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Why We Don’t Do What We Want to Do and How to Start

“If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.” ~Unknown

“The truth is,” she said, “if you can’t put fifteen minutes a day into your art, then you’re making an excuse.”

I squirmed in my seat.

It was February 1, 2011, and I was on the phone, interviewing Michele, a professional artist and artist’s mentor, for an online course I created.

Michele was sharing what she tells the artists in her mentorship program who complain of not having enough time to do their art. Her words were intended for her mentees, but it felt like they were aimed directly at me.

As an artist myself, I knew making art made me happy—made my whole day go better, in fact—and yet I was always too busy to do it. Was I just making an excuse?

I didn’t want to admit this truth to myself, but when confronted with the starkness of Michele’s statement, I had nowhere to hide.

I’d spent years believing I needed big chunks of time to make my art, but if fifteen minutes a day worked for Michele and the serious artists she mentored, maybe I was clinging to a false story, operating under a “self-installed glass ceiling” that was limiting my beliefs about what was possible.

That day changed my life. Once I accepted that my mindset was the only thing really getting in the way of my “impossible dream” of a consistent, prolific art practice, I committed to trying this fifteen minutes a day idea, as an experiment, for one month.

I admit I was skeptical that fifteen minutes would be enough to accomplish much, and I couldn’t imagine that such a short amount of time would even begin to satisfy my hungry inner artist. But waiting until I had big chunks of time to work in my studio had gotten me nowhere.

For over a decade I’d lamented that I never had enough time to do my art. Surely, even fifteen minutes would be better than nothing.

In fact, my fifteen minutes a day experiment resulted in my most prolific year ever. It stretched well beyond that original first month, and in 2011 I created more art than I had in the previous decade—over 150 finished pieces.

But it didn’t just make a difference for my art life. This experiment had effects that rippled out into the rest of my life, too.

When I finally made space in my day—even just a handful of minutes—to do something I loved but had somehow been resisting for years, I realized that my previous “inability” to find a way to make time for my art was, as Michele had said, just an excuse.

However, I had clung to this excuse not because making art wasn’t important to me. To the contrary: it was precisely because it was so very important to me that I couldn’t seem to get myself to do it.

Sometimes we make excuses to avoid unpleasant things, it’s true. But human psychology is complex. Perhaps just as often we make excuses because we want something so much it hurts.

On the surface, this doesn’t make logical sense. Dig a little deeper, though, and things start to become clear.

“If I do this thing that I really want,” we might think, “I might prove once and for all that I’ll never be any good at it.”

Or, “If I try, I might fail.”

Or, “If I step into this bigger identity for myself, I’ll have to let go of my comfy, old identity. People might expect more of me, or they may be threatened or disappointed.”

And, ultimately, “If I do this, everything might change, and change is hard!”

No wonder we resist! It feels so much safer not to try at all.

There are infinite reasons why we make excuses not to do what’s important to us, and the more important something is to us, the more likely we’ll resist it.

How to break the cycle? By looking resistance square in the face and taking responsibility for finding a way instead of finding another excuse. By acknowledging what is really important, and committing to making it a priority.

When I finally took the big, scary step to put just a tiny bit of time toward my art every day, something shifted. I started to notice other ways I’d been avoiding things that were important to me.

Suddenly, the “sensible” reasons I’d given myself for not going after other important goals shone forth as the excuses they really were, like ping pong balls under black light.

As for my story that I didn’t have time to get to the gym or to go walking every day—I accepted that this was simply an excuse, changed the paradigm, and brought the gym to me: I set up a cheap treadmill in my studio, so I can walk while I work at my computer. It’s now a rare day that I don’t walk at least five miles, and ten or more is not unusual!

And about my story that I am, and will always be, something of a slob—I accepted that this was just an excuse, too, and I’ve been clearing out clutter, getting rid of stuff little by little, slowly getting closer to the spacious, organized home and studio I really want.

It won’t happen overnight, but my fifteen minutes a day commitment to my art showed me that baby steps, over time, will take you further than you ever imagined. 

If something is important to you and you haven’t found a way, don’t give up! Don’t just accept that it’s not important to you if your gut tells you that it is, but do look at where you might be spinning stories, creating excuses for yourself.

If you accept that your excuses may be the only thing between you and your dreams, you may be surprised at what you can change in your life.

