Ways to Get Started When You Are
Remedies for Writers’ Constipation, Deadline-Induced Apathy, and Creative Cramps
For me, the hardest part is getting started. If I spend 10 hours on part of a project, I spend the first five hours doing 20% of the work and next five hours doing the remaining 80%. A lot of it has to do with settling myself down and transferring the energy I am spending on stressing out into a relaxed focus on the task. When I’m staring at a project I can’t start, I put myself in a rocking chair: I do a lot of work moving back and forth, but I don’t really get anywhere.
Writer’s Block is humorously called Writers’ Constipation among my writer friends because of how similar it is to another natural stress inducer. If you are mentally constipated, the worst thing to do is sit looking at your computer for hours, straining your muscles. In fact, you will probably hurt yourself - maybe physically, but definitely mentally. If you find yourself staring at a computer screen and nothing is coming, don’t hurt yourself. Try a few suggestions below and you will be focused and back to working hard in no time!
1. Make A List. Make a priority list of what you have to get done. I like to break it into four quadrants: what I need to get done today (preferably before lunch), what I would like to get done today, what I need to get done this week, and what I would like to get done this week. Writing out my to-do list makes it easier to plan my day. Check out how I do it here.
3. Invent a Better Drinking Fountain. Think about how you can improve upon a tool we take for granted. For example, think of ten new improvements for a drinking fountain (where does the water come out? How is it designed? Laser light shows are fair game!). Abstract thinking, even if it’s not in a topic related to where you are stuck, can help you approach your problem in a creative way. If you already came up with a better drinking fountain years ago and can’t do better, try improving a refrigerator, a lamp, or a teapot.
4. Start Small: The Egg Timer Trick. Set small, achievable goals to build momentum. If you can’t identify a small goal to complete, you can use a timer. Set the timer for ten to twenty minutes, and take a short break when the time is up. When I have to write something I have a hard time starting, I open Word and format the document. I put my name where it needs to be, the title, the margins, the spacing, all the technical stuff. (Break) I start on the research and get an idea of how I want to frame what I am writing about. (Break) I create a rough outline with three to five big points I want to hit on. (Break) Then I take apart each big point and break it down into small ones. (Break) I write an intro paragraph that I may use in the final, revising it heavily after I am finished with the body. (Break) I start writing each of the big bullet points, using the smaller bullet points as a guide. Before I know it, I've written my first draft.
5. Moleskines. Notebooks are not only for writers; they can to be useful for everyone. Carry a small notebook with you or use the “notes” function on your smart phone to write down any ideas that comes to you. When you are stuck and need an idea, refer back to this notebook. What may seem like a silly idea on an evening bus ride home could be a million dollar idea two weeks later when you are on deadline and mentally fried. Flipping through ideas in your notebook will also help you get into the “idea” mindset. Note: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t be shy to write down ideas. This is your private notebook; don’t share it with anyone. The only one judging you is yourself (and stop being so hard on yourself).
6. Try Something New. Listen to a new kind of music, go to an exhibit you would never think of going to, order something you have never eaten before. This will help you break away by entering a foreign creative territory, and will inspire you to look at whatever you are stuck on from a different perspective.
7. Get Physical. Doing exercise will wake up your body and you will be rewarded with healthy endorphins. When you get back to your desk your mind will be clearer and primed for focus. Even going for a walk will help. Whether you are in a busy town or rural community, be mindful of everything that is going on around you; focus your attention on the movements, not your project. Ideas about where you are stuck may pop into your head out of nowhere when you are thinking about what is right in front of you.
8. Start Fresh; Call In a Newbie. Often, it’s hard to make forward progress because we are too close to the issue to see it fully. Explain what you are working on to someone who doesn’t know anything about it. Let them ask you questions, even if it’s small non-technical details. This will give you insight and help you see what you are missing in your blind spots.
9. Get Artistic. This can even be as simple as doodling. Get the creative juices going by leveraging the right side of the brain to focus something arts and crafts related. I have a notebook I use for brainstorm ideas and it’s a mix of words and drawings (I am not a great artist). For example, last week I was brainstorming names. I wrote down the word “Opus” and the “s” turned into an octopus playing the violin.
10. Write a Haiku. Send it to a friend. If you’ve forgotten, a Haiku is a 17-syllable verse form consisting of three metrical units of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Five for the first line, seven for the second, and five for the third. This is a creative challenge because it is short and has strict rules, a kind of creativity with boundaries, which promotes creative thinking.
11. Mix it up. Don’t drive (or walk) home the same way you usually do. Take a new route. New surroundings can help you think differently.
12. Let Your Lower Conscious Take Care of It. Think about an idea before going to bed. Focus in on one part of the project in particular and roll it over in your mind. I get some of my best ideas right before I am about to fall asleep, just be sure to write them down (you may want to keep your notebook by your bed). Your brain is still active when you are asleep and you may wake up with the solution for what you are stuck on.
