imperfect and unpretentious

Getting started is the hard part. When I sit down to work, I'm uncomfortable. Itchy, antsy, easily distracted. I know why, too. For some reason, I'm convinced I need to know what words I'm going to write before I can write any words. Convinced, I tell you.

Intellectually, I know that's not how it works. You have to write to figure out what you're going to write. But I never stop feeling like I should already have it figured out. This strange conviction puts me in a brittle state of mind. Naturally, it's when I'm in this state that certain people wander into my home office to complain about breakfast cereal options or look for missing charging cables.

The other day, I wrote "imperfect and unpretentious" on the chalkboard. I keep looking at those words. They remind me to ignore the crazy inner voice saying, "Don't start writing until you've figured out exactly what you're going to write." It's not a helpful voice.

Pushing through and getting that first cluster of words down every morning at 8:30 a.m. is a bit like doing a cold plunge. If I jump in directly, I'm good. If I'm interrupted, or if put off the start for even a moment—respond to an email, make a note on an unrelated project—I'm in trouble. I may lose the whole first hour. It's a delicate moment.

What helps is a hook, sharp and specific. To clear a path to the plunge, I leave myself a concrete cue that tells me exactly what to tackle first. If I was in the middle of drafting the day before, I've left three asterisks in the document as a signal to start here. Searching for those asterisks is the first thing I do. If it's time to revise or expand, I'll have left a clear to-do with a specific outcome somewhere hard to miss: "Cite the boiling frog example." That means I need to find the source, archive the PDF, capture relevant bibliographic details, and confirm that the story I've told in the text matches the facts in the source.

I can't afford to be vague. Telling myself to "Reorganize the outline" or "Make the conclusion easier to follow" guarantees an hour of procrastination. The mind simply refuses to grapple with an ambiguous mandate. The smaller and more concrete the task I assign myself, the easier it is to mentally seize. And the sooner I begin, the more quickly I quiet that ugly voice demanding perfect knowledge. This way, I can work on one small thing, imperfectly and unpretentiously, until I achieve some degree of momentum. At that point, hey, I might even get some work done. Always a good thing.

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