Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Managing Your Day

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 4, 2013

This happened in New York, can’t remember what year. Early one frozen morning, I’m schlepping home from somewhere—probably a girlfriend had kicked me out—and I find myself on 53rd Street passing the Museum of Modern Art. There’s a line out front.

If you’re a New Yorker, you’re like a Russian during the Stalin era. You see a line, you get on it. A line means something good is happening. There must be, or people wouldn’t be lining up waiting for it. Even better this particular morning, the line is short. Six people. That means I’ll be up front. I’ll get into the museum ahead of just about everybody. 

I get in line.

Time is about eight-thirty. Temperature ten degrees. Wind chill twenty below. No problem. I’ve got my sport coat, got a scarf.

In a line I’m like Louis C.K. I talk to people. “Freakin’ arctic, eh man?” “Yeah, coming down outa Canada.”

“The show’s free, right?”

“Yeah, see the sign?”

In the line we’re stomping our feet, jamming our hands into our pockets.

“Anybody had breakfast yet?”

I volunteer to run to the Greek deli. Ten minutes later I’m back with bagels and bialys, hot coffee in the blue-and-white cups with the Parthenon on the side. Now the line is up to about fifty people. Wow, this is great, I’m ahead of forty-four people now.

“What time do the doors open?”

“Somebody said eleven.”

It’s nine now. No problem. I can do two hours standing on my head.

Which I do.

Eleven comes. No doors open. The line is up to 200 now, we’re all freezing our asses off.

A museum guy comes out. “Doors open at twelve.”

WTF. I should go home. My feet are numb. This is nuts. But I’ve invested almost three hours.

“Show’s free, right?”

“Free.”

I hang in for another forty minutes. Fifty. Fifty-five. “By the way, what show are we waiting for?”

“Cezanne.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Why?”

“I saw it last week.”

Now I’m totally disgusted. Why didn’t I ask earlier? I’ve lost all sensation below my knees. I gotta go home. I’m gonna catch pneumonia.

Except now I’ve waited almost four hours. So what if I’ve seen the show already? It’s still Cezanne. Still great.

I endure till twelve. Doors open, the line surges forward.

“Twenty bucks,” says the museum guy.

“What? You said it was free!”

“You a member?”

“No.”

“Twenty bucks.”

I go home and blow the rest of the day.

This is how I lived my life for years and years. I drifted through the day at the mercy of chance and happenstance. Whatever came along, I did it. And this was before texting and tweeting and FOMO.

If you’re a writer or an artist, you can’t live like that.

You have to run your day. You can’t let your day run you.

You must roll out of bed each morning with an unshakeable focus and intention. Your novel, your start-up, your movie. That’s your day. That’s why you’re here.

You can’t yield to distractions and temptations. You must be like the Blues Brothers.

You’re on a mission from God.

Who is in charge of your day? You are!

Not that I really mind having stood in that line outside MOMA. It was fun. I was an idiot, and that’s what idiots do.

But at some point those days have to end. You, the artist, must end them.

Cezanne himself went to museums, I’m sure. He stood in line. He moved through gallery rooms with crowds of other art lovers. But he did it with a focus and an intention. And when he was done, he went home to his studio and got to work.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

37 Responses to “Managing Your Day”

  1. December 4, 2013 at 2:00 am

    Good Morning Steven,

    I am glad your idiot days ended, or you wouldn’t have written “The War of Art,” and “Turning Pro.”

    It is 4:54 in the morning and I have been up for an hour writing about my toys coming alive for the month of December. I caught them washing my dishes an hour ago.

    Now it is time to get to work and be in charge of my day.
    All the best,
    Pamela

  2. December 4, 2013 at 2:22 am

    I needed that reminder right NOW. I have to finish my long overdue album and almost every day there are distractions – people need help with this or that, or some domestic duty needs done, or… any one of a hundred things. Then a couple of weeks I had a deadline imposed for technical reasons, and BANG! I got more music recorded in a fortnight than I had over the previous 6 months.

    But today the deadline was LIFTED (you don’t need to know why!) and I felt a great sense of release and relief.

    But you’ve reminded me that I need to pretend the deadline is still there and keep up the work-rate for the sake of my art.

    Thanks Steven!

  3. Pia
    December 4, 2013 at 2:27 am

    I just want to know where Pamela gets her toys… ;-)

    • December 4, 2013 at 6:49 am

      lol.
      Yea! Send them over to do my dishes too.

