Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

In any significantly big project, there are bound to be times when you lose the track of what you’re doing, when for whatever reason you stop moving forward and, what’s worse, can’t seem to find the motivation to get going again. When we “fall off the wagon” like that, a kind of psychological wall starts building up, making getting back in the swing of things seem more and more daunting. An ugly cycle develops: as the wall gets higher, we get more anxious about climbing it, which makes the wall higher still.

The only real solution is to do something, anything, but that’s small consolation when a project is taunting you with its unfinishedness. So here are a few little tricks to help you take a running start at that wall – you may not clear it in a single bound, but if you can just sink your toes into its cracks you might well find that climbing it wasn’t quite the chore you thought it was. And when you discover that, the wall itself often comes crumbling down before you.

1. Take it on the road.

A powerful approach to getting re-started is to switch up the scenery by tackling your project in a new place. If you’re sitting in your cubicle at work staring at the foam-and-fuzz walls, try taking a work-from-home day. If the butt-print in your chair has this project’s name on it, try going to a coffee shop or co-working space or even a park bench.

The point is, change your scenery. The mind builds powerful associations between places and certain activities – and unfortunately, being frustrated and unproductive is just as much an “activity” to the mind as being happily productive. The longer you stew in frustration at the same place, the more likely your mind is to fall into an unproductive state just by entering that space. Moving to a new site gives you a clean slate to work with, a place with no associations, and is often enough to break whatever mental block your mind is throwing in your way.

2. Do 20 minutes.

This is my favorite procrastination-killer: set a timer for 20 minutes and promise yourself to work until the dinger goes “ding”. This is useful for projects that aren’t beyond you creatively or conceptually but are simply too dull to look forward too, like data entry. (Or, I confess, grading exams…) But no matter how hateful the task, just about anyone can manage 20 minutes of it. And the beauty of this is, once the timer goes off, you often find that you’ve got some momentum and really just want to get the job done – which may well be far more preferable than going back to dreading and putting off the work yet again.

3. Limit yourself.

This is the opposite of #2 – instead of forcing yourself to do at least a set amount of time, limit yourself to doing no more than 30 minutes, or an hour, or 4 hours, or whatever is reasonable. Set a timer and try to work, but when the timer goes off, stop. Even if you haven’t made a lick of progress. Oh, you’ll be stressed. You’ll want to sit there and stew for 30 more minutes. You’ll metaphorically rend your garments and gnash your teeth. But DO NOT DO ANY MORE WORK on that project. Force yourself to wait until tomorrow (or whenever you can schedule another block of time).

The mind thrives on limits, though it might take some training. If you know you only have x amount of time to work on something, and if the alternative is even more frustration, the mind will adapt. By depriving yourself of time to work on your project, you’re turning it from a chore that you have to spend so much time on to something you only get to spend so much time on – you turn a punishment into a reward.

4. Skip the hard stuff.

A lot of projects stop dead when we hit a point where we don’t know how to move forward. One way to get past that is to just set that sticky bit aside and proceed as if you’d figured it out. For instance, while writing a business plan, you may get hung up on income projections, with no idea how to figure that part out. Leave that bit, for now, and continue with the next part. If you need figures to work with, make them up* – you’ll replace them with more accurate figures later. I do this all the time when writing academic papers where I don’t have a reference on hand to flesh out some part; I just skip it, and if I need to refer to that part later in the paper, I put in nonsense and highlight it with the word processor’s “highlight” function so I remember where I need to make changes later. Often, the hard stuff is easier once you’ve finished the easier bits – you develop the expertise to handle parts that earlier were beyond your abilities.

* You’d be surprised how many financial projections in business plans were made up anyway…

5. Tend to your knitting.

Or fly a kite. Or build a birdhouse. Draw caricatures of minor celebrities. Just drop whatever you’re working on and do something totally random, totally different, and totally non-stressful. The brain is a funny thing – it often freezes up under pressure and then, when you’re least expecting it, starts churning out solutions to whatever thorny problems are holding things up. Ironically, letting go of the problem is sometimes the only way to solve it.

Do you have any tips for getting back into the flow of things? Let us know about them in the comments.

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