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What’s YOUR Sticking Point?

What’s YOUR Sticking Point?
What’s YOUR Sticking Point?

I’ve written recently about starting and finishing the big projects in your life, which leaves the big, wide middle — the day-to-day slog of working steadily to get to done.

When we start something new, we often have a huge burst of enthusiasm and energy that carries us through the early stages. But eventually the newness wears off, and the project settles down into a daily grind. We reach a sticking point of one kind or another and get hung up.

A sticking point is the point in your project where your energy and excitement level are not enough to overcome whatever resistance the project poses. There are lots of different kinds of sticking points, but for simplicity’s sake, we can categorize them into two types:

  • External: Obstacles placed in your way by people and situations you do not control, such as your work situation, family members, illness, etc.; and
  • Internal: Obstacles of our own making, that arise out of our own thought processes, insecurities, lack of knowledge or understanding, and so on.

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External Sticking Points

As much as we might hate to admit it, as humans living in society, we are subject to pressures from all around us. Co-workers, family members, bosses, teachers, friends, investors, organizations, governments, the media, and society itself all play a role in our lives — and any one can occasionally throw a barrier in our way.

Short of barricading ourselves somewhere away from the outside world, there are only two things to do about external obstacles:

  1. Minimize them as much as possible, or
  2. Deal with them and move on.

Here are some of the external pressures that become sticking points, and some tips on dealing with them:

  • Finances: The number one reason most businesses fail is lack of available funds, and the same holds true for lots of other kinds of projects. Financial advisers suggest setting up a reserve fund with several months of operating expenses in it; for personal projects, it’s a good idea to add a small amount to a “project fund” to carry you through any rough spots.

    Bootstrapping principles also apply: is there a way to make some interim money from the part you’ve finished so far? Could you organize a class or workshop to make use of the expertise you’ve developed in pursuing your project? Is there a physical product that could be developed — a website or e-book with tips, maybe?

    Depending on the project, you may be able to secure outside funding. Writers can often get grants, projects with commercial potential can often get investors, and so on. Sometimes it’s even worth getting a loan, though you’ll want to borrow against the project’s returns, not against your own already-stressed personal finances. What I mean is, don’t borrow more than your project can reasonably be expected to make, because if you’re having trouble dealing with finances now, chances are you’ll have trouble dealing with them deferred into the future.

  • Time: Finding time to work can be a hassle, especially when your schedule changes or new commitments come up. Make sure you maintain a reasonable amount of time to work in your schedule as a “hard” commitment — that is, a time that’s fixed in your calendar — so you can say “Between 8am and 10am I work on x; I can do y after that.”

    Lots of people run into time problems because they haven’t set a fixed time to work on their projects; they figure they’ll work on them “in their spare time” or “whenever the opportunity presents itself.” Well, there is no spare time — there’s the same 24 hours in every day! And the opportunity never presents itself — we have to make the opportunity, or we lose it.

  • Interruptions: Unless you’re a hermit, other people have a claim to at least some of your time. Your friends want to go out, your family wants quality time with you, your boss wants that report, and so it goes. Along with setting a fixed time to work, try to set up an “interruption-free zone” — explain to others that when you’re in this place at this time you’re working on something very important to you. Turn off the phone, close your browser and email, shut the door, and work. Ask someone else to be your gatekeeper in those times (a spouse, an older child, a roommate, a co-worker; perhaps you can return the favor when they’re working on their stuff?).

    You’re going to have to develop some discipline, too — get in the habit of asking, when temptation arises, if the lost time is worth the rewards of succumbing. Explain that you’re free after whatever time you’ve set aside. And schedule time for goofing off — if you know that Friday nights or Wednesday mornings are time when you’re “allowed” to be interrupted, you won’t feel quite so bad about ignoring interruptions Friday afternoon or Tuesday evening.

  • Competition: Finding out that someone is working on a project similar to yours, or seeing someone else’s work in the marketplace, can be daunting. Writers, musicians, and other artists often find someone else’s work so good that they feel they can’t possibly do better, so they give up.

    Remember that competition is healthy — it shows that there’s an active niche developed around your specialty. Remember, too, that the main thing that your audience, market, or employer wants is you — your personal take on a problem, your personal voice, your personal perspective — and nobody else can offer quite what you do. Consider the iPod — there is lots of competition, and many of the competitors are, feature for feature, better than iPods, but people respond to the particular Apple style, the vision Apple has brought to its products. At the same time, the existence of the iPod hasn’t stopped other companies from producing players — several companies are doing quite well in the particular niche they’ve carved out for themselves.

    Figure out what your particular niche is, what differentiates your project from whatever anyone else is doing, and refocus your efforts to develop those specific qualities.

  • Criticism: Criticism from others, especially those whose opinions we value, can immediately sap our energy and desire to continue. Some people offer constructive criticism, which can actually help if we know they have our best interests at heart. But others offer destructive criticism in the guise of helpfulness — even people close to us might want to protect us from the disappointment they are afraid you’ll feel when you fail. Explain to these people that they aren’t showing much faith in you and that even though they might have the best intentions, they are actually not helping. Try redirecting them, asking “What do you think I need to do to make this succeed?”

