So you’re stuck. You’ve been riding a nice wave for a minute, only to suddenly find yourself out of momentum, adrift in your work, idling in neutral. Your passion is a nice idea. Your drive is a distant memory. Whatever it takes to move forward, you’ve lost it somewhere along the way.
Then come the thoughts. The worry. The anxiety. The self-doubt. The feeling that you’ve failed for no discernible reason, and that the solution is nowhere to be found. The crushing suspicion that you just don’t have what it takes to carry your goal, your project, your relationship, your commitment across the finish line. That the key to moving forward is a secret you missed out on. And so the stuckness gets even deeper, even more entrenched.
If that sounds a little too accurate, it’s because I’ve been there too. Plenty of times.
You’re experiencing something that every single human has experienced, including — and especially — some of the greatest thinkers, writers, and builders in the world.
Being stuck isn’t a barrier to greatness; it’s part of greatness.
So what should we do when we get stuck?
Should we forge on blindly, ignoring the voices telling us to quit?
Do we give into the paralysis, and wait until the stuckness works itself out?
Or is there a bag of tricks we can reach for when we stall?
Conventional advice tells us to pursue one of these three options — unfeeling optimism, total surrender, or a laundry list of hacks to get us over the hump.
But in reality, there is no magic bullet for getting unstuck, because the path to overcoming inertia is unique to every individual, every project, and every circumstance.
Overcoming that inertia is also they byproduct of the steps you take in response to it — which means, ironically, that the best way to overcome your inertia is to stop working on it directly.
Luckily for us, that gives us a set of tools, activities, and mindsets that can keep us moving forward the moment we feel stuck. Starting with…
Do the smallest possible thing.
When we get stuck, we’re often experiencing a subconscious response to the enormity of what we’re trying to achieve.
I know this is true in my life. If I think about producing a Top 50 podcast, I start to worry about whether I’m clever enough, smart enough, and experienced enough to live up to our show. But if I think about preparing for the interview I have scheduled for tomorrow, suddenly I regain control, and have a way forward. If that one interview still seems overwhelming, then I can go even smaller, and simply read everything I can find online about my subject. If that’s overwhelming, then I’ll tell myself to read three articles — just three — and start there.
Before I know it, I’m doing my research, I’m preparing for my episode, and — as if by magic — I’m pulling off a Top 50 podcast.
I’m convinced that the human mind is not designed to tackle big, audacious goals. It can get excited about them, it can be inspired by them, it can motivated by them, but it freezes the moment it tries to execute on them.
Our brains are incredibly well designed, however, to tackle pieces of those goals. And sometimes we need to stop, figure out what those pieces are, and make them as small as possible.
Al Pacino’s legendary game of inches isn’t just about football. It’s a simple but profound hack to the very normal problem of being stuck.
Ask for help.
For years, my approach to being stuck was to sit with the problem and try to solve it myself.
If I’m stuck, I thought, then it’s up to me to become un-stuck. Which, of course, it ultimately is — but that doesn’t mean we can’t invite some assistance. Once I began to reach out to my close friends and colleagues in these moments, I realized that going it alone was actually part of the problem.
Reaching out when you’re stuck has three distinct and powerful benefits.
First, asking for help opens you up to new thoughts, approaches, and solutions that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For obvious reasons, we need those recommendations most when we’ve run out of steam. Our stuckness also makes it difficult to see the possibilities and answers right in front of us. While many of us want to turn inward when we stall out, it’s precisely in those moments that we need to proactively seek help from other people.
More important, asking for help makes us feel less alone in our stuckness. Every time I talk to the people in my inner circle about the challenges of my work, they remind me that they too have wrestled with the same thoughts — that being stuck is not a personal failing. Even if they can’t solve my problem for me, they can offer an invaluable dose of confidence and empathy when I need it most. They also remind me that being stuck is part of every single person’s process, which we tend to forget when we hit a wall.
I’ve found that the more I ask for help — and the more I offer it when my friends and colleagues need it — the stronger my relationships get. I also feel less alone, and I find much more interesting answers to my challenges.
Now, whenever I get stuck, I know that opening myself up to other people is one of the best ways to keep moving.
Offer to help someone else.
The flipside of reaching out is offering to help someone else. This might seem counterintuitive, because helping other people might take precious time away from your own challenge. But in many cases, it can un-stick you in profound and unexpected ways.
Naomi, a novelist friend of mine, has been chipping away at a really ambitious novel for the last two years. She’s moved between feeling deeply inspired and hopelessly stuck more times than she can count. She’s spent weeks, sometimes months, sitting in frustration with the work.
It didn’t help that her other writer friends were also asking her for notes on their work. How, she asked me, could she un-stick her project if she was busy helping everyone else? How could she watch other people making progress without feeling worse about being stuck?
I told her to try, and see what happened. She was stuck anyway; why not at least contribute to someone else’s success in the meantime?
So she started giving notes. And as she tried to solve other people’s challenges, she found herself coming up with solutions to her own she didn’t see before. By working on other people’s problems, she gave herself a new window into her own. She wasn’t just giving away precious time to someone else; she was helping someone else and learning about herself.
