Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

My Head in the Morning

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 18, 2012

When I get up in the morning, I’m almost always in a foul mood. I’m irritable, I’m short-tempered, I’m irascible. Coffee doesn’t help. I can’t watch Matt Lauer. If I have to drive anywhere I’m always pissed off at the other cars and muttering under my breath. I’m not happy with myself, I’m not happy with the world, I’m not happy with anything.

It’s all Resistance.

Sam

The perennially pissed-off Yosemite Sam. This is how my brain feels in the AM.

Why Resistance takes this form, I don’t know. Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you wake up peppy and cheerful. Maybe I’m demented. But this is what my day feels like out of the box.

I have to counteract it right away. The worst thing I can do is lie in bed. If I let myself remain horizontal, my head starts spiraling off into dangerously dark places. The day can get out of control in a hurry.

It took me years to understand that that voice in my head is not me. It’s Resistance.

Hovering before me as I wake up is the work I know I need to do that day. Inevitably that work is daunting and inescapably it brings up fear. Ineluctably I don’t want to do it. This fear and this avoidance combine to create the witch’s brew that boils and bubbles in the cauldron of my brain.

I must take action to counter it.

Two things work for me. They might not work for you, but they do for me. One is exercise, the other is getting out of the house.

I’m a gym person. That’s my medicine. You’ll see my car pulling in before dawn and me trashing what’s left of my body on the treadmill or under the bar in the squat machine.

The gym isn’t about exercise for me. It’s about beating Resistance. The purpose of working out, for me, is to give me a “little victory” (my friend Randy Wallace’s phrase). Momentum. Something I can build on.

From the moment my soles touch the floor in the morning, I am seeking to manage my emotions for that day.

There’s an analogy you see a lot in ancient texts like Plutarch or Plato. The analogy is to the driver of a chariot. The charioteer has four horses. Each one is strong and willful and each one wants to gallop in a different direction. The horseman has to channel that powerful, unruly energy and make it go where he wants it to—without reining it in so much that he stifles his chargers’ fiery spirits.

Ben-Hur

The chariot race from "Ben-Hur." We want that horsepower.

We want that spirit. We want that horsepower. We just don’t want it dragging us all over the arena and eventually crashing head-on into the wall.

If you’re like me, you work by projects. For me it’s books. My life isn’t a one-day-one-thing, the-next-day-another affair. I’m almost always working on some long-term enterprise. Resistance loves long-term enterprises. They’re so easy to sabotage. Resistance can derail them at the start, at any point in the middle, or at its favorite ambush site—the end.

Maybe that’s why I wake up so grumpy.

Resistance has seen me coming. It knows exactly where I’m going to be. It can take up a concealed position beside the road and wallop me broadside as I trot past.

What I’ve found is that if I can get past my bad-tempered, pissed-off self early, I can make the day go my way.

Once I’m working, I’m fine. In the groove, all moodiness vanishes. I’m cheerful, I’m upbeat, I’m ready to contribute and primed to help.

I have two friends, women, each of whom has confided to me recently that they wake up with severe anxiety.

I wonder if this is Resistance.

I wonder if my friends are like me, only their Resistance takes a slightly different form. Both women are artists. Both have high aspirations and both care deeply about their work. Both define themselves, to some extent, by their art and their enterprise.

Maybe I’m projecting my own stuff onto my friends, but if I were either of them, the first thing I’d tell myself is that that anxiety is not you … it’s Resistance. It springs from your fear of the day’s work and your passion to make of it something great.

Don’t dwell on that anxiety. Don’t overthink it.

Get up. Get moving. Do whatever you have to do to seize the reins of that chariot and to take command of those four unruly horses.

Fiery chargers are good. Horsepower is what we want. We just have to learn how to gain control of those magnificent, passionate beasts and to get them to take us where we want to go.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

43 Responses to “My Head in the Morning”

  1. robertdee
    April 18, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Exactly what I neded to read this morning. Thanks, Steven. I’ve always thought of myself as an OK morning person. I don’t get grumpy. What I CAN do however is drift into internet land (like I’m doing now!) instead of starting the day properly for me (writing in my journal, meditating, going for a run) and if that takes over, I can feel the poison settling in. So, if you’ll excuse me…I have some resistance I need to put in its place.

