Author Ayn Rand once gave a series of lectures on the “Art of Writing Non-Fiction”.
During one of these lectures, as she was discussing the topic of productivity, she addressed a common occurrence that she called “The White Tennis Shoes Syndrome”:
Years ago I read an article in The New Yorker by a writer who described what she does in the morning before writing. What she describes is universal. When she sits down she knows she does not want to write. Here is what her subconscious does to “save” her from that difficulty. She thinks of everything she has to do. She needs to call a friend on business, and does so. She thinks of an aunt she has not called for months, and calls her. She thinks of what she has to order from the store, and places the order. She remembers she has not finished yesterday’s paper, so she does. She continues in this way until she runs out of excuses and has to start writing. But suddenly she remembers that last summer (it is now winter) she never cleaned her white tennis shoes. So she cleans them. That is why I refer to this syndrome as the “white tennis shoes.”
In steelmaking, a blast furnace must be heated for weeks before it is hot enough to forge steel. A writer getting himself into the writing mood is like that furnace. Nobody likes to get into that state, though once you are in it you want no other, and would probably snap at anyone who interrupted you…. [I]n the case of the “white tennis shoes,” you must force yourself by sheer will power immediately to stop procrastinating and begin writing.
This productivity lesson can be applied in so many ways (outside of writing).
- It applies to doing the hard work necessary to get a business off the ground;
- It applies to making sales calls;
- It applies to doing that critical work on your project that no one wants to tackle (as author Brian Tracy describes “eating the frog”); and
- It applies to building and maintaining relationships of all forms.
The problem of the White Tennis Shoes (metaphorically speaking) is ubiquitous. It impacts all aspects of our life.
There always seems to be something in the way of our doing the more important work (especially if that work is difficult), right when we should be doing it.
I know that I am as susceptible to the White Tennis Shoes Syndrome as the next person, that is why having a system is so important. The better my system is, and the more resolve that I have in maintaining it, the more likely it is that my important work will get done.
Here are four systems that I use to guard against my “lesser self” and overcome the White Tennis Shoes Syndrome:
- I organize my day so that I set up flow chunks where I do the important but difficult work (this includes any creative venture, but it could equally be applied to any other type of work where the metaphor of White Tennis Shoes could be used to prevent the work from happening). I specifically set out chunks, usually in 90min – 2 hour blocks, that are going to be productivity zones. These zones are also busy free zones (ie. no busy work is allowed in these);
- During these productivity zones I turn off my cell phone (so that I can’t be interrupted by the ping or buzz of a new email, or social media mention) I also turn off my business line. The world can wait for an hour or two. There is rarely an urgency (other than an immediate injury to my family) that can’t wait 90 minutes. Also I make sure that my Internet browser is closed;
- I embrace an internal sense of satisfaction when I accomplish something difficult but critical; and
- I track the actions that are susceptible to the White Tennis Shoes Syndrome. I write them down in a daily journal when I accomplish them. By writing the actions that I take I reinforce the sense of internal accomplishment and also look forward to doing it again tomorrow.
These are just a couple of examples – there are many more. The important thing is that a habit of defeating internal resistance and accomplishing tasks is created by guarding against the distractions that so easily keep us from doing the difficult (but meaningful and rewarding) work in our life.