It’s one of the most frustrating feelings in the world: you really want to do something, but for some reason … it just doesn’t happen. You set aside time to write your dream manuscript, and find yourself staring at the blank page. You finally make moving your body a priority, but somehow find it incredibly difficult to do your weekly workout plan. Whatever the situation, getting stuck never feels good.
But you don’t have to stay there — in fact, there are a few reliable ways to break up any mental or emotional logjam and get working on the things that matter to you. It all starts with understanding why we get stuck.
Why We Get Stuck
While there are all kinds of surface reasons for getting stuck, underneath, it tends to come down to three things: you’re overwhelmed, you don’t actually want to do the thing, or you’re not working with your current reality.
Mixed up priorities:
Sometimes you think you want to do something, but you find that you keep putting it off. This can be a sign of overwhelm or procrastination, but it’s also a common sign that you secretly don’t want to do the thing. (And this can be a secret even from yourself!) As productivity expert and GLP podcast guest Charlie Gilkey says,
“What’s [challenging about priorities] is that some of our operative priorities aren’t even ours or are nearly invisible to us.” (Start Finishing)
This happens a lot when you place other people’s priorities above your own, or allow generic “shoulds” to determine your actions. It can also happen when you set a goal a long time ago, and then don’t check in with yourself regularly to see if you still want it or not.
Another sneaky way this shows up is when you have competing priorities within yourself. It could be that you want to do something, but your nervous system is not OK with it, and so you end up putting it off. It can feel like procrastination, when actually it’s a move to try to keep yourself safe.
You know how people have a fight, flight, or freeze response? Overwhelm is a type of freeze response that can happen when you have too much stimulus or input. In terms of projects, this tends to happen when you either have too many projects going at one time, or when you have so many steps in one project that you don’t even know where to start. Either way, the stress of all that input and uncertainty can quickly put you in a freeze.
“When we’re overwhelmed, we can’t function. It may seem silly: why do we let our brains be hijacked by a to-do list? Your brain doesn’t just see a to-do list; it sees a threat. It sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into twenty-four hours. Or it sees the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling incapable.” (GLP podcast guest Dr. Ellen Hendriksen in Scientific American)
Not working with reality:
It’s natural to look for guidance on how to reach a goal from other people who have successfully reached similar goals. And you can find some useful information that way, as long as you remember that it’s just that: information for consideration. Not a plan for you and for your life.
“So many plans that you hear about that you read about or see out there in the ether may be valid and proven in a laboratory and a controlled circumstance where you’re not actually living your day to day life in the real world. They work for somebody else in somebody else’s life or in a controlled setting or in a laboratory. But when they actually make contact with the realities of your life, they get blown apart.” (Jonathan Fields)
Following somebody else’s plan without thinking about the reality of your life is a quick way to get stuck, because reality is always going to win out. If you find that you’re following a plan and keep getting stuck for unknown reasons, look for clashes between the plan and your current resources in terms of time, energy, and support.
3 Steps to Getting Unstuck
Once you’ve got a handle on why you’re stuck, it becomes way easier to get unstuck, because you can reverse-engineer your way out of the quagmire. (And if you’re not sure which one is bogging you down, or you’ve got issues in all three areas, that’s OK too!)
1. Start by knowing what matters to you
Having a clear sense of your purpose and the legacy you want to leave is key for informing the goals you set and the day-to-day actions you take. If you’re already clear on your values and the type of work you do best, fantastic! Check to see whether your current goals align with that, and if so, go ahead. If not, now you know where you need to tweak things. And, if you don’t feel solid enough on your purpose to make a good assessment, check this out — we’ll walk you through the process of figuring out what you want to do with your life.
2. Prioritize accordingly
Once you’re clear on your purpose, you can start pruning anything that doesn’t align with it. This can often break the stasis of overwhelm simply because you’re removing extra elements from your plate, and opening up mental space to work on the things that matter to you.
If you find that you still have a lot of things on your plate and they’re all aligned with your purpose, then it’s time to prioritize them by considering whether one needs to be accomplished before the other, and by which one feels most important.
