Make the First Move

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I recently read a great article on Medium by Srinivas Rao (the article first appeared in 2017, but I only recently came upon it). Rao discusses the importance of how we start our day and makes a distinction between “junk food for the mind” and “health food for the mind.” “Health food” is anything that nourishes the mind or body – reading, exercise, meditation. “Junk food,” of course, is the opposite – doughnuts, cigarettes, or our omnipresent mobile devices and their addictive apps.

My wife and I own a dog, and we start most days by taking the dog on a walk around our neighborhood, followed by shared breakfast and conversation. It’s a convenient way to wake up our bodies and connect with each other before starting the workday. I rarely look at my smartphone (beyond an occasional check of the weather app) until long after breakfast.

Starting the day with social media, television, junk food, etc., isn’t starting the day wrong so much as not starting the day at all. The most difficult step of any undertaking is often the beginning. Greeting the sun with “junk food for the mind” avoids, or at least delays, commitment to a focused activity and the risk of failure. It might make life easier by minimizing challenges and short-term stress, but the lopsided trade-off is that it also minimizes achievement and long-term satisfaction. It can also trigger a cycle of shame as others around you run 5K’s and complete their masterpieces.

Photograph of 2 men playing chess on a very large chess board
You can’t play the game until you make the first move

Breaking these types of habits can be challenging. Keep a book or sketch pad by your bed instead of your smartphone (better yet, turn it off entirely at night). Limit the number of apps on your mobile device, turn off notifications, or install apps that limit the time you can spend on other apps. If you have a spouse or roommate, engage them in conversation instead of turning to screens. Meet a friend for an early morning coffee or a sunrise walk.

Now that you’ve started your day, what about those other projects you’ve avoided starting?

Writing: If you’re stuck beginning your next writing project, try to give your mind a running start. Work on an outline or character back stories until the words are ready to flow. Or do some journal-writing. If you’re writing fiction, immerse yourself in your fictional world by having a mental conversation with one of your characters (I’ve read that Great Bird of the Galaxy Gene Roddenberry said, “I have long conversations with Spock,” and Roddenberry did all right on the creative front).

Painting: If you’re stuck beginning the next painting, try some practice sketches first. Or simply move your brush across the canvas and see what happens; you might come up with something even better than you expected. Switch materials – if you normally work with oils, work with water colors for a while.

Photography: You don’t need to be someplace new and exotic to create great images. Look around your home, yard, or neighborhood for interesting light and shadows, patterns, or details you haven’t noticed before. Review your camera’s settings to make sure you’re ready when the moment is right.

Black and white photo of a group of people at the far end of a Montreal Metro tunnel
Is that light at the end of the tunnel? Take the first step and find out.

Fitness and diet: Not really creative endeavors themselves, how we move and what we eat are important to maintaining energy for your creative effort. If you’re procrastinating healthy eating or exercise, do what I call “clearing the path:” Take steps to make good habits easier. These patterns really begin at the grocery store, when you decide to leave the snack foods and buy fresh produce, or when you get your workout clothes out the night before so you’re ready to go in the morning. (That walk I start every day with? My sneakers and comfortable walking clothes are within arm’s reach of the bed so I can be up and out the door before I second-guess myself.) Get a workout partner so you can motivate each other. When I worked in an office, I prepared my lunch the night before; that left me no excuse to cop out with fast food.

A lot of strategies for getting started – and getting started properly – are a form of moving the starting line. The literal first step is not the true beginning. Often, preparation before the fact is what you need to make the first move. However, we shouldn’t assume that life will be smooth sailing after the first step. There is still much work to be done. But remember Newton’s first law of motion: Objects at rest remain at rest and objects in motion remain in motion. Once you overcome the friction that’s holding you back – whether that’s fear, writer’s block, or the addictive tendencies of social media – you’ll have a much easier time continuing forward.

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