Most important, she remembered that she was capable enough to solve these big problems. They just seemed more daunting when they appeared in her own work.
So the next time you’re well and truly stuck, consider helping someone else. The new perspective you’ll gain could be just what you need to keep moving forward.
Learn from those who came before.
At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that being stuck is a universal experience. Literally every person who has tackled a major goal has hit mind-boggling roadblocks. It’s reassuring to know that those challenges don’t go away with talent or experience. Some of the greatest minds in history have been as stuck as you are.
Fortunately for us, we can learn from their stories. These case studies are a few keystrokes away, and studying them is an essential part of our development process.
For the last several years, I’ve been consciously working on becoming the best interviewer I can be. It’s a role that is difficult to truly master, and requires a bizarre combination of skills, mindsets, and habits that literally take decades to hone. For a long time, I felt alone in that journey — a guy hosting a show largely on his own, learning from his mistakes, studying his own work, getting better by tiny increments. When I entered periods of slow growth, I didn’t know where to turn.
That’s when I started reading up on the lives and techniques of great interviewers. I studied YouTube clips of Howard Stern, I interviewed people like Larry King, I read up on Terry Gross — and, most important, I sought out the moments in their stories when they struggled, grasped something important, and jumped to the next level. Their stories became models for my own. I was no longer struggling alone; I was struggling as part of a tradition — which, as any artist, entrepreneur or builder knows, is a powerful feeling.
Standing on the shoulders of giants isn’t just for noobs or aspirants. Even Richard Feynman, one of the greatest theoretical physicists in history, looked to others in his journey.
“If I get stuck,” he famously said, “I look at a book that tells me how someone else did it. I turn the pages, and then I say, ‘Oh, I forgot that bit,’ then close the book and carry on. Finally, after you’ve figured out how to do it, you read how they did it and find out how dumb your solution is and how much more clever and efficient theirs is!”
It’s so obvious, but we often forget it. We can study the people who came before us. More than that, we should.
Move your body.
You don’t need me to tell you how important exercise is to self-development. What you might not know, however, is the role movement plays on our ability to solve problems and keep moving forward.
A recent study from researchers at Stanford University found an intimate connection between walking and thinking. In four experiments, scientists discovered that walking boosts creative inspiration — in multiple settings, creativity levels were “consistently and significantly higher” for those who walked compared to those who sat.
“Walking,” they concluded, “opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”
The study built on a ton of existing research on the effect of aerobic exercise on long-term cognitive function, as well as studies that have found that walking significantly increases the supply of blood to the brain. In other words, our ability to get un-stuck is highly dependent on how we move.
What the Stanford study shows, though, is the intimate connection between walking and generalized creative thinking — precisely the kind of cognition we need to identify new solutions when we hit a wall.
So the next time you stall out, consider going for a short walk. Do some light stretching. Try a few yoga poses. You don’t need a full-blown workout to jumpstart your cognition. You can even combine this with your more quotidian tasks — like going for a walk when you take a call — and give yourself a boost while handling everyday business.
Change your tools.
Every craft has its tools. Engineers have their code. Musicians have their instruments. Athletes have their bodies. Painters have their brushes. Entrepreneurs have their conversations, their project management, their words.
What we tend to forget is that our ideas are intimately wrapped up in those tools. When we need to change up our ideas to overcome a barrier, we can start by changing up the tools themselves.
Jeff Bezos, for example, famously banned PowerPoints in favor of “narratives” — four-to-six page memos that Amazon employees read and discuss together in meetings. This format, Bezos felt, would lead to clearer and more collaborative decision-making, and avoid the same old thinking fostered by PowerPoint. It worked. Employees say that narratives lead to much richer conversations and better ideas — different tools, different thinking.
So the next time you get stuck, consider swapping your tools. If you’re a writer wrestling with a chapter, try talking out your story with a friend over a beer. If you’re a coder struggling to crack a new feature, try sketching it out on a whiteboard. If you’re a project manager wrangling freelancers with a spreadsheet, try group emails and a weekly call.
In every role and in every industry, there are usually multiple tools available to us. Most of us get stuck using one or two. Exploring the others, even just as an exercise, can often lead to the kinds of discoveries that get us un-stuck.
As Paul Arden, the creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi and a leading thinker on ideation and talent, once recommended, “If you get stuck, draw with a different pen. Change your tools; it may free your thinking.”
Investigate your feelings.
Feeling stuck usually comes with a litany of negative emotions. Fear, doubt, shame, and envy are common ones — natural reactions to confronting our limitations and hitting a wall.
For most of us, those emotions are all-consuming. They rush in so quickly and unconsciously that they become part of the stuckness itself, and only end up perpetuating it. In many cases, these feelings are quite shameful. It’s hard enough to admit that we’re stuck; it’s even harder to confess that we’re also afraid or envious or disheartened as a result — especially in an age where we’re supposed to be levelling up and “crushing it” 24/7, ideally on the highlight reel that is social media.