      • December 4, 2013 at 7:20 am

        Sorry, hope I didn’t spoil the satori. I’ve been thinking about this in regard to writing. I got this from someone else, but forget who. Leave a little to the readers imagination. If Pia had spelled out her reason, it wouldn’t have hit me suddenly what she meant ( I assume ) and wouldn’t have the same impact. Funny. Or maybe it was obvious to everyone off the bat and I’m just slow, which only means there is something to be said for being slow. More ‘Ah Ha’ laughs. ;) Make the reader a participant. Damn, I wish I could give credit for that. It was either Steve, Noah Lukeman or Roy Peter Clark.

        • Pia
          December 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm

          Great minds think alike, John. *G*

          Bonus feature of showing up to do your work is that you can’t be bothered to cook either, so there’s fewer dishes not getting done.

      • December 4, 2013 at 9:01 am

        John,
        I would love to send my toys over to do your dishes. However they have a mind of their own, and may decide to make a mess and not clean.
        Perhaps you have toys in your house that would be willing to help you.You just have to believe.

        “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
        ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

        • December 4, 2013 at 9:05 am

          Pam, you can bring your toys over to my house anytime! :)

        • December 4, 2013 at 9:27 am

          and I love that quote.

  4. tom wall
    December 4, 2013 at 5:08 am

    Walking to work, i spotted a dead line on the sidewalk _________________ Carefully, I walked around it but couldn’t help wondering how it died.

  5. December 4, 2013 at 5:11 am

    “You must roll out of bed each morning with an unshakeable focus and intention. Your novel, your start-up, your movie. That’s your day. That’s why you’re here.”

    Thanks steve for reminding me what my day should be about.

  6. Mary
    December 4, 2013 at 5:49 am

    It’s really simple, but we make it so difficult, so complicated. Just do the work. Do it everyday. Thanks for the reminder, especially this time of the year when distractions abound.

  7. December 4, 2013 at 6:37 am

    But I just got a new puppy. Day: go outside, wait. Come back in. Go outside, wait, treat. Come back in. No painting because there’s too many attractive foreign objects in there. Go outside, etc. etc. and so forth.

  8. December 4, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Ah! the idiot days!
    Thanks – now I’ve got a line for one of my poems.
    Stephen Covey called it “spheres of influence” vs “spheres of concern” – we let the distractions and resistance and spheres of concern demand too much of our time and energy and attention.

    (I’ve always wondered why sometimes it’s “ph” and sometimes “v” – not phonetically, but etymologically. I guess I’ll research it if it becomes important for a story or essay.)

    Focus-Will-Risk-Decision – there’s an inner connection there that requires more discussion than a post comment permits. I am reminded, though, of William James’s thought experiment about getting out of bed on a cold morning, with no rug on the floor. He kept telling himself to get out of bed, but nothing happened until he was out of bed – the inner muse or risk-taker saying the heck with it – and there he was. As Seth Godin put it this morning – selfie trash talk doesn’t help.

    Thanks, as always. Now it’s time to get the day started!

  9. Shelley Lieber
    December 4, 2013 at 7:04 am

    That is such a good New York story. Thanks for the chuckle with the good advice. (And, now back to writing…)

  10. December 4, 2013 at 7:13 am

    You are right as usual. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. December 4, 2013 at 7:25 am

    Steven,

    Great article. My motto for the last few years has been, ‘Priorities have to earn their way to page one.” Everything else is a distraction.

    I limit my life plan to a single page that I can view each morning from my staionary bike or elliptical. Helps to keep me from drifting with the wind.

    Garrett

  12. Sandra
    December 4, 2013 at 8:13 am

    I am so in “idiot” mode. I am like a pinball bouncing off the side of the machine I am a prisoner in.

    • avalon medina
      December 6, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      Sandra, puullleaase listen to yourself, no one else!! No, you’re NOT in idiot mode — why would you say that?? Because you listen to one of our resident “writing gurus,” not a bit better or different than your basic Western Sadhu with all the head-nodding, nonthinking devotees?? You’re doing what you’re doing right now, whatever the flying saucer that might be, isn’t that obvious to you?? Is that not OKAY with you??? Whatever you’re doing or not doing is Just Fine. When you’re ready to move, you freaking will. Stop it!!

      You’re not an idiot, Sandra, just the opposite. YOU’RE the muse, YOU’RE the only one who knows. Jeezus.

