How To Get Unstuck: Candid Thoughts on Getting $#!* Done

How to get unstuck and get stuff done at work

Motivation is a tricky thing. It’s hard to stay motivated, and it’s hard to find time to work on ourselves. What do we do when “just do it” doesn’t work?

Many years ago I went through a hardcore productivity phase. During that time I was running a design consulting firm and burning the midnight oil as the Getting To Done editor for Lifehacker. That time ended in epic burnout; the irony was that I was writing about productivity while subsequently stalling out.

I eventually recovered. Mind you, it was a slow road to a much more balanced and happy life. I learned a lot about inspiration, motivation, and getting good work done.

Just Do It?

Last fall, I was at a bit of a low point, not quite full burnout, but stressed, low energy, and feeling overwhelmed. I’m usually the kind of person who gets excited about new things to work on, so when the call came out for Atlassian Design Week presentations, I perked up. For a minute. And then I began to second guess myself.

I tried a few things, but it was confounding and the longer it went, the more stressful it became. Why wasn’t I motivated? Atlassian Design Week is fun. It's got intrinsic motivation baked in: I pick a topic I'm interested in, bone up on it, explore it, find a voice around it, and then do it.

So I gave up. Instead, I wrote this down as a to-do in my spark file:

“ Motivation. Why doesn’t it work? Do other people get stuck too? Why?”

That to-do sat there for a long time, and during that time I’ve been thinking about the problem of why people get stuck and why “just working through it” doesn’t work. After speaking with quite a few people about what keeps them from growing and what prevents them from learning new things, it seems in general to be one of three things:

  1. Fear. Impostor syndrome, fear of failure, or even fear of success.
  2. Lack of inspiration or motivation. Just not feeling it.
  3. Lack of time or energy.

So, let’s talk about it.

I’m going to present ideas, techniques, and tips to try—a fun Encouragement Fox (🦊)  will denote those. I can’t guarantee this stuff will work for you, but do give them a shot.

Let’s begin:

🦊 Quick Encouragement Fox tip to try: When you’re stuck, try something new and different. Old techniques will fail you at times, and what works for me or someone else might not work well for you. So, treat your growth as an ongoing series of experiments: Try something new and if it works, use it until it doesn’t.

Fear

Fear has great impact on motivation, but overcoming it is complicated. Fears are also the least easy to address, so let’s start with it. Here are a few things I'm afraid of at the moment:

  • I've got major fears around this post. I'm scared that it's dumb and poorly written, that nobody will read it, that people won't find value in it, that it was a waste of time, etc.
  • I fear that I’ll age out of my job. Tech is a very fast-paced industry, and I’m always amazed at the smart and talented designers coming up. Can I be in my 50’s and still do this? I think the answer is yes, but I worry about it. A lot.

In my chats with folks, the idea of Impostor syndrome came up a lot and is often linked to fear. For me personally, Impostor syndrome has always been there but over the years I’ve learned to try and get comfortable with those feelings. Sometimes, I even use those doubts to motivate me. My impostor syndrome has also shifted and changed and I feel that it never goes away, but, you know, that's ok.

8 Ways To Tackle Fear

  1. Embrace your fear. Snuggle it. I try and be open about it, and vulnerable with it. I take it, look at it, and use it to motivate me.

  2. Turn fear into strength. A lot of fear can be turned around by looking at it differently. I remind myself that my age comes with experience and that gives me confidence. When I was younger, there was a long time when I was the youngest designer on my teams! I wasn’t expected to know things, so I leveraged my fear into asking a lot of questions, making mistakes, and generally taking advantage of the grace period I had to learn.

  3. Know there is no one right, or even best, way to do a thing. One big thing I learned that stuck with me is that with most of our work, there is no single, bulletproof way to solve a problem. So trying different things, sharing early and often and being open with our work doesn’t carry any risk at the start.

  4. Be explicit with your confidence level and doneness. When sharing your work, try setting explicit expectations around how confident or done your work is. For example, if you’ve done some testing with users, and iterated on actionable feedback, your confidence in a solution would be higher than if you’d just sat around a whiteboard brainstorming. Both things are worthy of sharing, and it can be helpful to set context for folks. As well, it should defuse some of the fear you might have about sharing early ideas.

  5. Focus on something else. I think many of the tips below will help distract or reduce your fears. Fight fear by distracting yourself with learning, practice, preparation, and inspiration.

  6. Actively, intentionally manage stress. Many of us suffer under the heel of chronic stress. Recognizing that and actively working on it can be very helpful in sustaining motivation. Therapy, mindfulness, exercise and healthy choices are all good things to try, but you might also try leaning into some of your stress. Use it and make it work for you.

  7. Be comfortable with failure. It sucks but a great way to learn, so look on failure’s bright side. Embrace the uncomfort zone.

🦊 Quick Encouragement Fox tip to try: Cold showers. By ducking into a three minute cold shower, and the acute stress that comes with the freezing water, you’ll work on stress tolerance that might help you deal with the other, more stressful, kinds of stress.

Motivation And Inspiration

Motivation is vital for learning, and it's a topic that I find fascinating. Last year I gave talks and wrote a bit about deep work and growth mindset. Both of those concepts have motivation at their core.

Motivation is kind of like a skill. Maybe it is a skill. It can be learned, and you can practice it. Find out what motivates you and make a regular habit out of it. Start small and build it up.

5 Ways To Just Start GSD

A lot of folks lack motivation for the simple reason that they don’t know where to start. Once they do get started, they'll see that motivation and inspiration begin to build and things get more comfortable.

So, how do we start?

The scary truth is that, for most things, there are many places to get going, and trying to find the perfect spot is an exercise in futility. Don’t spend valuable time searching for an ideal beginning. Spend that time and energy working on something.