About Melissa Dinwiddie

Melissa Dinwiddie helps people turn their creative taps to "on," and transform their lives from grey to full color. She blogs and podcasts at Living a Creative Life, where you can get a FREE printable poster of her 5 reminders of why creative play is a world-changing act.

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  • So very true, sometimes we build something up so big in our minds that it becomes overwhelming to begin

  • I’ve been curious about how to tell if I am feeling resistance or if I really just don’t want to do something. Small steps really seem to be the way past resistance. 15 minutes a day could be a good test.

  • growthguided

    Whenever people are struggling with creating new habits I always remind them that persistence breaks down the walls of resistance and to keep stepping forward.

    Thank you for the reminder Melissa

  • I love this – and I love the idea of starting with just 15 minutes. We can all find 15 minutes!!!

  • Kyle Erdmann

    Great words Melissa. This is so true. I am full of excuses. It just feels safer to stay doing what I’ve always done, which will only result in a life not really lived. This reminds me of Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob?, “Baby step to 4 o’clock. Baby step to 4 o’clock.” Although hilariously presented, it is filled with dry, pointed truth.

  • Mike B

    This is such a great post! I’m definitely going to do the 15 minute idea….it’s totally true! If you can’t commit to 15 minutes a day, then why do it at all? What a great perspective change!

  • 2XP

    I was a bit confused by this – you start out specifically saying “I never was always too busy to do it.” Meaning you did make time for it…I thought at first you had been spending a lot of time each day doing your art, and decided to scale back to 15minute increments. Obviously, I understood by the middle of the article, but just thought I’d let you know.

  • If we can honestly answer what’s stopping us then we can often make progress. Beneath the excuses the courageous person will dig to find out what they need to do or change to make it happen. I believe we’re born to create so finding out why we’re not is fundamental to being more human, and living a more fulfilled life.

  • Sillymonky

    “Perhaps just as often we make excuses because we want something so much it hurts.”
    This articulates something I’ve been trying to express in my own life. Thanks so much for your article – this is the place I’m in right now, and this was helpful for shifting my thinking (and I’ll be reading it again!).

  • J Dunn

    Bang on! Love the post!

  • Brenda

    What a great post. Thanks for much for illuminating this subject. I’ve done and do this often. Time for a fresh (and immediate) start.

  • Exactly, Sarah! It becomes possible when we make the goal “ridiculously achievable.” 🙂

  • Thanks, Kyle! I sure get that “it feels safer staying put” feeling, too. It takes effort to lean into discomfort, but it’s how anything important gets done.

    And I think I’ll have to watch that movie–haven’t seen that one, but it sounds like I’d enjoy it.

  • Yay! I’m so glad you’re going to give it a try, Mike!

  • Thanks for pointing out the typo, 2XP! The lovely Lori has fixed it. 🙂

  • You’ve encapsulated this so well, Peter. Thanks!

  • Yay! Thank you, J!

  • Thanks, Brenda! Glad to hear you’re going to take a fresh start. I’m a big believer in them. As I like to say, the most important practice is simply getting back on the wagon! 🙂

  • Yes, exactly! Better to go for “ridiculously achievable.” 🙂

  • I’m so glad my article was helpful, Sillymonky. It’s such a confusing thing, isn’t it? Well-meaning friends and relatives too often suggest that we must not want it as badly as we say (otherwise we’d already be doing it, right?), and yet the truth is, the more important something is to us, the more we resist. When you know this, it’s easier to combat.

  • I hope you try it, Karla! (And if 15 minutes is still too much, scale it back even further. I’ve given assignments to very-stuck coaching clients to commit to ONE minute a day, and it’s almost magical what happens. Because, of course, it’s the STARTING that’s the hardest part. If you can start, it’s usually not so hard to keep going. 🙂

  • Yes, persistence and baby steps are key to so much, growthguided! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  • Great idea… I’m going to carve out 15 minutes from each day for my new project. It’s all about actually doing something, anything, towards reaching a goal. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Violetta L Wong

    I experienced what you said and I sensed it. It is why I am always procrastinating. A lot of people have this tendency but they are not aware of that, and they think this reason sounds ridiculous.
    I am also getting more patient to cultivate good habits BIT BY BIT everyday instead of being PERFECT INSTANTLY right now. The former is much better. The later only creates mental resistance which helps slowly.

