When I Get Stuck: A Process to Stay Productive

One of my constant quests in life it to stay productive at all times. Although that is the ideal state, in reality there are those moments when it seems that there is no way that what I am supposed to be doing can take priority over my reading list or my Facebook feed.

Over time, however, I realized its not necessarily a hard issue to deal with. I’ve found that there are a concrete set of triggers and devices that I can use to get myself back on track and motivated. I’ve shared these with some people privately and the reaction has been positive so I figured I’d publish them and see what other people use.

When I get stuck:

  1. Why is what I am doing important? How is it tied to my goals?: As #1 on the list, this is the most important question that I can ask myself. If I can envision exactly the flow from completing the task in front of me to the end result I am looking for, the work suddenly becomes much more interesting and relevant. At the same time, sometimes this actually makes me realize that what I’m doing is not worth completing. Which is great! Now I’m on a more efficient path towards my goals.
  2. What’s the definition of success for what I’m doing?: Once I’ve established that what I am working on is necessary for my goals, the next road block could be ambiguity: what should the result actually look like? Can I accurately detail the skeletal structure of the document I am working on? Are there any other PowerPoint presentation that accomplish similar things that I’ve worked on in the past that can be helpful? I often find that an inability to complete something comes from not being sure what I am creating (more on that here). Often, once I can visualize the specific outline of the document I’m creating it becomes much easier.
  3. What are the steps required to get me there?: Next: whats the right order of steps to accomplish the definition of success I just created? It’s much easier to tackle a task when it is broken down into digestible steps. A lego puzzle would be extremely difficult to put together if all I had to go on was the picture of the finished piece on the outside of the box. Luckily, I’m provided with step by step instructions and it becomes child’s play to put it together. Apply those same principles to my work and although it may not become child’s play, at least it will much easier.
  4. Where can I find out more about it? Who can I call what can I read that will tell me how to do it?: At this point maybe the problem is just that I don’t know how to solve the problem that you are working on. Or maybe I have a vague idea but am not sure where to look next. I find materials on the topic, read as much as possible, find examples that other people have created of things close to what I’m are trying to accomplish. Once I’ve done that I start looking for people that are experts in my field. Ask them questions. Ask for advice. In general people love to help and have an opportunity to pass on their expertise. In this day and age, it is becoming easier and easier to be connected with either the documents or the person that can answer your questions. Don’t re-invent the wheel if you don’t need to.
  5. What environment might be better than what I have now?: One of the best ways to stay motivated is to change up your environment: music, light color temperature, “inspiration”, people etc… You’d be surprised how much more effective you can be once you realize that if you go to the sky lobby of the Mandarin with a view over central park you feel extremely hyped up to get things done. Experiment with different environments and figure out what type of work is best to do where. Usually different environments work well for different paces.
  6. When you’re down do something intellectually or physically hard: This sounds counterintuitive but in my experience it is very effective. IF you can force yourself to accomplish 1 thing that you have been dreading doing, it will immediately lift your spirits and makes the rest of your todo list not only more palatable but actually fun to accomplish. A corollary to this is: make sure that you start your day with the hardest thing on your todo list. You’ll get it out of the way early and be primed to take on the rest of the day.
  7. When you’re in a funk, do something new and different. Now we’re getting to the more serious steps that take some time to accomplish. If you find yourself consistently unable to accomplish a specific task. Take a break from it. For a few hours, a day maybe even a week or more. Take that time to do new things. Hang out with new people, visit a museum you’ve never been to, maybe take a walk to a neighborhood that you have not been to, or if you’re really stuck, go to a new country. One of the best ways to activate the pathways of our brains is to expose them to new experiences. That problem that you were working on will stay in the back of your head and when you least expect it, a solution will jump out at you.
  8. Keep in mind: Last but not least, are you burnt out? Is it time to change tracks? This is not a decision to be made lightly but it has been shown that lack of control over work hours + compromised ability to reach stated goals = burnout. Is this a situation that you are in? If you’ve tried all of the above techniques and more then maybe this is the case. What to do next is nuanced but it should definitely involve some soul searching: What do I actually want to accomplish in my life? How am I going to get there? What will make me happy? These are not easy questions to answer but if you can and you find your passion, you will be 10x more productive.

What do you use to keep yourself on track and productive?

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