Overcoming inertia: how to kickstart your art making practice

Everything starts somewhere. Here’s a few starts to consider.

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It’s been often said that starting is the hardest thing. Overcoming inertia, getting the ball rolling, making the first mark–this can be hard. Isn’t not-doing something so much easier than doing it? You can always do it tomorrow, after all. Not doing means you don’t have to think, you don’t have to commit, you don’t have to expend energy.

I’m not sure it’s always true. To paraphrase a statement attributed to Mark Twain, “Starting is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Of course, the sentiment of this quote is that sticking with it is the hardest part.

Sticking with it? How many podcasts / blogs / projects / apps / etc. have withered and died after launch or only a few posts? I’d wager, as a fraction of the whole, most of them. The vast majority die an anonymous, unceremonious death. We’re aware of the ones that stuck with it, found a voice, earned an audience. The rest? Piled atop the ash heap of history, no longer relevant, or lost altogether.

Or maybe, finishing is the real hardest thing? Finishing is committing. It’s saying “this is how I want it to be” or at least that it’s good enough. It invites the question: “what’s next?”. Finishing forces you to take stock of what you’ve done. It welcomes assessment and judgment. Finishing can be simultaneously both incredibly rewarding and deeply unsatisfying. 

To be honest, they’ve all felt like the hardest part of creating, at one point or another.

Right now I’m here to talk about ‘starting’, or restarting, your practice of art making. We’ll talk about ‘keep going’ and ‘finishing’ at a later date, because we don’t need those yet. And when I’ve written them, I’ll link them here so you can skip ahead.

Black and white photograph of a stand of silhouetted trees, reflected in water. The image has been flipped, so the trees are right-side up. Floating on the water are pine needles, which resemble stars in the reflection.
11-14-2023-4. © Ron Johnson

Prepared for you, a selection of ‘starts’

There are many ways to get started, and it makes little difference which you choose. Choose whichever works best for you, try all of them, or something else. The doing is what matters, not how. 

Start… small.

Often the momentousness of a thing keeps us from doing the thing. Grandiose plans, audacious goals, massive intentions–the bigness of these, especially when the bigness is vague but aspirational–can keep us from taking the first step. To avoid this trap, instead choose to deliberately start as small as possible. Don’t start with writing a novel, write a short story, a poem, or even a paragraph. Don’t start with a 4-by-6-foot canvas, start with a piece of paper. Work as small as necessary to get started–you can’t start too small.

Start… with an idea.

I’m ambivalent about “ideas”, because ideas are easy and execution is hard. Everyone has ideas. And sometimes the excitement of having an idea will fill the void just enough to keep you from executing on the idea (see a word of warning, below). But ideas can be empowering too, because they can narrow down the infinite possibilities of what you could do to what you will do.

Another way to think about “start with an idea” is “start with parameters”. Give yourself scope. Narrow your options, reduce the number of choices you need to make. Say, “I’ll limit myself in these ways”, and give those limitations crisp, specific definition. Some examples might be: “I must use only this pen and this type of paper” or “I’ll only write about things that happened in the last week”. 

Embrace the idea loosely, because it will inevitably change. Accept and expect this–you find your work by doing it. Following on “start small”, choose as small a version of the idea as is practical; you can always expand on it once you start.

Start… with a place and time.

Some people live-and-die by their calendar; our lives are regimented by work- and family-life, filled with stand-ups and conference calls and appointments and social obligations and a million other things. Scheduling is a way to take control of the chaos. Use this control to make time for art making. Block out time for your creative practice and protect this time as non-negotiable, immovable, never to be scheduled over (pro tip: choose a time where this is less likely to be an issue). I recommend giving yourself a two-hour block, once a week to start, but find what works for you.

Alternately, start with the ‘in between’ times. If your creative practice allows it, find ways to have your art always readily available so you can pick it up when circumstances allow. This can be a challenging way to work–it’s hard to find your flow in small gaps of time–but it can also help very busy people unblock and get started, even in a small way. Put your drawing pad on your bedside table. Keep your script open in your browser. Always take a camera with you when you leave the house.

Some people are motivated by setting aside a dedicated space for art. If it suits you, create a personal “art workstation”. Keep it clear of clutter, protect it just as you are protecting your time. Whatever your version of ‘place and time’ is, have your tools at-the-ready so you can begin immediately when circumstances allow.

Start… with a tool, material, or process.