The best way to prevent these attendant emotions from running the show is to study them. As it happens, this is also one of the best ways to overcome the barriers that gave birth to them. If we study our “ugly” emotions the right way, they can actually teach us exactly what we need to know to solve the problem at hand.
Consider Jonathan Franzen, one of the greatest American writers working today. A few years back, Franzen, having publishing another impressive novel after 10 years, revealed that he had fumbled through years of terrible work and crippling writer’s block.
“I found my way blocked by shame,” he explained. “I was ashamed of almost everything I’d done in my personal life for the last 15 years.” He talked about the shame he felt about his first marriage and divorce, his sexual inexperience, and his status as “a bleeding and undefended person instead of a tower of remoteness and command and intellect.” In short, “I was mired in shame about my innocence.” This feeling got so bad, he said, that it actually blocked an earlier novel, and slowed him to the point of writing about 30 unusable pages in a year.
Then, one day, he confessed his problem to a writer friend of his, who listened as he described how all of that shame was making it hard to write his book, especially the sections about a character’s difficult romantic relationship. His friend finally said something that shifted his perspective: “You don’t write through shame; you write [a]round it.”
Franzen admits that he didn’t fully understand what that meant at first. But it got him writing. Instead of trying to be the strong, shame-free writer he wished he could be, he wrote as a writer full of shame, trying to write about this relationship anyway. The result was a book that really captured this complicated feeling, and succeeded not despite Franzen’s crippling embarrassment, but because of it.
We don’t need to be creatives to study these negative feelings and invite them in. The best entrepreneurs talk about waking up every day, recognizing their fear, talking about it openly, and using it to make their work more urgent, more thoughtful, more meaningful. The best scientists talk about confronting their ignorance, sharing it with their colleagues, and using it as fuel for their curiosity to find a better answer.
Being stuck is simply a state. How we feel about that state is a separate process entirely, and one that we can control by honestly exploring those feelings when they arise. In many cases, the simple act of studying our “stuck” emotions will free us from their grip. They can also, like Franzen’s shame, lead to the solutions we need to overcome them.
Own your stuckness.
We’ve talked a lot about how to overcome the barriers that keep us stuck. But just as important as forging on is recognizing that being stuck can also produce its own rewards.
For one thing, being stuck on one project opens us up to pursue others — our mind’s way, perhaps, of diversifying our effort and forcing us to interact with the world in different ways. When I get stuck, I know there are at least two or three other projects on my plate that could use my attention. If I shift to one of those, then the barrier can’t succeed in putting a stop to my work overall.
Getting stuck can also lead to states of mind that, scientists are now discovering, produce surprising benefits — namely, boredom.
One recent study found that boring activities actually result in increased creativity, and explored the role of daydreaming — a common activity that arises in response to boredom — as a mediator between boredom and creativity. In other words, a wandering mind can actually lead to new and better ideas.
There are loads of studies that echo this finding, and all of them are excellent reminders that being stuck (and growing bored) are not only helpful parts of our process, but necessary ones. One landmark study, for instance, gave participants a ton of time to complete problem-solving and word-association exercises. Once they worked through all of the obvious answers, participants offered up more and more inventive ones as a way of staving off the feeling of boredom.
The research here is vast, and it all points to one central insight: that being stuck can actually be fruitful and productive.
So when you find yourself hitting a wall, consider taking a step back and owning your stuckness. It might invite you to work on other projects that need your attention. It might help you come up with solutions you can’t see just yet. Or it might just be the time you need to step away, recover, and return to your work with new eyes.
We don’t always need to fight our barriers. Sometimes, we just need to make the most of them.
Forgive yourself and move on.
I’m probably hardest on myself when I’ve hit a wall. I can deal with struggle, I can even deal with failure, but finding myself stuck — and paralyzed as a result — is one of the hardest stages in my process.
What I’ve learned over the years is that being stuck isn’t truly cumulative. It often feels cumulative — ten days of being stuck will usually feel worse than one — but the feeling that stuckness compounds is just a trick played by my mind. My brain strings together moments of being stuck into a narrative, and that narrative takes on way more significance than the simple act of hitting a wall. It conveniently ignores all of the creative potential of that period, all of the subconscious work I might be doing, the option to work on other projects — in short, all of the surprising benefits we’ve talked about in this piece. Instead, it feels like a vicious cycle that gets worse the longer I’m stuck.
To break that cycle, I’ve learned to let go of my stuckness and just move on. I forgive myself for yesterday’s confusion. I don’t hold on to the feelings of self-doubt or fear that crept in as a result. I accept a new day as a blank slate, and just show up and try again. It doesn’t guarantee that I won’t be stuck again. But it absolutely stops me from feeding that feeling of stuckness more than is necessary. This is a simple practice, but it’s hard to do. If you commit to it, though, hitting those walls becomes a lot less daunting.
“Finish each day and be done with it,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. “You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
And that’s all stuckness is, really — a little bit of nonsense we need to (and absolutely can) work out.
[Photo by Shane Rounce]