13. Shower shock. Take a shower and alternate between hot water and cold water. Try switching every thirty seconds.
14. Read a Book. Go to a book store or library and read the first page of every book on a shelf.
15. Wake Up Earlier. Start your day earlier or mix up your schedule. Briefly pulling yourself out of your routine will give you a new perspective and help you think differently.
16. Listen to Music. LifeHacker has a great piece about music and productivity, the Telegraph has some worthwhile suggestions too. My advice, listen to the music that will put you in right the mood. If you are sluggish, put on some upbeat music. Too high strung? Easy listening is a good option.
17. Get a Stress Object. This could be a stress ball, a worry stone, or pictures of your ex (well, maybe not that last one). Sometimes just letting your hands fidget with something is enough to get a creative spark.
18. Steal Like an Artist. Do a web search on Google or Bing. Search your topic and see if anyone else has done something similar. (If you need permission to “steal like an artist”, check out Austin Kleon’s book)
19. TED. Watch this TED talk by Tim Brown about creativity. If you like TED talks, try watching one every day. I watch one every morning while I am eating breakfast. It’s a good start to my day when I can eat my yogurt with one of the leading minds in the world.
20. Get Rejected. Take the Coffee Challenge and ask for 10% off at your local coffee shop. Take a risk by going outside of your comfort zone. No really. Do it. Take a risk. You probably won’t get the discount, but the experience will be worth it. Putting yourself in a position like this will prime you to take risks in the project you are working on. More info here.
21. SFD is a Good Start. Getting some words down is better that nothing. There is a lot of value in the SFD (sh*tty first draft). No one will see your SFD, you can use it to go back through later and comb for ideas.
22. Caffeine. Some people suggest drinking a lot of caffeine. Although a lot of things that contain caffeine (i.e. coffee or tea) have been shown to be beneficial to your health, my experience with downing pots of coffee and/or energy drinks is not being able to focus on my project for more than a few second, essentially: jitters, irritability, and it throws off my sleep cycle. My suggestion is to stay hydrated and eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
23. Turn It Into a Love Letter. Have one person in mind who you are writing for or developing the project for. Having one person in mind (even if they could care less) will reduce stress and help you “start.” If you are doing something for someone else, it will reduce the stress of the deadline and you will want to do it.
24. Prevention Focus. According to the Harvard Business Review, you may be having a hard time starting a task because you are afraid that you will screw up. Heidi Grant Halvorson suggests adopting a prevention focus: “Instead of thinking about how you can end up better off, you see the task as a way to hang on to what you’ve already got – to avoid loss. … When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action. The more worried you are, the faster you are out of the gate.”
25. Become Your Alter Ego. How would someone you look up to (Arianna Huffington, Steve Jobs, Batman, etc) approach this project?
26. Smile. Bite down on a pencil (this causes the muscles in your face to mimic a smile) to reduce stress and clear focus. It really works!
27. One Sentence. Get something on the page by writing the truest sentence you can think of. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
28. Map it out! Using a whiteboard or a piece of notebook paper, write FIRST on the top left corner and LAST in the bottom right corner. Fill in the steps in between. I find it easiest to start with the big steps and then break each big step down. Fill in the steps you know and circle the blanks areas. Think of ways to fill the gaps.
29. Reward Yourself. If rewards motivate you, use them to your advantage. Make sure it won’t hit your bank account too hard -- a new Ferrari is nice, but it may be a little much for correctly filing all your TPS reports. A coffee or tea with friends, a night out, or bakery treat are all good options. Fast Company has some suggestions here.
30. Stand. A standing desk not only offers a lot of health benefits, but it can also get the idea juices going. I have better focus and have more energy. Plus, it’s hard to slouch and zone out when you are standing. Here’s a link to some DIY standing desk ideas.
31. Dress Nice. Even if I am doing all my work from home and no one is going to see me, I dress up when I need to make a dent in a project. I put on a tie and jacket, even some nice shoes. This tells my brain that I am going to make progress, this is important to me, and while I am dressed like this I am going to work on finishing my task.
32. Eat something. When was the last time you had something to eat? Your blood sugar might be low and you should eat a few carbs and some protein. Keep some healthy snack around your work place to keep you fueled on long distance work days. Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and veggies are packed with nutrients and may give you the push you need. Sugary drinks, cakes, processed foods, and booze are okay in moderation, but if consumed while working you may get drowsy and dose off.
33. Stay Positive. Chances are you are pretty smart and have already completed a thousand tasks similar to this one. Don't beat yourself up because you are having a tough time finding the right motivation. It is not that you aren’t skilled enough or are dumb, it’s all about having the right mindset. You will be able to get your project done and on time. If you transfer the energy you are putting into avoiding the task to working on towards your tasks completion, it will be done in no time. Buckle down and get your laser focus going. If you need a boost, talk to a friend who is good at building you up and keeping you positive.
Tell us (in A COMMENT BELOW) what you like to do when you are stuck!
Andrew J. Wilt
SEI Junior Consultant