    Then there’s the people who offer negative criticism for the sheer pleasure of it, because they literally don’t want to see you succeed. They might be jealous, the might be projecting their own lack of confidence in themselves, or they might simply enjoy undermining people. Not only can you safely ignore their criticism (which is really about them, not you or your work) but you can and even must ignore these people. Get them out of your life, pronto! If this is impossible — maybe you’re related to them or they’re co-workers — you have to take every effort to minimize the extent of your relationship. First and foremost, don’t share your work with them — even when it’s done. They’re not going to suddenly “see the light” when you’re rich and famous, so don’t even try.

Internal Sticking Points

The sticking points that rise up out of our own thoughts and feelings are in many ways even more insidious and dangerous than the external sticking points listed above. They are, after all, part of who you are, and getting around them takes a concerted effort to change something about yourself. Or, at times, to change something about the project — which is often just as hard!

  • Ethical objections: Sometimes we find ourself working on a project that suddenly starts setting off morality alarms. For example, you may need a piece of information about someone that you discover isn’t public, or someone might question the effect that your project’s outcome might have on some group of people. This happened to me when I was doing fieldwork; I had promised something to someone and another anthropologist suggested that following through on my promise might really hurt the community I was studying.

    I would never advise setting these feelings to the side and plowing through anyway. Even if you’re successful, you’ll regret it later — and chances are, the negative effects will be realized and people will be hurt. What you need, though, before continuing, is some perspective. Here’s some things to do:

    • Ask for others’ advice. Explain your situation to two or three people whose opinion you value and ask what they would do.
    • Do some research. Go to the library and look through the sections on ethics and also on the field your project is in. Many professions have a Code of Ethics that will offer some guidelines for dealing with potentially difficult situations.
    • Ask the people it effects. If possible, discuss your concerns with the people who might be affected by it. Lay out everything you think is possible, and how likely you think it is that it will happen.
    • Look inside. Take a good, hard look at your situation. Write down your worries and how you feel about them.

    There is never a pat answer to ethical dilemmas (if there were, they wouldn’t be dilemmas!); ethics is a set of processes and reflections, rather than a set of rules. You may decide to go through with your project “as is”; if you do, you’ll do so knowing that you’ve considered all the angles and that morality is unlikely to rise up as a sticking point. Or you may decide to make changes in your plan. In some instances, you might scrap the project altogether, but you’ll do so knowing there’s a good reason to quit — it won’t be something you’ll regret.

  • Lack of vision: It may be that you simply can’t imagine finishing, or you can’t imagine yourself having finished. As you get closer to the end of your project, you unconsciously start holding onto it, checking and re-checking everything, revising and re-planning, even going back to the drawing board to start over.

    If you find yourself in this pattern, first of all pay attention. Realizing we’re sabotaging ourself is often a powerful enough experience to get us going again. Second, take a few minutes to remind yourself of your goals and of the positive changes you expect to occur when you’re done. Third, write down a paragraph or two, or even just a list, of how you see your life when you’re done. Write a vision statement if you haven’t ever before. If applicable, write down how the people closest to you will be affected, too — knowing others hold a stake in your success can often motivate us profoundly.

  • Self-criticism: Unlike the negativity of others, there’s no door we can close to get away from the negativity in ourselves, the Inner Critic who tells us our work is not good enough or important enough to waste time on, that we lack the skills and talent to pull it off, and even that we don’t deserve to succeed.

    In some extreme cases, therapy is called for, but everyone faces an Inner Critic, even the most prolific creators. It’s sounds glib to say “just ignore it”, and yet, ultimately that’s what you have to do. Just like the criticism of others, you have to ask your Inner Critic to either help you figure out how to succeed or tell it to go away.

    One thing that helps is telling yourself that it’s fine to suck — that, in fact, lots of incredible creators, even geniuses, felt their own work sucked. Give yourself permission to suck, and the Inner Critic sort of runs out of steam — what’s it going to say, “You don’t suck good enough?”

  • Lack of planning: A lot of time we’re stuck because we haven’t planned our way through all the steps and we don’t know what to do next, or the plan we originally wrote (or otherwise conceived) doesn’t seem to apply. At times, you need to re-plan — to reconceive your project according to what you know now, not what you knew when you started. I often tell students that the best time to start their big papers is write after they’ve finished — you learn so much doing a big project that you always know much more when its done than when you began.
  • Priorities: If you suffer from several of these internal and external sticking points — you don’t have time, your family and friends aren’t supportive, you don’t know what to do next, etc. — it may well be that your project is not a very high priority for you. IF you find yourself spinning your wheels for more than a few days, you’d better start asking yourself if you really want this — not just “someday”, but right now. Because you’re spending not just time but energy worrying about why you aren’t getting done.

    Now, something can be your very last priority and not be a waste of time. If you’d like to write a novel but you have a family to feed and care for, writing that novel probably shouldn’t be at the top of your list! But know and accept that it’s a low priority and that other things have to come first, so you don’t feel guilty about not working on it — and so that, when you do work on it, you know that you can devote yourself wholly to it because everything else important is taken care of.

These are just a few of the things that stop us in our tracks. Each of us faces a slightly different struggle depending on the nature of our tasks and the nature of ourselves. What’s your sticking point?

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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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