  2. April 18, 2012 at 3:11 am

    Just the ass-kicking pep talk I need today – thank you :) I need to manage those horses better and stop letting them roam all over the place.

  3. Jane
    April 18, 2012 at 4:19 am

    So true! For me, putting both feet on the floor and going for a run, especially when I don’t feel like it, changes the day. Thank you for the reminder! Needed that today!….and “The War of Art” is just wonderful. Looking forward to your new book.

    • Otavio
      April 19, 2012 at 11:20 am

      so true to! :)

  4. skip
    April 18, 2012 at 4:26 am

    if you wake up miserable, then you probably have not had a near death experience. ive had at least 3 in 62 yrs, the first when i was 16. i was hit head on by a drunk driver at 45mph. cars didnt have seatbelts back then so im Still amazed and quite Happy to wake up every day since the 1960s!!!

    • April 18, 2012 at 8:10 am

      I wonder if Resistance cuts you “near death” folk some slack or simply avoids you completely, figuring you’re too chipper to be worth the effort? ;-)

      • April 18, 2012 at 11:35 am

        Interesting thought, Angela. My wife, the woman I turned my life upside down for some years ago, almost died a year later. (We were told it was inevitable, but someone, she inevited [is too a word].)

        For some time after she recovered (a process which took 18 months physically and 3 or 4 years to approximate her old self psychicly) I, the artist in the family, fought the good fight. Published 9 books. Wrote 150+ songs.

        Then crashed. Resistance was, as the man says, hiding in a ditch to waylay me. For 6 months I’ve studiously avoided some very creative things I desperately want to ship, simply because I’d lost sight of the inestimable gift of one more day with my Best Beloved.

        Last month we realized we needed to start fresh; new home, new life. Last week, we drove 1200 miles to a house we rented sight unseen, filled with loaned furniture from local friends.

        And we’ve both been on fire from the day we decided.

        Was Resistance biding its time, or was it just because I put down the missile-quenching shield of life-altering appreciation?

        Dunno, but I’m writing like mad and practicing music every single day and I’ll take what I can get.

        • April 18, 2012 at 11:37 am

          someone s/b somehow; d’oh

        • April 20, 2012 at 9:51 am

          Beautiful, Joel. Just beautiful! Love is so expansive, Life so precious. You have a real testament to share with people – so many wait…& wait…& wait.

  5. April 18, 2012 at 4:27 am

    It was a joy to see this link in my Facebook timeline as I almost got caught in the web of social media distraction(resistance). Great article!

    • April 20, 2012 at 9:54 am

      Love that you referred to Social Media as resistance. No doubt! I’ve had to learn, as Steven puts it, to get on that horse, charge toward the river, drink for a short (best predetermined) while, then get back on the trail. Otherwise, there’s a strong chance of drowning!

  6. April 18, 2012 at 5:07 am

    Steve, I was on my way back to bed and thought – oh I’ll see what Pressfield has to say and that will keep my head from the ‘dangerously dark places’ I go too. I had fully justified this… Now- I’m going for a walk…thanks. rlo

  7. basilis
    April 18, 2012 at 5:08 am

    The chariot metaphor is extremely accurate…

  8. April 18, 2012 at 5:11 am

    I so agree about not overthinking the anxiety. When I used to do this, Resistance would tell me, “you wouldn’t be having this anxiety if you were doing a different project”. If I did the different project, Resistance would say, “maybe you need the first project after all to work through this anxiety”. What BS! Now I just start my morning ritual and get to work.

  9. April 18, 2012 at 6:00 am

    Brilliant post Steve, and very inspiring. My work first thing in the morning is writing, and that helps me beat the resistance.

    The issue is that most people prefer to flow with their resistance, because they don’t even know it exists. Thanks for introducing us to this powerful and invisible force, and for providing us with the ways to beat it.

    This help is immense!

  10. April 18, 2012 at 6:23 am

    Good stuff. Good to know that I”m not the only one for whom the first step is always so daunting. My first step is to get to my coffee shop, open my mac and put down my 750 words.

  11. April 18, 2012 at 6:29 am

    I just don’t function well much before 10am. Whatever I do – work, go to the gym – doesn’t matter. My resistance hits between noon and 2pm. If I could work from 5pm to midnight or so – I would be so much more productive.

