Make a list of obstacles
If you wrote down all of the reasons you’re afraid in the last step, you got a head start. All those fears? They’re obstacles. They’re what’s standing in the way of you starting this project (be it an essay, design, illustration, etc.).
What comes up for you? Write. It. Down.
For example, when I think about my goal of doing stand-up comedy … well, a bunch of stuff comes up, as you can imagine:
- My ideas are boring
- I’ll forget my jokes
- I’ll find out I’m not funny
- I don’t know how to book stage time
But now my fears are no longer floating around in the ether, circling my head like a cloud of gnats I can’t escape. I’ve plucked each one from orbit and turned them into individual obstacles I can see and tackle.
Address obstacles as your future self
Pretend you’ve completed the project and it’s the best thing you’ve done. It’s six weeks later, your project won an award, you got a promotion, and you gave your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Now take out that list of obstacles you just made and interview the red-carpet version of yourself. Assume the place of future you — the one who’s already achieved this goal — and break down how you addressed each obstacle on the list.
- “I sat down every morning at 5 a.m. when I was fresh, set the timer, and spent 2 hours focused on the work.”
- “I Googled it.”
- “I kept a notebook of ideas.”
- “I hired a mentor.”
- “I went to the library for inspiration.”
And now you have a solid to-do list. A place to start.
This is where I always want to throw myself on the floor like a toddler and scream, “But I. Dooon’t. Knowww.”
Imagine you do know
There are for sure things we don’t know. But the things we truly don’t know tend to be fact-based — and that’s what Google’s for! When it comes to making decisions about our lives and our creative pursuits, “I don’t know” is more about making excuses to avoid discomfort. It’s about being unsure and unwilling to try, to fail, to make a decision.
Make “I don’t know” off-limits. When you have the urge to say, “I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know what colors to try. I don’t know what fonts to pair.” Challenge yourself. Return to that award-winning, future version of yourself and ask, “What if I did know? What would I do then?”
Then be willing to try a bunch of things that don’t work. Be willing to fail. “I don’t know” blocks you. Don’t give yourself the option of saying it.
Ask better questions
Your brain will set to work solving the puzzles you give it. And if you’re stuck in fear, the puzzle you’re trying to solve likely sounds something like,“Why am I so horrible at this?” or “Why can’t I do this?” and “Should I even be doing this?” Or, my personal favorite, “What. Is. Wrong. With me?”
Your amygdala will answer with some variation of, “BECAUSE YOU’RE THE WORST THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE THIS WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYONE YOU LOVE IT’S BAD BAD BAD STAY PUT DOING NOTHING WHERE IT’S SAFE FOREVER DISCOMFORT IS DEADLY DIE DIE DIE DEAD.”
Instead, ask your brain questions like:
- What do I need to solve this problem?
- Where can I find inspiration?
- When do I feel inspired to do my best work?
- What can I do today to make myself feel proud?
- What are the things about this activity that make me happy? What kind of art/design makes me happy?
- What’s the next smallest step I can take towards completion? (A five-minute sketch? Pick up a paintbrush? Make a moodboard?)
Your brain will happily get to work finding answers to those questions instead of churning out all the reasons you suck.
Don’t waste energy debating yourself
As soon as I decide to do something I’m excited about, right on queue, Penelope tries to pull me into a debate. She gets loud and obnoxious with her list of reasons why what I’m about to do is a bad idea.
When I expect and plan for Penelope’s arrival, I avoid the energy-sucking, back-and-forth debates that keep me stuck. I make a plan to stick to my choices and figure out how to make them great. When Penelope chimes in, I have some answers ready:
Penelope (my “primitive” brain): YOU CAN’T DO THIS MAYBE QUIT.
Me: I’m going to try anyway.
Penelope: THIS IS TOO HARD MAYBE GET A SNACK AND REORGANIZE YOUR SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS.
Me: I set a timer to focus for an hour.
Penelope: THIS WILL NEVER WORK.
Me: I’m willing to fail.
This step is a real energy saver. This is what we’re doing, brain. I hear you. I see you. Now have a seat.
Shush the voice of perfectionism
If you really do want to write and you’re struggling to get started, you’re afraid of something. Remember, it’s only you and the page. The wastepaper basket is your friend — it was invented for you, by God.
With that obstacles/to-do list in hand, set a timer for an hour and get to it. I had to start with 30 minutes and work up to an hour. You can play around and see what works, but don’t skip setting the timer. I tried this a couple of years ago, just noting the time and keeping an eye on the clock, but I could never make it work. I’d give up or completely forget I’d set a focus goal.
When I revisited this strategy recently, I actually set a timer (I just used the one on my phone) — something about the countdown made me take the challenge seriously. Brains, eh? So persnickety and magical.
When you ask yourself to work quickly, you remove time for distraction, delay, questioning, and time-wasting. The pressure of time eliminates room for perfectionism — you can’t work quickly and perfectly.
Don’t let the task dictate the amount of time it takes. You decide ahead of time how much time to spend on it, and then focus and get it done in the time given.
Make something ugly — mighty ugly!
What you’re about to do might suck. Give yourself permission to create something imperfect.
Make something awful! Do it. Do it badly. Do it badly with gusto. If you need inspiration, Vancouver creative badass Kim Werker literally wrote the book on it: Make It Mighty Ugly: Exercises & Advice for Getting Creative Even when It Ain’t Pretty.
In any medium, I also start out assuming—even planning—that I’ll delete the first thing I do, whether it’s a paragraph or the first few rows of a scarf. That makes those first steps far less precious and therefore less intimidating.
―Kim Werker, Make It Mighty Ugly
There’s a new driver in town
These strategies work. And I know that because using them got these words from my head onto your screen. Which, frankly, after two years of silence, feels like a miracle.
But I’m gonna go ahead and credit a strange brew of self-compassion, tough love, and hard work. Go me. Go us! I can’t wait to see what you create after you’ve taken fear out for coffee and dropped the news that they’ve been demoted to passenger.
Feelings are my most favorite thing to talk about. If you have any after reading this, tweet at me!