Ask Steph is a monthly column where I answer all of your tricky business questions! Get ready to tackle everything from setting up better software & systems, to making space for reflection, to planning out your business content, to establishing better boundaries with your clients. Have a question for me? Ask away, right here. See archives here.
How Do You Get Yourself Unstuck?
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I’m way more of an “ideas person”. I’m really good at having great ideas, but not so good at following through. I’ll get so energized about a new project, but then all of a sudden, I’ll feel totally blocked. It feels so overwhelming! I don’t know where to start or what to do next, and I just give up. I end up wasting a LOT of time spinning my wheels in this way. Help! Do you ever get stuck when you’re facing big tasks or projects? How do you power through and keep going? What helps you figure out your next steps when there is just SO MUCH TO DO?! Would love to hear your thoughts.”
Stuck in the Mud
Short answer: Yes. I get stuck all the time.
Longer answer: but thankfully not for that long, anymore! By now, I’ve figured out a bunch of strategies that really work for me to get myself unstuck when I stall out on a project or task. This isn’t because I’m some kind of superhuman, it’s because I’ve learned to solve for the problem beneath the problem.
Here’s what I think: When we’re stuck, it’s usually for a very good reason! When I work with clients who feel blocked, the solution usually just involves making a few small decisions, choosing a new tool, or figuring out one tiny problem, and suddenly they’re off to the races. So if you’re feeling stuck, that’s probably very rational and logical based on where you’re at right now! But it doesn’t have to stay that way for long.
Recently, I got a bit stuck when faced with the daunting task of creating a beautiful printed workbook for my upcoming business retreat. I’d never done something like that before, so there were a ton of factors I didn’t know would be important going into the project. I sat down at my computer to work on it, got overwhelmed, and before I knew it I was wasting time on Pinterest and checking my email compulsively. No bueno! Once I copped on to what I was doing, I decided to address the problem head-on using some of my favourite strategies. Here’s what I did that day – hopefully something on this list will help you too!
1. Give yourself some parameters
A big part of the problem in this case was that I had no idea how long I wanted this book to be, or what it should include. There were no parameters around this project: size, shape, price, content, etc. No wonder I was overwhelmed! I was trying to pull ideas out of thin air.
So the first thing I did was head to the website I knew I wanted to print the books with, and I took a look at their guidelines. Turns out, their base price is based on books of 24 pages minimum, with fees as you add more pages. So suddenly I had a concrete number to aim for and fill! 24 pages seemed manageable.
The parameters you need to research will be different depending on your specific project. If you want to host an event, do you know roughly how many people you want there, the time of day it’ll be, and whether you’ll provide food? If you’re writing a book, do you have details about what a strong proposal needs to include and how many words it should be? And if you’re launching a podcast, do you know what you’re required to submit to Apple Podcasts, who your target demographic is, and how long you want your episodes to be?
This all sounds simple, but until you give yourself a clear framework and container for what it is you’re trying to create, you’ll inevitably face challenges. It’s impossible to make our dreams into a reality without getting clear on specific details. Figure out the finer points, and you’ll be able to make a plan for hitting your goals.
2. Decide on the tools you’ll use
I knew I had a few different options for creating this book, but I wasn’t familiar with how they’d look or work. Which was best? I had no way of knowing without familiarizing myself with the options and deciding for myself first-hand.
First, I downloaded their proprietary software and gave it a try. I found it challenging to use and didn’t really like how it looked, so that one was very quickly out of the running!
The other major option I had was to upload a pre-created PDF, but I didn’t really know what size it should be or how things like margins worked. So I grabbed a PDF I had on hand and uploaded it to their service, clicking through to proof it and get a sense of what a finished PDF would need to include. With that information, it was a no-brainer to decide I’d use my trusty Canva (which I’m super comfortable using!) to create a PDF. Easy!
Maybe for your project, this step would mean getting re-acquainted with that awesome software you’ve used before but forget how to use. Or maybe it means finally switching from Word to Google Drive for your writing practice, because it’s a tool you feel more comfortable with.
