I did it while writing this.
Here’s how it goes: I open a blank document for whatever it is I’m working on, like this newsletter, or an article, speech, web site or other marketing piece for a client. An idea drops into my mind. I see the words of the idea, and get all excited: “Oh, right, that’s how to write this thing.” I start writing the first part of it. I find my groove and get all energized about it—words tumbling out almost faster than I can type. And then, sometimes mid-sentence, I just walk away and do something else entirely for a while.
Yes, I start and purposely walk away mid-stride of a great idea.
And this technique, which we’ll call The Mid-Thought Walkaway, is probably some of the best creative advice I have.
You’re thinking this sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? But don’t dismiss it yet. Let’s look at something first.
Hello Idea, Nice to See You Again!
We already know that “creative pauses” are extremely helpful in idea generation. To take a creative pause is to purposely do something unrelated to work, like taking a shower, playing golf, swimming, running, driving, or any other activity that traps you in peace with your thoughts. I wrote a piece a few years ago on this very idea, about¬† “creating captivity.” I’m a big fan of the creative pause. It’s why I run.
But walking away in medias res is another angle on the creative pause.
Do I walk away because I’m distracted? Interrupted? Procrastinating? No, no, and no.
This isn’t the multi-tasking myth, the interruption phenomenon people are furiously designing studies around and writing about, in efforts to prove that toggling between activities really does reduce productivity.
I’m only tangentially talking about productivity. What I’m really talking about isn’t the output. It’s the input: it’s how you approach the work.
For me, the magic of walking away when I’ve only just started is that when I come back to the project, I already know what it is. I have something good to walk back into. The idea is left purposefully unfinished, waiting for me to pick it up back up again. I’m excited to get back to it, because I left it at a high place.
And, because it’s been marinating in my head, it unfolds itself at the pace it needs to unfold, versus a forced unfolding.
It’s a little bit like the Seinfeld episode where George wants to leave on a high note. I want to leave on a high note for my brain.
Basically, walking away when I’m most excited is a strategy for getting through what Steven Pressfield describes as “The Resistance” in his book, Do The Work.
Just this week, I referenced Pressfield for a client, so it’s fresh as I write this. Resistance is basically the force that sets in after you’ve decided to start a project. So, you start. You take a few steps forward, and just when you’re wondering what’s so hard anyway, Resistance wallops you over the head. Self-doubt, tiredness, fear, boredom: the Resistance is made up of all of the low level stuff that comes for you as soon as you open any door of vulnerability.
The (mentally) hardest part of most projects is when the original spark of excitement has faded, and all you see are trenches for miles around. When inspiration is just your desk, and you’re sitting at it, with work to be done. Words to be written. Sketches to be made. Objects to be fabricated. People to be hired. Deadlines. Deliverables.
It’s when you’re most vulnerable to the dark arts The Resistance uses.
And listen, I still struggle with Resistance plenty of times. Sometimes, inspiration isn’t inspiration: it’s keystroke after keystroke, every word a task to write and I have to just trudge through. That’s the reality of having to write every single day, and it goes with the job.
But when I’m at my best, The Mid-Thought Walkaway has proven to be a good weapon in the fight. It doesn’t mean there’s not still a mound of work to be done. You can’t constantly keep walking away: clearly, that would be moronic. But strategically knowing when to ride the flow, and when to stop it so it will be waiting for you again when you most need it: that’s a good trick.