  12. April 18, 2012 at 6:30 am

    Steve

    Continued thanks for your honesty and bravery in posting like this. It’s more help than you know.

    I call mine “The Toad”. Slimy, greedy and very hard to catch.

    What works for me is “Morning Pages” (ala Julia Cameron). The quicker I can get to those the better my day is going to be.

    Andrew

  13. April 18, 2012 at 6:37 am

    It is a little spooky, but this reads as though you crawled through my mind, identified my Resistance, and spoke directly to me.

    I run into the same wall every morning as my reluctant self conjures up barrier after barrier, unproductive task after unproductive task–every excuse in the world to avoid the work and words that matter.

    Thank you for reminding me that my first duty is to assembling and shipping the words.

    Thank you for hitting the nail right on the head!

    Guy

  14. April 18, 2012 at 7:26 am

    GREAT post and exactly what I needed to hear this AM. Thanks!

    Elaine

  15. April 18, 2012 at 8:14 am

    I think you’re on the money in your assessment of your gal pals. I say this because mostly I’m super happy in the morning, but sometimes I wake up anxious for no good reason. At least none I can fathom. That Resistance is a pretty slick fellow I must say, because even though I’ve read The War of Art, I didn’t recognise what was going on. It took this post to do that. Muchas gracias! :-)

  16. Jason Keough
    April 18, 2012 at 8:27 am

    I’m an am gym person as well. I feel the years of sports injuries each morning and it doesn’t really go away until I hit the weights.

  17. April 18, 2012 at 9:09 am

    It is a good thing to run into people with bad dispositions in the a.m. I used to think opening my eyes was the saddest thing I could do each morning. My son of 22 had died on his motorcycle. My other two sons have wandered far away and my situation was looking very grim. So, I knew I had to change the way I was letting sadness and being ill with lupus for years, bind me to this obstinate mind-set. Now I have found a place for routine. I put my feet on the floor, and I lean forward and beg God to pull me through this new direction I have chosen for my life. You are a very good writer. Essays could keep magazines alive. Send this to Wired or GQ. It is truly not something wise to waste. Kitty Kelso

  18. Randy
    April 18, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Great post Steven. In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, he calls them the Daily Private Victory.

    They are those things we do, typically at the start of our day, that provide a micro sense of accomplishment.

    We can then catalyze that satisfaction into fuel to beat Resistance.

  19. April 18, 2012 at 10:18 am

    As a singer and actress, I don’t get “stage fright”. I get what I call “stage annoyance”. At about 3pm, if the call is 6pm, I start whining in my head that I have to go to the theatre and sing in front of people. I mean, like… there’s so much good stuff on television that I’ll be missing. I trudge to the theatre, get into makeup and costume, warm up… and then can’t wait to go on. There’s a rational part of my brain that knows this is insane, but it happens every damn time.

    I never thought of this as Resistance before, but it certainly walk like that duck. I’m in a show in May. I’m going to face my stage annoyance head-on and call it what it by name this time.

    Thanks, Steve.

    ~A~

  20. April 18, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I found this pretty funny, Steve, because you explained exactly how I feel every morning. I had to laugh at myself for being so unnecessarily grumpy :P .

  21. April 18, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Wonderful Article, Steven. This one is going in the favorites!

  22. Scott Flanders
    April 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Just recently started getting your blog. This is brilliant. The Resistance is a great name for the thing that menaces me on a daily basis (technical writer/creative dreamer). The fear and anxiety is paralyzing. I’m not cranky in the morning, just defeated. But now, if I’m aware of it, maybe I can defeat it or at least start gaining some “little victories” over the Resistance.
    Thank you. I think I better read your books.

  23. April 18, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    I found this post to be extremely helpful. I’d be curious to know if you you regard these feelings you describe – which I’ve had too – as different from depression. I’ve always called these feelings depression (and anxiety), and thinking of them as resistance changes the picture for me somewhat.
    Maybe it doesn’t make any difference what they are, exactly, but thinking of them as resistance somehow seems to make it a bit easier to deal with. Going out and exercise help me a great deal.

  24. April 18, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    When I started jogging, influenced by my friend and experienced jogger, Del, he would say, “The hardest thing to do is get started, but once you get started, you don’t want to stop.” I found that to be true psychologically. As I get older, it’s truer than ever mentally. Physically, it’s a lot easier to stop now.