This can feel hard, but we recommend keeping no more than 3-5 big projects on the go at any given time — any more than that, and you’re guaranteed to run out of bandwidth. Charlie Gilkey says,
“Concerning the ‘no more than five’ rule, decades of research, observation, and experimentation have shown me that most people won’t complete more than five total projects per timescale.” (Start Finishing)
3. Work within the confines of reality
Finally, as you’re choosing which goals to pursue and how you want to work on them, be objective and honest about your life as it is now. Not as you wish it was, and not as it might be, but as things are right now.
Then be rigorous in making your goals fit into your reality, not the other way around. This may mean that you need to postpone a goal, or create a different goal that will change your resources and reality so you can work on the goal you’d prefer to be working on. This can be tough, but it’s important, because ultimately, you’re making a trade-off of short-term frustration or delay for long-term satisfaction. And, you won’t be fighting against reality as you’re trying to work on your goals, which is an extra level of difficulty you don’t need.
How to Finish What Matters
Clearing out the stuck can feel like a huge task in and of itself — but the real work’s just beginning. The good news is, it’ll probably feel much easier now that you’re not dealing with all that drag.
To get things over the finish line, you’ll need to start by making sure you actually have space for this project, build a smart, reality-based road map to accomplish it, and then make the actions required by your road map a routine.
Making space for your project:
Remember how we talked about working with reality, and time constraints in particular? This step ensures that you’re not trying to bend the laws of space and time to fit your project in because (unfortunately) that just won’t work.
“You need to make a wedge for your project first. The principle here is that if you make space for one best-work project, you’ll have the satisfaction and momentum to reuse that space for the next project and likely be able to create additional space for an additional project.” (Start Finishing)
Now that you’ve gotten a sense of what your current resources are in terms of time and energy, be honest with yourself: do you actually have the resources to do this project at this time?
If not, what’s taking up those resources, and how can you wrap that up or get it off your plate to make room for the thing you truly want to do?
Creating a smart road map:
There’s literally hundreds of ways you can create a project road map, but what we recommend is that you break your project down into chunks or buckets of tasks, organize the chunks by size, then line them up in the order they need to be done and put that on a timeline.
You can work from the highest-level tasks to the lowest, or vice versa, but either way, once you’ve gotten them all written down, make sure that you’ve comparable sets of tasks. For instance, if you’re writing a book, then “choose a cover picture” and “write the manuscript” are very differently sized tasks. You want to make sure you’ve got your tasks sorted according to size (some tasks might need to become sub-tasks under bigger tasks) and theme. The tasks involved in choosing a cover picture aren’t going to fit under the “write the manuscript” category, and vice versa.
Then, line them up in the order they need to be done — if one task is dependent on another one being done, then it comes after the task it’s dependent on — and put it on a timeline.
Make actions a routine:
Once you’ve got your plan in place, it’s time to make it a routine part of your schedule. The more you can make taking action on your project a daily part of your schedule, the more likely it is you’ll see it through. Even taking the tiniest step every day adds up, and prevents you from having to “warm up” in the project like you have to if you’ve been away from it for a while.
That being said, sometimes you genuinely don’t have the capacity to work on it every day. A few blocks of focused time every week can work too — Charlie Gilkey recommends no less than three two-hour blocks per week, if you want to maintain momentum.
“As a general guideline, you want to make sure you have three free focus blocks that you can allocate to your best-work project, as that’s enough to get and maintain momentum without having to cold-start the project every time you touch it.” (Start Finishing)
Finally, make sure you’re celebrating your action-taking! This is key for building momentum, so celebrate every step you take, even the very small ones. This helps keep you engaged with the work, and sets up a positive cycle of action and reward that will help you see the project through.
— We all get stuck from time to time — but you don’t have to stay stuck. Turns out, people tend to get stuck for the same reasons:
— Overwhelm: you’ve got too much input, or a lack of clarity on what to do, so you shut down or spin your wheels.
— Mixed up priorities: maybe you don’t actually want to do whatever this thing is, and you’re using stuckness as a way to avoid accepting that.
— Not working with reality: the very best plans and processes in the world aren’t going to work if you don’t tailor them to your situation. A lot of people get stuck by trying to superimpose a “perfect” plan onto their imperfect life.
— Once you know the core reason you’re stuck, you can reverse-engineer to break the stasis…
— … and then actually finish what matters by making space for your project, building a smart road map, and create a routine of action.
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