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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 September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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