  25. April 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    When I read your first few sentences, I thought I was married to you! Like my husband, you would hate me in the morning: I wake up, start thinking about what I’m going to get done that day, drink 2 cups of coffee, write, work outdoors, write, work outdoors. If I’m resisting writing, then I read a book or blogs about writing so I don’t have to feel guilty for resisting. I know there’s resistance in this someplace but I’m not going to look for it.

  26. April 20, 2012 at 5:30 am

    Resistance definitely comes in many faces. It’s sneakier than fear. Thank you for helping me identify what I do for beating resistance – that’s taking a dance break or meditating! I don’t think I ever pinpointed it as that, but it sure helps me move past it. Thank you!

  27. rob
    April 21, 2012 at 8:17 am

    I think the short tempered and irritability in the morning can be linked to shortage of glucose as found in his book Willpower – by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

    No glucose, no willpower. [1]

    [1] http://sivers.org/book/Willpower

  28. Daniel Kalonji
    April 21, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    What I like about Steven’s articles is that they are derived from everyday life; it’s not a sort of philosophical thing, but day-to-day situations from which he brings out powerful teachings. I really enjoy the illustration of horse racing and how one has to channel this unruly energy to get where you want.
    Thanks Steven.

    DK

  29. tony hinojosa
    April 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    This is exactly how I feel. What a great way to summarize what I’ve felt most days of my life.

  30. April 27, 2012 at 10:18 am

    So far nothing works other than making absolutely sure I do nothing in my office first thing other than get to the project. I can do stuff outside the room.. read newspapers, etc, but once at my desk, if I so much as glance at email, that’s it. I may get to the project eventually, but without the same sense of accomplishment or indeed without the same focus if I’d started it first off. I do work out, I do get out of bed, but sadly these things alone do not do it for me. It’s sheer willpower. Actually reading your book helped a lot, got me NOT to check email before starting for the first time in months.

  31. April 28, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Excellent post! Perfect to read on Saturday morning.
    oh, and this is so true! – “Resistance can derail them at the start, at any point in the middle, or at its favorite ambush site—the end.”

  32. Hugues
    April 30, 2012 at 9:05 am

    I give Resistance another name: “Sabotage”… This internal ennemy that you need to fight before it breaks you down. Thanks for writing down your experience that, obviously, many of us share.

  33. May 3, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    This was the second time reading this. A lot of the thing written here really resonates with my life right now. I can imagine it will in the days to come. I’m struggling to get the middle of my projects let alone the end! It’s all Resistance. To be able to see the enemy helps me to focus. I’ve been taking some steps to beat it. But I’m not going to kid myself. It’s there to give me the worst haymaker of my life when I’m in the flow. It’s a real physical battle. But I know who my opponent is.

  34. May 12, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    I can definitely relate to this. In the startup world the facade is often that we wake up feeling peppy and happy… for a lot of people this just isn’t the case. It isn’t always about caffeine, but so much of it is frame of mind, and (like you said) momentum. Building momentum and excitement throughout the day is key to pushing through the dips.

    I’ve also found that, being an extrovert, balancing being around people is huge for me (because people can be a huge determinant to productivity). A quick standup with the team to get on the same page, or even a 20-30 min coffee with a client / friend / mentor, etc can do wonders for me first thing in the morning.

    Thanks for sharing.

  35. May 22, 2012 at 1:48 am

    Just found your blog after reading, your book Do The work I already practice a lot of what you discuss after years of self-torture and never feeling I was good enough at anything I did. Your book is definitely one I’ll keep and reread whenever I require a cheerleader. What a lot of people don’t internalize is it really is a never ending battle…like you said in your book. I still experience dark moods that I alleviate through meditation and pounding the weights at the gym or running outside. The higher I can get my heart rate to climb the calmer I feel. I also channel my characters when I do my right brain work. Nothing works better at getting your aggression out than filtering out your anger through your antagonist!

    I’ve been trying to get my husband to understand all of this. I gave him your book and said, “now see, I’m not the only one!” Of course, he’ll take it from you because you’re not married to him!

  36. December 22, 2012 at 5:40 am

    Great motivation for establishing a morning routine! Thanks!

  37. December 26, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Great post and a perfect tie-in for a post I’m writing. Glad to discover your blog!