I actually experienced a pretty huge mental block quite recently. See, it turned out that writing that first post didn’t release me from the issue of deciding how to start this blog off. After all, that wasn’t a real blog post, it was just an introduction, of sorts. Immediately I found myself wondering: What do I do next? I have all these things I want to write about, but where do I start? What is a good topic for my first actual article?
And so I found myself in a very familiar state: Paralysed with anxiety.
I have, in fact, spent most of my adult life in something like this state. I wasn’t even aware that it was anxiety, I thought I was just a lazy, hopeless procrastinator. These days I’m much better, but I still regularly encounter a couple of very specific problems:
- I worry about not doing things right
- When faced with a choice, I can’t seem to make one
The second point is obviously tied in with the first: What is the right choice? It has happened more than once that I’ll sit staring down into my colouring book for minutes on end, unable to select a colour, for fear that it won’t turn out as well as I want it to. Nevermind that I colour to de-stress. Nevermind that very few people are likely to ever see it. Nevermind that if I really screw it up, I could technically buy a new book so I get a do-over. I fret, and I fret, and eventually I give up and close the book.
But as I said, I have gotten better. Part of it is medication, part of it is finding ways to get around the block. And it struck me that this makes an excellent first proper post: I’m going to share a couple of the tools I use to cross the threshold from paralysis into productivity.
Lower Your Standards
First of all: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.
I’m not kidding. Say it with me: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.
The point is, if you worry too much about getting it right, you likely won’t do it at all. At least that has been true for me. And if it never gets done, that means you never get to practise, which means you’ll never get it right. So if this activity, project or whatever it is, is something you like doing and would like to get better at, it’s worth being shit at it to begin with. I know it’s a cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason – mistakes are good for you. Treasure them.
Besides, you probably won’t do as poorly as you fear. (And colouring books are very forgiving, I’ve noticed.)
This is one of my most important mantras right now. Seriously, it’s so important I made you a graphic! Pin it, print it, put it on a cake – whatever, just remember it.
Break It Down, and Then Some More
Keeping in mind that it’s better to do a half-assed job than never get anything done at all has gotten me quite far, but not all the way. Sometimes it’s not performance anxiety that is the problem. For instance, when I was setting up this blog, I knew roughly what I wanted it to look like and what sorts of widgets I wanted. I found a theme that had the basic elements … and then I got stuck. What did I want to change, exactly? Where should I start? I felt overwhelmed and vaguely dejected.
Two weeks passed. During which I accumulated topics I wanted to blog about and felt irritated that I didn’t have anywhere nice to post them.
Finally, I turned to my secondary brain, my Filofax (insert dramatic music here), where I keep project planning sheets to fill in. I had already written a plan for the blog in general: Its purpose, specific goals, and a list of things that needed to be done to get started. One of the things on that list was “design”, the part that I was now stuck on. So I broke that out and started a new project sheet specifically about blog design.
And then I broke it down into tiny, tiny pieces. I’m talking a checklist containing “choose header font”, “choose column width” and so on. Some of the points I wrote down I realised were still too vague, so those got their break-downs on scraps of paper.
Reading through the list, I picked out the parts that felt less difficult than the others. Stuff that wouldn’t require all that much energy or thought. Doing these would be my foot-in-the-door.
And would you know it – I found my flow! In fact, once I got started, I stumbled into hyperfocus. I was stuck in blog design mode for days. All I needed to trigger it was to get really, super clear on what it was I was actually doing.
Prioritize, Reprioritize, Then Back It Up and Do It Again
Another thing I did during the design process was thinking about priorities. When I have broken a project down into small pieces it’s often easy to see which ones are absolutely necessary and which ones can be saved for later or maybe skipped entirely.
For instance, fixing the way certain changes to my theme broke mobile layouts was definitely a top priority, while I quickly realised that restyling a Pinterest widget to look exactly the way I wanted would take way more time and effort than it was actually worth.
So: After breaking a task down into smaller tasks, if it still feels too daunting, my next step is to identify which ones are absolutely necessary to reach the end goal (which is part of the reason why it’s important to have a clear goal and purpose in the first place!) and which ones are not. Also, I try to identify interdependencies – “top level” stuff needs to get done early. To keep using blog design as an example, you can’t start styling the header or menus until you’ve picked a theme.
If you’re reading this while the blog is still fresh, you know that it looks quite spartan at this point. That’s because of my changing my priorities. I would have loved to have had a proper logo and stuff finished by the time I started publishing, but I ended up deciding that it was far more important to get writing than to spend even more time on the design right now. I will most definitely get back to it, however – there is still a lot to be done.
If Necessary, Accept Defeat … For Now
Sometimes nothing works. Sometimes my brain just won’t latch on to whatever task it is that I want it to apply itself to. The only thing to be done then is to accept reality: It won’t get done.
At least not right away.
What I try to do when I feel like I’m failing at getting something in particular done is to make sure I get something else done instead. It’s a terrible thing to realise I’ve spent an hour (or a day) essentially navel-gazing and feeling awful about it. So I set myself another, simpler task, like doing the dishes or taking a walk, and hope that afterwards I will feel ready for another try.
Blog posts about productivity are ridiculously common and ridiculously repetitive, but most of them don’t tackle the specific problems that anxious people may encounter, so I hope this is useful to someone. I definitely don’t claim to be in any way original here; these are just the techniques I’ve found work for me. Anyway, if you’ve read this far, I applaud you, and invite you to share with me your own best tips for getting past a mental block. Is there anything you think I should try next time I encounter one?