I’ve felt the pain of this situation many times: a daunting assignment, a looming deadline, and a blank screen in front me. My palms begin to sweat. Thoughts of self-doubt starts to creep in: “What if I can’t come up with any ideas?” Or, “Where do I even begin?”
These thoughts can be paralyzing, especially when starting a new challenge. But I’ve learned that this is a completely normal part of the creative process. In fact, once harnessed, these moments can be used to propel new ideas and methods of working.
I’d like to share with you a few steps I’ve learned to take to break through the barrier of beginning.
Allow time to procrastinate
This may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes I’ve found it helpful to allow myself time to procrastinate. I’ve learned that the feeling of wanting to put off starting a project doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m being lazy. It’s usually the combination of having a daunting challenge, and at the same time needing a mental break. This makes me want to run to something easy and non-important – something that fills that “stuck” feeling.
Rather than try to fight that feeling, here’s how I “proactively” procrastinate.
Set a timer for 15 minutes, and allow myself freetime. I can check the news, take a nap, whatever I want to do – as long as it’s in the window of time allotted. Once the alarm goes off, freetime is done. I must stop and move immediately on to the next step.
What this does is to allow myself to accept my current mental state, to acknowledge it so that I can move forward. Without this intentional time, it’s easy to unintentionally distract myself from accomplishing the task at hand.
Block out small chunks of time
Setting massive goals for myself at the beginning of a project can prove too daunting, contributing to that overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to start. Rather, I’ve found that if I can work on the easy wins first, I build confidence that propels me forward to bigger parts of a project. So, what does this look like?
Tie an easy win to a very small block of time. For example, I may decide to write 1 paragraph of text in 5 mins. Or sketch ideas for 15 minutes. Read the project brief for 10 minutes.
The key here is that these are very easy first steps. They require no special tools, equipment, or knowledge. They just let me get started. I write down what easy win I want to work on, set an alarm on my phone, and start working on that task.
The time component is important because it lets me fit this into any schedule. Finding 5 minutes of time should be doable no matter how busy the day. At the same time, it should feel a bit like the time is too short - this is important because it helps propel through the process, as we’ll see in the next step.
Turn off ‘perfection mode’
I have a natural tendency to want to finesse all the details early on in a project, and try to arrive at something perfect as soon as possible. But I’ve found this hinders creativity most often, and can really make me feel that I don’t like what I’m creating, because it isn’t living up to what I have in my mind. This can easily happen if I spend too much time on an aspect too early in the process.
Small sprints prevent me from going too far into the details. That’s why the use small blocks of time are important - I have to move fast. The key here is to get started and work quickly. Get rough ideas, thoughts, or find pieces of information that I need. These are really rough, ragged pieces that should feel incomplete and raw. This helps me to begin to investigate – engaging my curiosity and allowing for a range of exploration in a short amount of time.
Furthermore, the small blocks of time are like a gateway drug to the next phase of the project. Once I get over the mental block of getting started, it’s easy to keep going because I start to find things that I’m curious about that naturally pull me deeper into the work. I’ve found myself on numerous occasions hitting the snooze button on the 5-minute alarm I’ve set because I really want to keep working on that particular task.
These ways of breaking through the barrier of beginning have helped gain the confidence in myself to be able to tackle any challenge at hand, and I hope they help you as you begin your next project. Breakthroughs always seem to come after consistent practice, failures and trials. But that doesn’t mean you have to continue feeling overwhelmed - you can start your next challenge today.