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What’s Stopping You from Getting Started (and What to Do About It)

What’s Stopping You from Getting Started (and What to Do About It)
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If you’re like most people, you have a lot of projects on your back burner that you hope to get to someday but aren’t quite ready for. Writers call this a “one-day novel” — as in “one day I’m going to write that novel.” Of course, that one magical day never comes.

Perhaps too there are a few things on your list that have been sitting there, gnawing at you, forever, but just seem like to big a deal to get going on. You never seem to have enough time, enough energy, or enough who-knows-what to sit down and start working on them.

A lot of advice about motivation and reaching your goals applies more to the middle part of a project, where you’ve burned up all your initial enthusiasm ad now have to go through the daily routine of moving it forward to completion. But getting started can be just as hard, and even harder — especially when you’re looking at something that will make a major change in your life, like starting a business or writing a novel.

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Here are ten things that keep us from getting started, and some suggestions about how to deal with each.

  1. Lack of financial security: Money problems are a big killer of dreams; it can be hard to figure out how you can afford to launch a big project if you’re worried about how you’re going to pay the bills — not to mention the psychological issue of trying to focus when just keeping afloat from month to month is a major task.

    It’s a good idea to have a 3- or 6-month reserve fund, but what if you don’t? Does that mean you have to sit on your dreams until you can save up enough to stop worrying?

    To get going when money is tight, you need to address both the financial situation and the attention it steals from you. Tim Ferriss and Guy Kawasaki both have some interesting ideas about “bootstrapping”, getting a business going using minimal resources and re-investing early returns to help the business grow. The idea is to make your ventures pay for themselves. Consider if there are ways of making money from your project, or of starting with little investment.

    Another option is a trade-off — finding expenses you can cut out to pay for your new project. If a financial investment is absolutely necessary, you’ll need to practice frugality to make ends meet.

    But for most projects, it’s not the money we need to spend on them that’s an issue, it’s the need to work and the worries over money that steal our time and energy, making it difficult to focus on a new project — especially one that doesn’t have any immediate financial return.

    Time management and focus are what’s needed. Just as a financial trade-off might be needed, a time trade-off is in order. Consider things you do that could be sacrificed for your new project — an hour of TV watching swapped for an hour of writing, for example. Make the same trade-off with your attention — just as your TV watching is a way of relaxing and escaping the day-to-day worries about money, let your passion make your new project an escape.

  2. Lack of confidence in your plan: A lot of time we make a plan that seems perfect, but for some reason we hesitate to take action. One of two things is responsible for this: 1) we haven’t broken our project down to actionable items — we have “get investors” instead of “research 5 potential investors and contact them”. The other stumbling block is that, on some level, we just don’t really believe our plan will work. Usually this is because we’ve made “best case” assumptions, without planning for what to do if those assumptions don’t pan out. Go through your plan and ask yourself what you’re assuming at each step, and what you’ll do if those assumptions turn out to be wrong. What if you can only raise $10,000 instead of the $50,000 you feel you need? What if you aren’t happy with a main element of your novel’s plot? What if your first clients aren’t willing to give you recommendations for your website? Having a contingency plan can help you build up the confidence to get started.
  3. Lack of confidence in yourself: Maybe your plan is good and you’re financially ready, but you really don’t believe you’re good enough to pull it off. You might need to build up your skills, but that’s another topic — what if you know how, you just don’t know you know how.

    Building up your confidence can be a project in itself, but in the meantime, give yourself permission to fail. Assuming your life and livelihood aren’t on the line, failing is rarely as dramatic as we fear — and can teach of the lessons we need to succeed in the end. Writer Anne Lamott talks about writing “sucky first drafts” (actually, she uses a somewhat harsher and less family-friendly adjective), just letting yourself put down whatever comes to mind and telling yourself you can fix it later, and this idea can be applied to most projects aside from writing, too. Give up your desire for perfection and just concentrate on getting something — anything! — done, no matter how poorly.

