How to Get Unstuck
When a Big Job Stymies You

When you agreed to do it, it seemed like a wonderful challenge. Now, your deadline is fast approaching and you haven't even started. Getting the job done is a priority, yet it somehow doesn't happen. Instead, it stays there on your daily task list - highlighted for attention but never attended to.

What causes this pernicious process? Why does a great opportunity turn into a very big chore that turns into an overwhelming enigma that threatens to turn into the Big Job You Never Even Started?

There are all sorts of causes – but only one solution that consistently works for me. Here it is:

  1. If you have been stuck for more than three days, you are stuck. Admit it. Stand in front of the mirror and repeat: "I shot my mouth off. I'm stuck." You have been waiting for inspiration to save you, but it hasn't appeared. Stop waiting.
  2. Change the status of the job: It was one priority among many. Make it No.1 on your daily task list.
  3. Don't even think of attacking the whole mess at once. Instead, break it up into small pieces. If it's a 40-page report you have to write, break it up into pages. If it's a bunch of people you have to talk to, think of each conversation as a separate task.
  4. Working back from your deadline, figure how many discrete units (pages, people, etc.) you need to do each day. Then, figure out how long it will take you to do that many units.
  5. If each unit can be done in less than 15 minutes, you are in luck. Give yourself the job of doing just one 15-minute task each day. If you will have to spend more than 15 minutes a day to finish, then begin – still – with 15 minutes and gradually increase your daily time commitment as you get rolling.
  6. Start with 15 minutes. Start immediately. Do your 15 minutes even if you feel that what you are doing is not very good.
  7. Keep going until you break through the psychological barrier you've been up against. The secret here is to reduce each day's work to 15 minutes. It is such a small amount of time that you won't have any trouble doing it. This will get the ball rolling, even if it doesn't seem to be rolling in the right direction. Sooner or later – and this is guaranteed – you will suddenly get that inspiration you had been waiting for while you were stuck. And when it happens, you will find that you've already done a good deal of the grunt work (thinking, planning, research, whatever).

My brother, JJF, recommended this technique several years ago. He's used it to get big writing projects done. I've used it for writing, planning, research, and especially critiquing. It has never failed me.

It's particularly useful when you get to the point where you don't actually like a project anymore. In that case, unless you have the discipline to hack away at it every day, you will avoid it, and it will never get done.

Some days, you will want to work more than 15 minutes. That's fine. In fact, that's the idea. It means your creative mind is starting to kick in. One day – and this can happen at almost any time – you'll suddenly see the big picture and will be able to get the whole project done right. You may decide to scrap some of what you've been doing and change some of it – but from that point on, you'll work fast and easily because you'll know exactly what needs to be done.

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Published: August 27, 2001

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