  1. Start working. Find a place, any place, and start to work without motivation. Real inspiration is something you create and earn, and motivation can be manufactured merely by sitting down and starting.

  2. Make a small snowball. Start with something tiny; write or sketch for five minutes, do one little piece of a project, etc. and then stop, rest, reflect and the next day do a little bit more. It won’t be long before you see that little snowball grow. That one little to-do in my spark file was the small snowball for me. I wasn’t feeling anything at work, decided to explore ideas (by sitting down notes and thoughts) and... well, it turned into an avalanche of ideas that will likely carry me for awhile.

  3. Chip away. Keeping motivation up requires a connection to the work. Some days you won’t have it, and that’s ok, but don’t go too long without doing something, even if it’s minor. With my design work, I’ll organize my files or clean up layers when I’m not feeling it. When writing, I’ll revise a sentence or outline a section. This post took almost a month for me to write, which is CRAZY for me because I usually bang things out in one go and spend only a couple days revising.

  4. Stick with what’s working. When it comes to staying productive and motivated, sticking with what works is critical as long as it’s working. We fall victim to optimization obsession far too often. Remember, all that time you’re spending learning a new process or tool is probably better spent using what works to get something done. Only seek new tools and techniques when things aren’t working.

    To sum up: Get from 0 to 1 and then keep going. (HT: M.G. Siegler)

    🦊 Quick Encouragement Fox tip to try: Wake and make. Start your day off with a win by making your bed. Sometimes just getting that one thing into the done column sets the stage for the rest of your day.

Don’t spend valuable time searching for an ideal beginning. Spend that time and energy working on something.

8 Higher Motivations For Breaking Through Blocks

As the saying goes, “Invest in yourself to get the best interest.” It’s important to be in-tune with why you’re pushing forward. Define your higher motivations to not only help you see the bigger picture, but also to encourage you during mental blocks.

  1. Find and foster your purpose. I’ve had a lot of hard jobs. Of course, there is base level motivation (money, food, etc.), but to be inspired you need a higher level of motivation. That motivation can come directly from the work you are doing, or if your purpose is elsewhere, it can come from doing work that enables you to move towards your purpose.

  2. Offer to help, help yourself. Sometimes you need an outside perspective or to try something different. Making yourself available to help out can provide that, and, weirdly, it will often spill over and get you through hard times with your work. Helping others is one of the primary motivations that got me through this post (the other is purely selfish: to help myself, writing is thinking.)

  3. Work with structure, process, and planning. The most creative people have a method; a repeatable way to create successful outcomes. This method can take many forms, but when motivation is low, falling back on a structure that works is often the best way to get back on track.

  4. Learn as a team. Involve others with whatever it is you’re doing. Share your goals, make goals together, engage with each other, and hold each other accountable.

  5. Explore openly. Think about what you have to do or what you want to learn and draw, or take notes and see what happens.

  6. Give yourself a hard deadline. Make it meaningful. Sometimes a little bit of pressure can be a good motivator. Try something like “if I don’t finish this blog post by Friday I’m going to delete it.”

  7. Sometimes you have to say “forget it” and do nothing. Take a break, take a nap, meditate, exercise, get away from work. I’m a firm believer (based on years of hard work and experience) that high performance is not sustainable. No matter how motivated or inspired you are, be kind to yourself and take a break when things aren’t working for you.

  8. Do something fun. Goof off, release the pressure of having to GSD. Fun is subjective. Don’t let anyone tell you how to fun. Do your fun.

5 Tactics For Time And Energy Management

Probably the most common reason people have for getting stuck relates to time, or is described in that way, even if it might be something else. We often talk about time, but I don’t think time itself is the actual problem, most folks have plenty of minutes in their week to get good work done. A more significant issue is how we use that time, and how much energy we need to expend to be productive.

  1. Give yourself permission. I’ve talked to so many people who feel like they don’t have control of their time. That is a problem with a simple solution: Permit yourself to control your own time. You’re a professional and your time and how you spend it is the foundation on which you'll do your best work.

  2. Keep your commitments to yourself. Along the same lines, you’ll need to hold yourself accountable. If you set aside two hours on Friday for personal development and you use it for project work, that should feel awful. Treat yourself like you would your people manager, and don’t disappoint yourself.

  3. Manage your meetings. It's a whole other post (just bookmark this gem from Steven Sinofsky) but I think this boils down to a couple of things. Respect, value, and effort. Respect your and your co-worker’s time and continuously evaluate meetings for their value vs. effort.

  4. Deep work and focus. By reserving time for focused work, you’re working to free up more time and energy. I think most people could do all the vital thinking work they need to get done for a week in just a couple days if they spent that time in the zone.

🦊 Quick Encouragement Fox tip to try: Block your calendar. This works for both freeing up time and for reserving energy. It’s pretty straightforward, but I know quite a few who struggle with this. I genuinely believe that a stretch of focused time each day will do wonders not only for your motivation and ability to grow, but your day-to-day productivity as well.

We often talk about time, but I don’t think time itself is the actual problem, most folks have plenty of minutes in their week to get good work done. A more significant issue is how we use that time, and how much energy we need to expend to be productive.

If you really can’t do all of the above, you might be taking on too much, and I’d suggest raising your hand for help. Talk to your team and your manager and see what can be done to free up your time and energy.

Finishing Touches For Greater GSD

Knowing when to end something is a neat trick as well. All too often the answer is move on to what's next, and that can be a great way to keep motivation going. But I'd also challenge you to celebrate finishing things whenever you can.

Two final thoughts:

  • There are a 1000 ways to do a thing. Find your way.
  • There is one sure fire way to get better at something: practice. 0 to 1 and then keep going.

So there you have it; a bunch of anecdotal advice that you didn’t ask for. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you found at least one thing to try next time you need a spark.


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