On Getting Stuck, Procrastinating, and Pulling Your Cart out of the Mud

You don’t seem to be getting anywhere. You only slept 5 hours last night, and now you are tired. You have to write another chapter of your paper or another blog post, but the ideas just aren’t coming and the research seems too hard.sick-and-tired-procrastinating

Yet, you want your next article to be great. You hold yourself to a high standard, so you won’t just write some crap – just to be done with it.

You realize that nothing great can ever be accomplished in one go, that you need to take steps, learn and research individual pieces, and get on top of new concepts to create something of value. But – everything seems to be so high up in the clouds, out of reach. Will it even be worth the effort?

Well, now you have time. So you might as well start somewhere and do something else but procrastinating. Read a little article that gets you further. Start writing something. Shoot a question from the hip and outline the answer, even if you don’t know much about the topic yet. Having something concrete in front of you will point you in the right direction.

Why am I procrastinating again?

We often procrastinate because we sense a huge gap between where we are and where we want to be. We don’t have a clear path yet to get from our “lowly” uninspired place to a finished piece of work. We can’t see the end. This can be highly frustrating.

I still remember when I was a child: I was asked almost daily to pick weeds in our huge garden. My father had planted all kinds of vegetables. Row after row after row of radish, carrots, and lettuce. It seemed endless. I would never be able to finish. And so I often procrastinated. Starting enthusiastically and working diligently for a while, I soon found myself only picking weeds when my father was in sight. Otherwise, I engaged in dirt throwing competitions with my brother, who was also tasked to tending to the veggies.

What did I learn from this?

If there is too big of a disconnect between my goals and my current position, I get frustrated and spend a lot of time idling and killing time. I find myself watching tennis or the News on TV, for example. Or searching for “interesting” articles on the web. Or checking my email or my phone.
I also know though that this causes even more frustration. It doesn’t get me any closer to my goals, so it isn’t a solution. What’s more, browsing aimlessly clutters my mind and saps my energy.

1. Start with something. Just do something that might get you closer. Ask a few more questions and break them down.

2. Take a break and meditate for 15 minutes. Focusing on my breathing and letting go of any thoughts helps me to refocus. Ideas start popping up by themselves.

3. Lower your standards. This is hard to do for a perfectionist. I am one of them. Why produce something if it isn’t going to be good enough? It turns out that often, contrary to my own expectations, the result is good enough; often a lot better than expected. More hesitating and planning doesn’t necessarily lead to better results. Chances are it leads to no results because you haven’t gotten started.

4. You don’t know the answer to a question and your research doesn’t yield anything? Produce a hypothesis from your own intuition. Then challenge it. Put it out there.

5. Set goals that are easier to achieve or closer to Now. Yes, we are being told to aim high. But sometimes the lower hanging fruit are just as sweet. The successes you experience achieving your easier goals can change the dynamics. You regain your confidence and your energy. You feel, “hey, I have done something. It actually looks quite good. I learned something, I already gained some valuable knowledge.”

6. Celebrate these successes. You will soon find yourself breaking down these complex goals into steps that look just like the goals you have just achieved.

7. Create more instead of consuming more: Reading and researching without producing anything can make you feel overwhelmed and lead you astray. Information overload is lurking! Read to get an overview, then produce an outline. You need a case to work on. Flesh out a few of your outline topics. Your research will become a lot more targeted and you will waste less time. Dr. Hauser needs a concrete case, a medical riddle to be solved.

8. Get rid of goals that aren’t worth it. If something is hard, but only of little benefit, discard it. It might have looked like a good idea at the time, but you have to be flexible. When your enthusiasm has vanished, you have to ask yourself: Is that task really worth my continued effort? Wouldn’t my time be better spent on something else?

9. On the other hand, also reflect on what you have accomplished. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. You might have gained valuable knowledge, assembled a library with valuable research, and found answers that might prove very useful in the future. Create a post-mortem to preserve what is worth preserving.

10. Daily Journaling can help with looking back and compiling a lessons-learned document. Blogging a weekly 10 things I didn’t know last week (a la BBC) or a 10 things I liked enough to share (a la littlebytesoflife) helps to reflect on and appreciate what you have accomplished.

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Hopefully these ideas will be of some value to you and allow you to pull the cart out of the mud – or abandon it if you so decide. Getting stuck is alright. Throwing dirt for a while is OK, too.

But you have to regroup to break the cycle; use any strategy you can think of to find the energy and enthusiasm to make this day a happy day.

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