Sometimes all it takes is putting a tool in your hand. Know what media you want to work in? Just pick up your preferred tools and get started. Don’t know yet how you want to work? Start by trying out different options, giving them a test drive. Guess what! The “test driving” is part of the process. You just got started!

Recognize that the tool you pick up now is no commitment to what you’ll do in the future; you can change at anytime if you decide that it doesn’t suit your needs, interests, or is just plain unsatisfying. You may change, or modify, your processes, techniques, or materials many times and this is great. Change is inevitable and part of the process.

Start… with inspiration.

This is the classic, most stereotypical version of what motivates artists to action. The “muse spoke to me!” or “I was inspired to create!” types of starts. If you work this way, good on you. But I’ve found (and many, many people have asserted over time) that inspiration comes from action, not the other way around.

If you’re inspired, take it and run with it. But be aware that, while inspiration may get you started, you may need other things to keep going. Acknowledge your inspiration, appreciate that it got you started, and milk it for all it’s worth. Then adopt habits that don’t rely on inspiration to keep going.

Also, it’s a good practice to cultivate a really low bar for what it takes to ‘get inspired’. Find any excuse to be moved to action. Thought about making art? Call yourself ‘inspired’ and get busy. Saw a great image on Insta? Awesome, the great image just inspired you. Do something with the inspiration.

Start… where you left off.

Maybe you made art in the past–in fact, if you’re here with me, I’m betting you have. That art that you made last year, or 10 years ago, or back when you were in college, can be a great place to start. Remember: you’re not the same person you were then, and with that time and space comes change. It’s impossible to make the same exact art that you did then–nor should you want to–but you can use your previous work as a starting point. Think of what you make now as a response to what you did then, with the added benefit of all the life experience you’ve had along the way. Your past self can be your inspiration.

Ernest Hemmingway famously (and perhaps apocryphally) would end a writing session mid-sentence so he’d always have a place to jump right back in. Whether true or not, I love this notion that he intentionally reduced the friction of getting started the next day. He gave himself an easy place to pick up where he left off.

Start… with (the right) goal.

I’m a fan of setting goals. I think of goals as signals of intention because they remind me where I’ve been and where I want to go. Making progress towards goals feels good. However, it’s critical to set goals based on things you control. Right now, focus on your action, not your desired outcomes of the action. Make your goal something like “I’ll write at least 10 minutes each day this week” or “I’ll complete a painting by Sunday.” Avoid goals that depend on others. Most importantly, set a ‘getting started’ goal that you CAN AND WILL achieve. 

Start… with a beginner’s mind.

‘Shoshin’ (wikipedia) is a Japanese word which means “beginner’s mind”. It refers to starting with (and maintaining) an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, just as a beginner would. The beginner’s mind replaces judgment with excitement for learning something new. It doesn’t see mistakes, it sees discovery. It doesn’t criticize, it sees progress. 

I strive to cultivate shoshin in my life. It’s not always easy. Shoshin competes with the desire to be an expert, to be respected for ability, to use well-honed skills to perform at a high level. But with expertise comes the risk that you’ll get stuck in established patterns; after all, you’re an expert because you learned effective ways to do a thing. A beginner’s mind might consider new ways of doing things that an expert would immediately dismiss. Take a look at what you’ve done with new eyes.

The goal is to start.
Go from 0 → 1.
That’s all.


Make a mark. It can be as small as it needs to be to get made. Whatever you do is not only OK, in fact, it’s absolutely terrific. It’s a thing you did that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. After you start, from that point forward, you’re building off of something.

If it helps, think of this start, this first thing, as disposable. You can paint over it, delete it, shove it in the bottom of a drawer. It’s a means to an end. It gets you moving now so you can keep going tomorrow.

👋 Over to you

Choose a way (or ways) that suits you to get started. And then start. Give yourself two hours, as a block or in total, this week to create. Do this for yourself. What you make is not for sharing. It’s not for judging (by anyone, including you). It’s for doing.  

A word of warning

It’s easy to confuse the preparation for doing with the actual doing. We’ve all experienced this at one point or another. Buying supplies, coming up with an idea, locating or clearing out a work space–this can all feel like progress (and they are!) but they’re not doing… they make the doing possible. Feel good about getting those supplies purchased, but don’t confuse this feeling with the act of creation. 

Let’s start getting started.

P.S. How did you choose to get started? Let me know!

Cover image: 11-04-2023-22 (Rising fog) © Ron Johnson