  • Excellent! I’m glad to hear you’re going to carve out 15 minutes a day, Doug! And you’re right: it’s about actually doing something, *anything*! 🙂

  • Yes! Bit by bit is definitely the way to go. Perfect is just so impossible, we get paralyzed. I’m impatient, so baby steps can be *so*hard*, but I find that when I’m making *some* progress, even the tiniest of amounts, it keeps the momentum going.

  • Talya Price

    This is exactly what I have been doing everyday. I always make time for my passion. I always have a notebook handy. And now I am putting more time into my passion this year than last year. I believe the more you put into something the more you will get out of it.

  • The Wild Creative

    I have a very similar tactic Melissa – I call it Creative 10, and it’s so good for getting yourself unstuck. It’s amazing how just a little step can lead to something huge and wonderful!

  • Neebers

    LOVE this!!!! So inspiring. Thanks so, so much. As a fellow artist/writer/performer/general creative, I can definitely get overwhelmed thinking of all the things I want to do and accomplish. But this inspires me to just keep persisting and believing and working, and it’ll come to (some sort of) fruition. Thanks, thanks, thanks. <3

  • Jen

    Thankyou Melissa. Those excuses have been running around in my head for years. Fear of failure ( nobody will want my products anyway ) and fear of success ( I don’t have the time needed to be a success ) at the same time. I have decided that this year, I will make myself proud of the effort I have put in to creating a life I love. No procrastinating allowed!! The last couple of weeks I have taken baby steps towards what I have planned and I feel better about myself already. Best wishes to all of you. 🙂

  • Awesome, Talya! I’m so happy to hear this. 🙂

  • Love it, TWC! 🙂

  • Yay! I’m so glad my article was inspiring, Neebers!

  • You’re so welcome, Jen! I suffered under the same excuses for way too long, which is why I’m so passionate now about helping others get unstuck. 🙂

  • Leslie Carrero

    Thanks for sharing, this really shed light on my own personal avoidance strategy I have been using and now understand the “why” behind it, mostly because of fear of failure…very enlightening!

  • Jaclyn Reynolds

    This was so timely for me.

  • I’m so glad to hear it, Jaclyn!

  • Hooray! I’m so glad my article was enlightening, Leslie. 🙂

  • chocolatejellopudding

    wonderful article!

  • Aw, thanks, chocolatejellopudding! 🙂

  • erica

    Thanks Melissa, I loved this!! I am wondering… during the first month at least, did you allow yourself to go beyond the 15 minutes, or were you strict about the time at first?

  • Glad you loved it, Erica!

    I’m always surprised that when I say my goal was 15 minutes a day, people so often assume I mean that I wasn’t allowed to go beyond that. And yet they frequently do assume this — you’re not alone!

    For my Creative Sandbox time, my time “container” is always a *minimum* goal. I *always* get to go longer, and often do! In fact, this is one of the secret beauties of what I call a “ridiculously achievable” goal: the hardest part is usually starting, so if you can just get past that hurdle, keeping going is not normally a problem.

    That said, there are certain times when I do like to have a “hard cut-off.” A hard cut-off is one way to keep me excited about getting back to work the next time! Some famous writers (Hemingway?? Steinbeck?? I can’t remember…) would work for a set amount of time, and literally stop in the middle of a sentence when the time was up.

    In the moment, this can feel really frustrating, but it has a real benefit to it, in that it “builds a bridge” to the next day! If you’re in the middle of a story, you’re probably really excited about it, and that can help you jump right back in the next time you sit down to work.

    However, I wouldn’t normally recommend this unless you have a sustainable practice already, and are already putting in a decent amount of time on your work each time you sit down to do so.

    If the problem that you’re trying to solve is total resistance to working *at all,* I find a hard cut-off a lot less helpful. The goal, after all, is to get creating! The goal is to free you up, and get your creative taps to flow freely! Why would you want to turn them off again, so quickly after turning them on??

    But ultimately it all comes down to what works for YOU. This is where my Golden Formula comes in: self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good. In other words, notice what works for you and what doesn’t, then lovingly adapt your behavior to work better and better for you. 🙂

  • erica

    Wow, thank you so much for taking the time out to answer my question in detail!