  13. December 4, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Excellent piece, Steven. You are so “right-on.” This supports the best piece of writing advice I ever received, from our friend Nelson DeMille, who told me: “If you’re going to be a writer, you must write every day.” Some days I might only write a sentence or two, some days I can crank out 5,000 words; but, the important thing is to “stay in the moment” or you’ll never complete the task.

  14. December 4, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Your writing inspires me Steven. I’m shivering in line with you and can relate to wasting time on things that serves little purpose other than to be hindsight lessons. Thank you for sharing your gifts of colorful writing and in-the-trenches wisdom. It’s always a refreshing and enlightening read.

  15. December 4, 2013 at 9:11 am

    That really did invoke a vivid picture in my mind. Nice piece Steve.

  16. December 4, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Funny story. Thanks for giving me inspiration and a laugh all in one fell swoop.

  17. December 4, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Great post Steve!

    An interesting topic to discuss for the next post or AMA is about structuring your day piece by piece if possible.
    Most of our days are divided into 3 parts;
    - 8 Hours Working (Day Job)
    - 8 Hours Sleeping
    - 8 Hours for creating, family time, etc.

    Obviously the amount of hours aren’t set in stone.

    Carpe Diem!

  18. Nik B
    December 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Of course there was a Greek deli with images of the Parthenon on the side of its coffee cups. You know, for years I thought my family had dodged that stereotype until one day my mother told me, “That’s not true! Your Uncle George had a diner in Astoria.”

    FFS. Now my cousin is fresh off the boat from Athens and living in Queens, and I feel like we’re the Bellic cousins from GTA IV. (Hey, people even call me Niko.)

    Steve, I don’t post here often, but something has been bothering me these last few months. I’ve got a beat to hell copy of War of Art and I try to always keep its lessons n mind, which is why alarm bells went off when I read interviews with George R.R. Martin and he talked about how he’s overwhelmed himself to the point where finishing his book series is increasingly daunting:

    “The last two books took a really long time, so I’m hoping this one (the Winds of Winter) will go a little faster. But I make no promises. I found out long ago that when you look at the overall task, the cathedral you have to build, it looks so daunting that you just give up and sit down and play a video game.”

    I want to make one thing clear: While I enjoy the HBO show, I’m not particularly a fan of Mr. Martin’s books, and I am not one of those people hounding him about finishing. As far as I’m concerned he can take as long as he likes if he’s comfortable thing 30 years to finish a book series.

    But…I read the above quote, and a few others like it, and I’ve seen all the things Martin is saying and doing, and immediately thought of you and The War of Art before coming to this conclusion: This guy is done. The professional skipped out a long time ago. He greeted Resistance with a white flag and isn’t even pretending otherwise anymore.

    Look, I realize that when Neil Gaiman weighed in on thus it caused a turd storm, and I realize some authors may be loathe to comment. But I can’t help but think this is a lesson for the rest of us, a perfect real life example of everything you’ve been warning us about all these years. And in a way it’s worse now that Martin made his deal with HBO and put that much more pressure on himself.

    I’ll leave it there, since this is your blog and we’re not here to discuss Game of Thrones, but hopefully it’s food for thought for those of us who have dealt with Resistance over the years.

    • December 5, 2013 at 5:16 am

      You may be right, especially about pressure and he probably is daunted by that and expectations. This may be overly simple, but it works for me. I think analogies, like myths are personalized, so sorry if it is right for me and trite for you. Here goes: I used to jog. Now speed walkers pass me. I prefer the woods. Hunting season here now, first week of deer. I usually take the trail through the state game lands, right by my house. Not this week. Last few days I’m hiking the Appalachian trail about 20 miles from me. A place called Wind Gap. Some really steep climbs and with the leaves wet on the narrow, steep path, sometime I feel like I’m sliding on the ski runs at Camelback. When I look up at the peak of where I’m headed, I know I could talk myself out of it, real easy. Hell, I can do that, and have, on the way there in the truck. Hey, I’m almost 60. Who will take care of my dogs and cats if I have a heart attack? Then again, who will take care of them if I don’t get in and keep in shape? “Fear is the mind killer.” Wasn’t that Frank Herbert from the Dune series? Long story shorter, I have two rules and one belief about any task. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and if I die trying, I die trying. The belief is that I’ll be an ever more miserable SOB if I don’t try. And the secret to jogging or hiking is DONT LOOK UP. Just look at the next few steps, then, occasionally, look down and pat yourself on the back.

      • Nik B
        December 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm

        You’re right and I wholeheartedly agree — nothing wrong with walking if that’s the pace you’re comfortable with. Hell, I’m a snail when it comes to some things lol. (But let’s hope neither of us has a heart attack.)

