habit of starting things, then show up every day and do the work. Have the mindset of “I ship” and build your work around it. Work with (and honor) deadlines. When you start something, finish it.
We overcome resistance by ignoring the voice of doubt and by making things that are worth making in order to create the change we want in the world. We need to seek our resistance and embrace it rather than avoid and run away from it.
Here is how we know when we have overcome resistance. When we ship things on time. When we finish that first draft. When we choose to do the work in lieu of taking a nap simply because we didn’t “feel” like doing the work. Only by overcoming resistance (by doing the work every day) can we hope to produce something meaningful.
When engaged in any creative endeavor, we all face that critical voice inside our heads that shows up in the form of self-doubt, fear, and anxiety. That voice is chiefly a negative force and keeps us from doing our work.
Resistance is the sole barrier for us artists between now and making our art. The thing is that unless we start taking risks (as artists who produce work), we won’t be able to create anything worthwhile. This is consistent with the principle of Divergence and Convergence. Our job is to keep shipping. The work of Resistance is to keep us from doing our work.
Resistance keeps us from making any kind of meaningful change in our lives because it loves the status quo and will do everything in its power to maintain it. Either it overcomes you or you overcome it. It never really goes away. Instead of running away from it, we embrace it.