You’re doing great and feeling on top of your work. You pretty much know what to get done, have a sense of momentum and aren’t avoiding projects.
Then life happens.
Maybe you get sick or go on vacation or someone on your team quits or multiple deadlines hit all at once, or a global pandemic puts the whole world on pause and makes it difficult to be even remotely productive.
You go from feeling on top of your work to feeling as if your to-do list menacingly towers over you. And as the list gets taller and taller, you feel smaller and smaller. The rational part of you knows that you should double down on your efforts to do what you can with the time you have. But the emotional part of you simply gives out: Why even try? No matter what I do, I’ll never catch up. I wonder what’s new on Twitter…?
Your fight, flight or freeze response to danger is a helpful tool when it comes to survival. But to thrive, you need to transcend your instincts and process your situation at a higher level.
As a time management coach, I’ve seen help people break out of feeling stuck and take action with these mind-sets — even if they have been avoiding certain projects for years. So take a few deep breaths and let’s begin.
Start somewhere, anywhere
One of the biggest reasons I see people stay stuck is that they lose confidence that they know where to start. So they spend a great deal of time thinking about what’s the most important thing to do but accomplish little to nothing of significance.
Unhelpful mind-set: “I need to know with absolute certainty that this is the top priority and if I move ahead on this part of this project, I won’t regret having prioritized it above anything else.”
Helpful mind-set: “I can’t always know for sure what should be the priority. However, I can make a reasonable decision to pursue something that I know is among my most important activities.”
Action: Pick a project (or some portion of one) you will focus on first.
Learn as you go
Another barrier I’ve seen keep people from moving forward is when they lack clarity on how to complete the entire process in front of them. In some cases, this makes sense. If you’re performing surgery or something that will endanger people’s lives if you don’t know precisely how to get from beginning to end, please cease and desist until you do. For most people, however, the fear of not knowing all the steps is a false barrier to momentum on goals they need to accomplish.
Unhelpful mind-set: “If I don’t know the perfect way to accomplish this project or if I’m not sure how it will all work out at the onset, I won’t even start.”
Helpful mind-set: “Part of starting can be learning. I can make the first step of beginning to read more, talk to an expert or spend focused time thinking about my approach. I don’t need to know the entire road map to begin learning and taking next steps.”
Action: Decide on a first step. That could include spending a certain amount of time reading about the topic, reviewing your old notes or talking to a colleague.
Success is showing up
If you measure success as accomplishing a huge amount of work, you will continue to avoid it because between meetings, email and energy levels, most of us will never have hours and hours consecutively to focus on one project.
But if you begin small and keep showing up, in time you’ll gain momentum and get all of that seemingly scary work done. For example, one of my coaching clients had put off completing a book for years. Once we started working together, she learned to put herself in her writing space every day. Sometimes all she did was sit there without writing. But in time, her mind and body got used to “this is what we do at this time,” and she finished her novel.
Showing up doesn’t have to be for a long time, especially if you are experiencing a lot of resistance. Neil Fiore, author of “The Now Habit,” explains that you can choose to start for five to 15 minutes. And in “Atomic Habits,” the author James Clear recommends even starting with a two-minute habit. So if you can’t get yourself to read an entire document that has been growing mold on your to-do list for months, start by reading a page, stop and read another page the next day.
Unhelpful mind-set: “I am successful only if I put a huge amount of effort into completing a task.”
Helpful mind-set: “I can succeed by consistently making progress on my work. As I start and start again, even for a few minutes a day, I can regain momentum in areas where I have felt stuck. I do have enough time to make some progress.”
Action: Choose to start for a certain number of minutes at a certain time. Then choose when you will start again. Keep starting until you’ve gained momentum. If you want to spend more than a few minutes, you can. But when inertia is not working in your favor, the goal is to make getting rolling as effortless as possible.
Notice your emotions
I had a situation about three and a half years ago where I thought I was making a good choice, but I figured out about six months later that I had made a mistake. That mistake was costing me money, but I felt so bad about my poor judgment and so afraid that I would make another poor choice that I remained stuck for another year.
My normally rational mind that doesn’t avoid things was paralyzed: pulled in one direction by regret from the past and the other by fear for the future. Fortunately, I have a very kind and intelligent brother who was very good at sorting through the situation. I talked it through with him. He reassured me that I was still loved and accepted even though I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I had made this decision and then more embarrassed that I avoided it. And then, as very smart brothers do, he put together an Excel sheet telling me exactly what to do to move forward. I had actions I needed to take each month that were very clearly laid out in black and white.
My brother stepping in when I was struggling really helped. But I still had to do the work, and for the first nine months, it felt super uncomfortable. Every time I opened that Excel sheet, I had some regret about the past and some fear of What if I’m doing the wrong thing again? But I kept at it. And by the year mark, I didn’t feel ashamed, I felt proud. Proud that I hadn’t stayed stuck. Proud that I wasn’t living in fear. Proud that I was moving forward. I couldn’t erase what I had cost myself during the year and a half of avoidance, but I could make good choices in the present and future.
In this situation, I still noticed my emotions, but once I broke out of paralysis, I didn’t let the uncomfortable emotions stop me from acting.
Unhelpful mind-set: “If taking action makes me feel regret, guilt, shame or any other uncomfortable emotion, I can’t handle doing anything.”
Helpful mind-set: “I can feel regret, guilt, shame, disappointment, embarrassment, resentment or any other negative feeling and still take the actions that will lead me to the more positive place I want to be. In time, my negative feelings will decrease in intensity and can transform into a healthy sense of accomplishment.”
Action: Take action even when you feel uncomfortable. If your emotions feel too overwhelming, consider shortening the time you spend on the task or even taking the next step with a friend for moral support.
For a few rare individuals, getting projects done looks like a fluid motion — like the stroke of a paintbrush filling a canvas in a single swoop. But for most of us, productivity is less elegant: Starting, stopping and starting again is normal. We block out time to work on a project, and something happens to shorten it or move it to another day — that’s fine as long as we don’t let it fall off the radar.
Even for writing this article, I had multiple time blocks for thinking and researching. Then another day when I worked on my outline. Then another day of writing and editing. I had other responsibilities and meetings while working on this article, but I kept starting and restarting until it was done. So can you.
Unhelpful mind-set: “If my progress isn’t elegant, linear and uninterrupted, I’m doing something wrong.”
Helpful mind-set: “The realities of life mean that progress is often messy and sometimes disjointed. Every step in the right direction counts. And I can start and start again until I’ve completed what I need to accomplish.”
Action: When you finish a time block in which you’re doing work, decide when you will take action once more.
I hope this article encourages you that if you’ve felt stuck for weeks, months or even years, you can move forward. Now is the perfect time to begin.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time-management coach and the author of “The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment,” “How to Invest Your Time Like Money” and “Divine Time Management.” She is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.