You’ll notice that both of these first two tips involve making very simple choices. That’s no accident! Procrastination happens when we avoid making decisions. We need clarity & decisiveness in order to move forward on any project, no matter how big or small.
3. Go analog
Once I had my parameters and tools…I was still stuck. I knew my book needed to be 24 pages, but what should those 24 pages contain? Because I couldn’t mentally envision what the project would look like, I decided to draw it out on paper. I grabbed a marker and a notepad, and drew out individual boxes to represent each page. Then I started filling in the blanks! I wrote in the pieces that I knew I wanted to include, like the retreat schedule and pages for notes. Slowly, the book took shape and I was able to set up a rough idea of what the content would be.
If you’re trying to build a sales page, you might need to sketch out a “wireframe” on paper so that you know the elements you want to include. Or if you’re creating an important slide deck, you could try grabbing notecards to lay out each slide and move things around.
I’m not sure why, but using analog methods helps us plan and create with more fluidity. If you get stuck, find a way to make your planning process more tactile, visual or analog. Or, ideally all three!
4. Start with something
The easiest way to get stuck is to force yourself to start with a blank, empty page. Talk about daunting! In general, I think we underestimate how much we are helped by having something to build from. If you’re writing a job description, grab an old job description and adapt it. If you need to write a hard email, do a quick Google search for a template on the same topic that you can modify. And if you need to create a proposal, download an example and draw inspiration from their format.
In my case, this was as simple as replicating another PDF I’d created in Canva, which had a lot of the style elements I knew I wanted to include. That PDF had been duplicated from another one, which had been adapted from another, and so on. The original PDF in the chain I’d obviously made from scratch, but even that one followed a structure from another content creator I was inspired by and used my brand colours & fonts. Always try to start with something!
5. Do a S.F.D. or mock it up
The concept of the “shitty first draft” comes from Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird (which is excellent!). It’s exactly what it sounds like: get something on the page, dump it out, make it real. In keeping with the previous tip, the reasoning behind this is that it’s much easier to edit than it is to create. When we create, we’re starting from nothing, but when we edit, we have something to work with and improve. Creating is daunting, but we can lessen the pressure by giving ourselves permission to let it be bad. We’re not going to release it to the public in this form! There will be edits! Working with something is easier than working with nothing.
Depending on the project, you can also try mocking it up. Create a website page full of dummy text and placeholder images. Make your brochure but insert gobbledegook instead of real content (this is my favourite generator). If you’re designing packaging, use construction paper & markers to lay out the elements you want. Get a sense of how things will play visually first, and fill in the details later.
6. Tiny steps count
I can’t end this post without saying: Take tiny steps and give yourself credit for every single one of them! Most of the time when we’re stuck, it’s because we haven’t split the project into bite-sized pieces. When I was struggling with this workbook, on my to-do list it just said “Do first draft of workbook”, but that turned out to be way too broad. I needed to break that way down, to include tasks like “Research options for building the book”, and “Figure out pricing & length”, among others.
A task should only take about 30-60 minutes MAXIMUM. If something can’t be done in under an hour, it’s not a single “task”, it’s probably several. If it something feels too big, make it smaller. Then make it even smaller. What’s the next right thing that would help you get some momentum? Even simply making time to jot down all the tasks and pieces of a project in one place is an important task in and of itself. It sounds obvious, but it’s not: we need to know what we need to do before we start the doing.
When in doubt, try something
The creative process – and business! – inevitably requires a lot of trial and error. What works for your business bestie won’t necessarily work for you. Heck, what worked for you last week might not still be a fit! We need to have tools in our arsenal to throw at problems like procrastination, getting stuck, and feeling overwhelmed. As far as I’m concerned, the more strategies, the better! These are things that all of us struggle with, and unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all.
Which is why I’d love to know: What strategies do you try when you get stuck? How do you move forward on a project when it feels overwhelming? Let me know in the comments below or over on Instagram @stephpellett.
PS. Need some more tips on building productivity into your work day? Check out my course Operations 101: Do More in Less Time, in partnership with Make Lemonade. I’ll walk you through my favourite strategies for staying on task and making time for the things that matter. Click below to learn more!