If you can’t paint something good, paint something red. If you can’t paint something red, paint something big.

That’s some advice that is sometimes joking tossed around in the art world. It’s a joke, obviously dripping with sarcasm – but there’s some value in it. First of all, who it’s making fun of it’s immediately apparent. Maybe it’s poking fun at the artists, suggesting that making “good” art is as simple as color choice and scale. Maybe it’s a comment on the viewer, implying what is being painted isn’t as important as it’s size and boldness. Is creating good work that simple? Of course not. Are viewer that shallow? No way. Well, not often anyway.

But as with much in the art world, it’s not necessarily meant to be taken at face value. This is the kind of statement an instructor will still a student who is complaining of not being inspired or the equivalent of “writers block.” It’s meant to be a kick in the ass to get them to get started. The reason for this is before you begin a work the variables are infinite. It’s daunting really, you have millions of colors at your disposal – how can you chose which one to begin with? What if it turns out to be the wrong shade? What if you run out? What if you use too much? This can go on and on and an artist can spend hours, days, hell – years in some cases debating these issues all the while not actually making anything.

So the advice is basically saying forget about painting something good, and forget all the other options and just use red. This isn’t because red is somehow the best color, it simply throws out all those millions of options and replaces them with one. If an artists has only have one color to choose from, their decision of which color to start with is going to take a lot less time. Of course the decision of which color to start with isn’t really the thing stopping them from starting, it’s the doubt and over thinking that is standing in the way. This advice is just a tool to help chip away at that. If an artist starts painting they might paint something crappy, but the next thing they paint will suck a little less.

I’m using art as an example here but of course this really applies to anything creative. Merlin Mann recently gave a talk that mirrors some of these thoughts that is really worth listening to. He’s talking about writing, as that’s his creative medium of choice, but the philosophy applies to just about anything. He talks about the endless things a writer can worry about that will prevent them from actually putting words on a page. What font? What format? What approach? Is this the right chair to sit in while writing? Maybe that program would work better. The questions are endless and a writer will never have the perfect answer to them before actually writing something. Worrying about perfection before you have anything to perfect is the best way to stop you from getting started.

I talked about perfectionism a little while ago when I wrote about talking yourself out of things and much of that echos in these thoughts. You’ll never make something good if you don’t make something and the only way to make something is to get comfortable with the fact that a lot of what you make isn’t going to be good. Getting through that and letting go of the desire to make only good things is one of the hardest things for creative folks. In terms of writing Merlin suggests that a writer commit to writing some amount of text every morning knowing full well it will be utter crap, but until that is done nothing else can be started including the actual thing they wanted to write that day. It’s a wall you have to push through.

This doesn’t only apply to creativity. Forced limitations can be a very powerful tool for focusing on any task you might have at hand. This is one of my favorite thing about long flights in fact. Being stuck in a seat cut off from the rest of the world for 10 or more hours has proven to be an amazing motivator for me to GSD (get shit done). I’ve read endless books, written billions of words and lost count how many movies and TV series’ I’ve caught up on while sitting on planes. This is why I’m less than excited about wifi on planes. I have the internet in the rest of my life and I know how much of a distraction it can be. No matter what I’m setting out to do, I always seem to squeeze in one more look at twitter or facebook, or answer one more IM or send that quick e-mail.

I can spend hours doing things that take just one more second before actually getting to work. It’s comparable to the above examples – instead of worrying about what color paint to start with, or about what font to use, or about what chair to sit in, I’m worried that there is something I should know about sitting in my inbox or that something important might have just happened on twitter or someone might have responded to something I said earlier. It’s all just an excuse that stands in the way of getting started. Wifi on planes means that chamber of solitude is no longer. Sure I can opt not to buy it, but the temptation might be too strong. So it’s a test of will really. But I guess when you think of it, that’s what all of this is.