by Ben Carter

I will do almost anything to avoid writing. Here are a few things I do to avoid writing:

  1. Scoop cat poop.
  2. Organize the pantry.
  3. Go for a run.
  4. Call somebody.
  5. Watch TV.
  6. Sweep.
  7. Vacuum.
  8. Mow the yard.

But, recently I have stripped all that away by waking up early and making time to only write. Yet, sometimes I find myself still not writing. Here are the things I will do in front of my computer to avoid writing.

  1. Explore different blogging platforms.
  2. Explore potential functionality on my own site.
  3. Add or subtract current functionality from my site.
  4. Check and see if anyone talked about my last essay on Facebook or Twitter.
  5. See if Apple’s is still sub-par (yes), and see if there are any other mail clients that I might use instead of the Gmail web interface (there aren’t).[1]
  6. See if Safari is still slower than Chrome. (Yes.)
  7. Answer email. Admittedly, this is one of the better things I could do in front of a computer instead of write, but this makes it even more insidious because it is so much easier to convince myself to write emails not essays. [2]
  8. I’m going to tell myself that working on links and photos for already-written essays is just as important as moving the cursor.
  9. Pay bills.
  10. Read my RSS feeds.
  11. Update my OmniFocus lists.
  12. Update my hours and mileage.
  13. Explore new text editors.

Just now, between typing #4 and #5 of the “things I do at the computer to avoid writing” list, I literally spent 15 minutes researching Disqus and trying to decide if I wanted to replace the commenting functionality native to Squarespace with Disqus. That’s right: while writing about what I do to avoid writing I did the exact thing I know I’m inclined to do to avoid writing.

I spent most of my evening yesterday moving BlueGrassRoots from Tumblr to Squarespace. Yesterday morning, I spent most of my writing time trying to add Google Analytics site monitoring to the Tumblr site I abandoned 12 hours later.

This is what I do: I fiddle. Since starting this site, I have worked with no fewer than six text editors (Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, nvAlt, Byword, WriteRoom, TextEdit) and taught myself a (very easy) new syntax, MultiMarkdown, for writing on the web. All of this exploration has been fun and it actually helps me get stuff done quicker, more elegantly, and with less friction. But, that’s what’s so dangerous about it. Because it helps me write, I can convince myself that it’s time well spent.

It isn’t.

I am very good at telling myself that all of the stuff that supports the success of my writing is just as important as writing.

It isn’t.

Things that are important:

  1. I write when I’m supposed to write.
  2. I keep pushing the cursor across the screen.
  3. I continue to try to say true things, especially when I’m scared to.

Merlin Mann (from whom I am basically plagiarizing [3] this entire essay), says that you are always exercising a muscle. Whatever you do, you’re either practicing #winning or practicing losing. When I fiddle, I’m exercising my fiddling muscle. I’m exercising my Muscle of Failure.

That’s what’s so dangerous about all of this. It’s not that I just burned 15 minutes of my morning writing time looking at commenting platforms for my stupid blog. It’s that practiced burning 15 minutes of my writing time on something inconsequential. That I did it this morning makes it that much easier and more likely that I will do it tomorrow.

Pretty soon, I’m not a writer but a fiddler.

This is why I have an entire document devoted to a completely unpublishable inquiry into the many and various ways that I suck. I figure, if I can’t think of anything else to write about, well, there’s always that. I’m sort of the world’s preeminent authority on that topic. Though, I’m sure Erin could also write a pretty compelling piece on the subject, as well.

When I’m writing about how much I suck, at least I’m exercising my writing muscles, not my fiddling muscles. This is more important that I can tell you.

Look, we all have things that we wished we did. Play the guitar more, spend more time with the kids, budget, go to church, call Mom, smoke more cigarettes with friends[4], take more photographs, get organized. These are all worthy goals. But, they’re also the sort of things we can carry around guiltily for the next three years. They’re the sort of things that can make us feel like out-of-control failures with no agency in our own lives.

When we feel like we should be doing something but do not act on it, we are exercising the inaction muscle. We are practicing feeling awful about ourselves and our abilities.

It’s like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Here’s my advice (to myself): If you can’t take action on something now (whether it’s because you’re afraid, overcommitted, uninterested, whatever), put it on your calendar to review two, six, twelve months from now: “See if there’s space in my life to pick up the guitar again.” Then, move on. Continuing to feel like you should do something is making it harder to ever take action on that thing. Seriously, let it go. If you don’t, that weight is going to grow in your hands and drag you to the bottom of the deepest ocean. Your lungs will burn and the only light will come from a fish that will eat you alive.

Let it go.

Practice doing, not wishing. Practice moving the cursor to the right. Even when you’re scared. Especially when you’re scared.

  1. Srsly, people, Google has had the “Send and Archive” button for years now. It can’t be that hard. Make it so.  ↩

  2. Writing emails early, beyond clearing out your inbox, has the added benefit of putting a timestamp on the email that says to the recipient, “Seriously, what are you doing with your life?” Wait, maybe when people get emails from me at 4:30 in the morning they are thinking, “Man, what is he doing with his life?” I’m going to have to think about this.  ↩

  3. I’m not even really kidding about this. There is a good chance that every single sentence in here is a direct quote from something he said somewhere.  ↩

  4. Note to self: those days are behind you, Ben, and they’re not coming back.  ↩