  4. Too much on your plate already: One problem people face is that they clutter their days with so many meaningless tasks that there’s no room to work on anything else, no matter how important. If you find yourself putting off projects that are important to you because you just don’t have time, you probably aren’t facing the facts about your schedule. Sit down and figure out what you can eliminate, and what can wait until your project is done — put on the back burner the tasks that legitimately belong there, not the things that are important to you right now. Until you’ve committed the time to get started on your project, you haven’t really committed to the project itself.
  5. Can’t seem to focus: If you have set aside time to work on your project but just can’t seem to focus, one of two things may be wrong: either you haven’t clearly delineated your time and space to make a distraction-free space for your work, or there’s something inside you that’s working hard to keep you from getting started (for example, lack of confidence, in your plan or in yourself, as above). A lot of my tips for creating a distraction-free space for writing can apply to non-writing projects as well. Also, make sure you’ve explained to your family, friends, and whoever else might have a claim on your time how important your project is to you and what you need from them to get it done.
  6. Don’t know how to do it: Thinking of something you want to do can be easy; knowing how to get it done can be a lot harder. If you find yourself stalling, you may need to add classes, a trip to the library, or contacting an expert mentor to your plan. There’s no shame in not knowing how to do something; there is shame in letting your dreams fade because you aren’t willing to go out and learn how to make them real.
  7. Don’t know where to begin: If you’re not sure how to get started, you need to go back to your plan and make sure it’s detailed enough. One good trick is backwards planning: start with your objective, and figure out what the last step would be, then the step before that, and so on until you reach a step that’s in your immediate power.
  8. Lack of resources: In some cases, not having the things you need to get started is a financial problem, which we’ve already discussed. In other cases, it’s a matter of not knowing what you need, which we’ve also discussed. But it can often be a matter of planning, of not including the tools we need in our plans as a first step.
  9. Lack of emotional support: If your family and friends aren’t behind you, taking the time to work on your own projects can be a problem. Even under the best of circumstances, taking time for ourselves can feel selfish; this is made worse when the people around us don’t believe in us. Again, you need to explain how important this is to you, but also share your plan and involve the people close to you as much as possible. Also, be sure to pay some extra attention to them when you’re not working on your project. If you want the people around you to invest their support in you, you have to be willing to invest some attention in them.

    If the people around you are completely unwilling or unable to support you, the hard truth is, you’ve got to replace those people, or minimize their affect on you. You can’t get rid of your parents or children, so you need to make sure they’re criticism can’t affect you; everyone else needs to know that if they can’t support you, they can’t be a part of your life. This means making some hard choices, to be sure; it also means taking a good hard look at your own life to see why you’ve surrounded yourself with people who offer you only negativity.

  10. Fear of success: You’re afraid you might actually pull this off, and then what? Maybe you’re not prepared for the life that completing your project will create. For example, if you write a best-selling novel, you’ll be an “author”, and people will treat you differently. Or maybe you’re worried because the project might seem frivolous or out-of-character to your friends, family, or colleagues — what if someone at your law firm finds out you run a comic book business on the side? Or you might fear having to follow-up — if you make a brilliant short documentary, people will expect you to make more brilliant documentaries.

    The fear of success can be just as paralyzing as the fear of failure, and even worse, because a part of us knows it’s irrational. But undertaking any large project means accepting that our lives after might (or even “should”) be different than our lives now, and whether we like our lives now or not, it’s the life we know as opposed to the unknown life we might be creating.

    This is the trickiest issue on this list, because it’s so hard to wrap our heads around. Visualization might help — imagine your life after, the good things and the bad things that might happen if you complete your big project, and rework your plan to minimize the bad things. Rationally, we know most of the bad things won’t come about, but this is not really a rational fear, so knowing that doesn’t help. Instead, you need to reassure your irrational self that you’re taking measure to make sure the bad stuff can be avoided.

We live in a “Just Do It!” society, where the inability to get started is often seen as a moral failure — as laziness or stupidity. The danger of this is that when we find ourselves unable to get started on a project, we assume that it’s because something is wrong with us, and either give up or make excuses to protect our sense of self.

The reality is, moral failure usually has nothing to do with our inability to get a project off the ground. But because we’ve learned to see inability in moral terms, we rarely look clearly at what exactly we need to do to fix the things holding us back.

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Don’t fall into this trap. If you’ve been planning something that you just can’t seem to get moving, ask if one of the above problems applies to you, and fix it. Or, if you’re getting ready to start your planning, keep them in mind and make sure to consider all of them in the creation of your plan. Don’t put yourself into the situations above in the first place.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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