The five-minute rule


Dear Artist,

Artist Damien Hirst, describing his spot paintings made by offsite assistants at undisclosed locations, said, “They’re all a mechanical way to avoid the actual guy in a room, myself, with a blank canvas.” For Hirst, it was a way of avoiding the possibility of his own mediocrity.


“Madawaska Valley”
oil painting by
A.J. Casson (1898-1992)

Weekly, an email comes in describing similar avoidance. They usually have an elaborate end-goal in mind, but struggle, for years sometimes, to get into the activity that the goal requires. What’s the matter? The matter is fear, and fear breeds avoidance. At its very best, the commitment of squeezing out a palette of fresh, expensive colours drags along with it a natural anticipation of the inevitable dip in the middle where things are not very beautiful. As an expert in this dip, I’ve approached my own procrastination from all angles in an effort to understand the exact problem and to develop a few workarounds.


“Old Store at Salem” 1980
oil painting by A.J. Casson

The most popular modern antidote to procrastination is what cognitive behavioural therapists call “The Five-Minute Rule.” Based on Newton’s First Law of Motion, it works on the premise that things in motion stay in motion and things at rest stay at rest. You really only need to get moving to start coasting in your new activity. Make it count in the direction of creativity by making your five-minute burst art-related. Let it morph into an indulgent chunk of in-the-zone soul-polishing productivity.

Now that you’re on the dance floor, understand that the path to proficiency is long — it rambles over dunes of ugliness, stumbles among boulder-sized re-dos, and falls into perfectionist back-eddies. The pain of doing it poorly is part of the activity of learning. The elation of doing it well is the hard-won result of beginning this activity in the first place. Begin now. “If you wait,” said Mario Andretti, “all that happens is that you get older.”


“Rain, Mist and Sun”
oil painting by A.J. Casson



PS: “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.” (W. H. Auden)

Esoterica: Procrastination, like every other habit, can be cultivated or broken. Notice when it’s happening and change the channel. Get up and make a mark on the page. “The shortest answer,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “is doing the thing.” If the thing feels too big, break it into micro-things. The time is now for you to go after your greatness — a greatness that will take your life to achieve. “We don’t just put off our lives today,” wrote Steven Pressfield, “we put them off till our deathbed.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Promises are like crying babies in a theater, they should be carried out at once.” (Norman Vincent Peale)

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