    I don’t just have one thing, I have about ten things that I would like to dedicate time to! I feel that this is the reason I procrastinate and end up doing NONE of them most of the time. It’s definitely the getting started part that’s holding me back for sure. I’m thinking about trying the “15 minutes” for a different thing on my list each day. Why is getting started so hard?!?!?! I feel like I could have accomplished so much by this point in my life!!!

  • I’m the same, Erica — I call myself a “passion pluralite,” because I always have so many passions pulling at me! (Do a search on my blog for Why Your Life Is Like a Stove to read about my method for managing all my passions without going crazy!)

    The reason getting started is so hard comes down to fear. The more important something is to us, the more we resist it, due to fear: of not being as good as we wish, of failing, of proving once and for all that we’re frauds, etc. etc. etc.

    Once you know that we most resist what is most important to us, we can start to use resistance as a gauge! We can start to practice the hard work of moving *toward* what we resist, rather than away from it.

    It’s so easy to beat ourselves up (believe me, I know from experience!) but this never helps. In fact, it’s been scientifically proven that the way to achieve our goals is NOT by wielding a big stick against ourselves when we stumble, but instead by treating ourselves with compassion and forgiveness.

    Most people are afraid they will never get ANYTHING done if they use self-compassion, but all the studies show the opposite to be true: if you stumble, and treat yourself compassionately (including if the “stumble” is years of doing things you wish you’d done differently!), you’re WAY more likely to get back on the wagon and correct forward!

    As I always say, the most important practice is simply getting back on the wagon. 😉 And my Golden Formula is: self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good.

    I just taught an entire 90-minute session about this in my Your Big, Bold, Creative Life Academy. 🙂

    The real test, though, is to see what works for you. Try out self-compassion and see if anything changes. Then adjust accordingly. 🙂

  • Ah, I couldn’t be any closer to your story as I am right now. I’m working something almost completely unrelated to art and yet art is the thing I want to do most of the time, I’m awake. With my job, and.. life, I can’t really find free time for art on a daily basis and only wait for huge chunks – at least three hours.
    I regularly find intervals of fifteen minutes to an hour, but I simply ignore them as a time for art possibility.
    I have quite the strange reason for that as well. I find my art session a sacred process, so when I’m ready to go at it, it needs to be the perfect moment with the perfect conditions. So, naturally half an hour in my lunch break or between my daily chores, isn’t anything close to that perfection I’m looking for and are simply not a possible time for me to practice or catch up with an on-going project.
    I’m really curious to try this for a month or two and see how it goes. Since it has helped you, I can’t, but hope it will have value for me as well. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Yep, that was me not so many years ago, Audrey — waiting for the “perfect circumstances” to arise. Naturally, they never did… So years went buy and I never made art!

    What a difference it makes to rely NOT on circumstance, but on intention! When I set an intention, and let THAT be my guiding principle, I actually get stuff done! And I feel sooooo much better.

    I hope you do try my “tiny and daily” concept, Audrey! Let me know how it goes!

  • Dave

    I decided to work in IT industry in an office etc but don’t feel good here. However, i want to show to myself that i can make it in this society. I accept it as a challenge. One day, when i’m satisfied from what i have achieved here, i want to move to the mountains.

  • I love your attitude, Dave, taking a not-ideal situation and accepting it as a challenge!

  • JosephD

    What’s a truly wonderful read, I have been making the excuse my own life. To day is the day I stop, I’m running home to start on my dream of owning my own company.

    Truly wonderful thank you again.

  • Christopher Bradley

    Thank you.

  • Kannappa Palaniappan P

    I love so much that it hurts to find me fail that I never even step towards it. Tears are rolling down after reading that you could write what I was suffering from. I cant even find a way to express the pain. I will read and re-read and read this and work till I get past the “hurt”..I will come back again to say the day ” how much it hurts to love” something so much..

  • Mohammed

    Thank you so much Melissa. Really this touches me my feeling because I asked the Google how I can avoid my excuses and start working then fortunately I have got this amazing article of yours thank you so much once again for your brilliant article. Just to ask you one question, I am doing my PhD which requires a lot of working time, do you believe this technique can also be applied?

  • You may have to modify it to fit, but whatever gets you started is key! 🙂

  • Unknown

    It’s funny how this represents me truly. The feeling of knowing that it’s important to you, yet it’s so freaking hard to start doing. It feels as if it is too heavy to put down, and begin moving something else. Thanks for this, it’s undeniably enlightening.

  • I’m so glad it was helpful! 🙂