        With Martin I really do think he’s given up. He’s talking about building cathedrals and, yeah, that’s daunting, but less so if you take it brick by brick. What strikes me is that he openly admits he’s not sure if he can do it, and the bit about giving up and playing video games is something he’s repeated more than a few times. Now he’s lowering expectations further by saying it’s a real possibility that the HBO show catches up to — and passes — his written narrative. Can you imagine the what the execs at HBO are thinking now?

        And, uh, once South Park is brutalizing you for your now-infamous lack of work ethic, you know things are bad. The South Park guys went all-out scorched earth on GRRM these last few episodes, although it was hilarious.

        • Nik B
          December 5, 2013 at 12:19 pm

          Also, apologies for the misspellings and grammatical mistakes, I’m posting using one of them there fancy iPads with the not-so-fancy autocorrect.

    • avalon medina
      December 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      Think again, Niko, and a little more deeply this time. There are those who “have faced Resistance” (like it should be capitalized??) over the years, over the entire lifetime, in every possible area of life, writing being the least of them — and there is another way to see this whole issue.

      Figure it out yourself. If you need “time” to do that, you seem to be well-suited to its prison — but again, it may suit you to look at it from another direction.

      • Nik B
        December 6, 2013 at 5:48 pm

        I don’t understand your post. I was referring to the concept of Resistance in Steven’s book, and how GRRM has apparently succumbed to it. I’m not one of those people who believes a novelist owes his readers X number of books in the future, or owes them a new book every X number of years. If GRRM decides to shelve Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, that’s cool too. And if he decides to retire and enjoy life while living large off his book and TV royalties, I wish him a long and happy retirement.

        But he hasn’t. What I find interesting (and telling) is the apparent disconnect between his desire to write, and a strange paralysis probably brought on by a combination of enormous pressure, high expectations, and a project that has grown exponentially in size and complexity. This is a case study we can all learn from.

  19. December 4, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Thank you Steven!! I was so feeling that, living with that “unshakable focus and intention”, thanks for putting out there for me to read so I could say, THAT”S IT!!!!!

    yes, cutting through the riff raff of distractions and monkey poo of things that want to say they need to be done, when I know its a lie.

    Looking forward to waking up tomorrow and living from this place!!!

  20. December 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    This was powerful. And convicting. I waste a lot of time over coffee and lunches with other writers. It looks like work. It even feels generous. But it’s undermining the more important work: creating art.

  21. Terrie Coleman
    December 5, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Thank you. A sweet reminder. I have an over active mind that thinks it needs to know everything, and know about everything. Solve every problem and care about every creature and creation on the sweet earth – and beyond. So, often, I find myself trailing off online reading articles about Eskimo toe fungus, how the pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the situation, and what can be done about it. Like, how could that possibly affect me or anyone I even know about. Exaggerating here, but topics just as irrelevant have captured me before.
    I enjoy and appreciate your work, your art. Thanks for warring for it. Blessings of the season to you.

  22. December 6, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Thanks for this simple reminder! I struggle with this daily, and just recently made an agreement with a friend to be an accountability partner for me.

    She checks in on me to make sure I’m getting my writing projects done, and just knowing that I have that “check-in” is keeping me on track.

    I also keep a to-do list of my most important things to get done, and it helps me stay focused. Something I also learned a long time ago when I worked in corporate America is that multi-tasking is a productivity killer; instead use time blocking.

    Set aside certain times of the day or week to focus on a certain task, and in that time DO NOT do anything else, unless it’s an emergency. When that time is up, set it aside until the next scheduled time. It is extremely liberating to be in control of your day! :o )

  23. Donna Michel
    December 7, 2013 at 4:39 am

    You have saved this day! Recently you wrote of advanced forms of resistance which I have been embroiled in of late: vehicle rear ended and totaled which precipitated a visit to a local emergency room, then winter variety illness, and on and on. Heavy stuff, but today I’m taking my five year old niece to see her first Nutcracker Ballet so I couldn’t possibly work on my novel, right? Wrong, but I was going to make it another do-nothing novel day until I read your piece.

    Thanks for the wake up call.

    The oh-so-sad stories become addictive; excuses to bask in resistance.

  24. December 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    You nailed it. Great piece describing the NY life of an idiot, which I myself once was too.

  25. Jere Ownby
    December 18, 2013 at 9:06 am

    “And this was before texting and tweeting and FOMO.”

    Hey Steve, What’s FOMO?