Where do I start? 12 Ways to Get Unstuck

Where do I start? 12 Ways to Get Unstuck

agile decision making, how to get unstuck, decide where to startWhere do I start?

I get asked this question often, so I thought I’d share my response to an email I received.  Hope it helps you get unstuck and decide where to start agilizing, too.



Dear Ariane,

Reading your articles is like reading about myself, except that I work in a classroom instead of the corporate world, and I have been a single parent since my daughter was born 17 years ago. I’ve gone through all the same thoughts about being disorganized, have sought help in several ways, but I have yet to find anything that truly works with me.

I will hyperfocus on cleaning until it’s 3 in the morning, look and the clock and think “crap, I’m only going to get 3 hours of sleep.”

brain-too-many-tabsI will look at a mountain of mess on my kitchen table and think  “I only have 15 minutes, it’s pointless trying to clean this right now.”

I walk down the halls at work after the kids leave and most of the other teachers have left thinking “how do they get their grading done so fast?”

I know that I have a hard time finding motivation, getting started, and not being such a perfectionist. But I don’t know how to work with these and ask for help in ways that I’m wiling to tolerate. And my perfectionism makes me too embarrassed about the state of my house to ask for help in cleaning it.

I used to sit down with my daughter (also ADHD) and write a to-do list of chores, making each item as small as possible – mop kitchen, dirty dishes hunt, fold socks, etc. We would cut up the list and divide it (2 chores for me for every 1 for her), then we would race to see who could get the most done before the timer went off. It was super fun for both of us, and whoever won got a treat from the other person, a shoulder rub, toenails painted, a story, etc.

But now that my daughter’s time is filled with marching band and color guard and choir, we aren’t home together enough to play this game. When we are home, we’re too tired to do anything other than share a movie together.

I don’t know how to transition to make things work again.

I’m so overwhelmed that all I want to do are hide in a good book, or find someplace to escape to and play task avoidance, usually a walk or a visit to my sister’s house.

Where do I start?



RESPONSEgetting unstuck strategies

How many of you reading this can relate? I sure can. I was inspired to write this article in response to D.’s challenges but have tried to address the bigger questions that challenge all of us – how to get unstuck and decide where to start agilizing the things that are bothering us.

NOTE:  From what D. wrote, I don’t have enough info to suggest specifically where to start (that would be like a doctor making a diagnosis and giving a prescription without doing an assessment first.) I can, however, offer some feedback, insights and questions for you to ask yourself, provide some general agilizing and decision making process tips and suggest some decision making strategies and options that might help in your situation. The ultimate decision is yours.


Hi D.,

First of all, I want to acknowledge you for all the difficult challenges and struggles you’ve faced  as a single mom raising a child while also working as a teacher.


Whatever struggles you’ve had, clearly you also have a LOT to give yourself credit for. You have persevered and raised a healthy active daughter in spite of your personal challenges.  You must be doing a lot of things quite well enough!

2-relax-modelPay Yourself First. Take care of your needs and have fun regularly.

You not only DESERVE to read a book, relax, take a walk and visit your sister, you NEED to do those things on a regular basis. As you are going through a transition, you need even more relaxation and enjoyment, so go ahead and RESERVE the time to do the things you enjoy FIRST.

And please, don’t feel guilty about doing things you like doing.

You need to do things you enjoy doing every day (just like you need to eat every day) in order to replenish your energy to do the things you don’t enjoy as much.  If you do things you enjoy only when you feel overwhelmed, you are training your brain to think that the only way it can have fun is to make you feel overwhelmed and suffer first. That is NOT true!

So start training your brain to relax and trust that it will get to have fun. Teach your brain that it does not have to overwhelm you and shut down to get your attention  and get you to take time out for the relaxation and fun it needs.

Pay yourself first by making time for the things you enjoy, even if that means making time to read magazines, watch tv, or to just play with your cats.  I don’t mean you have to schedule that time, just make sure that you have reserved time in your day, every day, to take breaks and do whatever you feel like and enjoy doing.  : )


I know it’s tempting to compare yourself to others, and perhaps they are doing something better or faster than you do.  But remember this — you have no way of knowing what the other person’s whole story is.  What they are doing faster, may not be as good.  Or they may not have the challenges you have, or perhaps there is something that is easy for you that is hard for them.  Whatever the whole story is, comparing yourself in your head and judging yourself harshly is not helpful to you or them.  What might be more helpful to you is to use your comparisons to build a relationship with the person you think is doing something well and / or to learn something that will actually help you improve your process.

For example, you could compliment the teacher who seems to have a great process for grading papers and you could ask them how they get their grading done so quickly.  Instead of try to stop comparing yourself to others, you can practice the valuable meta-cognitive skills of

1) becoming aware of your thinking processes

2) notice whether your thoughts are helping your situation and

3) redirecting yourself to using your thoughts in a different, more helpful way.

In this case, using comparisons to judge yourself can be transformed into harnessing  your ability to make comparisons and using it to learn something new and inspire yourself to review and agilize your own processes. Using your brain power to redirect your thoughts and start developing new meta-cognitive thinking habits is FAR more valuable and helpful than trying to get your brain to stop doing something.  The fact is your brain can’t just stop, it’s need something new to do instead. That’s why trying to stop doing things doesn’t work.

agile-prioritizing-planning-doingWhen you find yourself agonizing, switch to agilizing mode.

One option for starting the switch is to refocus your attention to your own process and ask yourself agilizing questions like:

  • How long does it actually taking me to grade each paper? How much time could I realistically save?
  • What are my steps?  How long does each step take?
  • What steps could be eliminated, streamlined or automated?
  • Where am I doing it? Is the location helping or making it take even longer?
  • What tools am I using?  Would a checklist help?
  • What time of day am I doing it?
  • Am I timing the task so that my cognitive functioning and energy levels are making it easier for me to get it done?
  • What slows me down when I’m doing this?
  • What could I do to anticipate and prevent interruptions or distractions? Or, should I allow myself to work in smaller chunks throughout the day (such as grading 5 papers at a time).
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • What small things could I change quickly to conduct experiments and see if they make my grading process more efficient?


Listen to Your Inner Wisdom – Resistance is Potentially Valuable FEEDBACK

My sense from what you wrote is that underlying your resistance to getting started may be some emotional conflict about your daughter growing up and not needing you as much any more.  Perhaps what you are really avoiding is facing the grief of not having as much time with her as you used to?  When life transitions happen, many of our habits need redesigning and that takes a little energy.

self-compassionBe compassionate with yourself.

So one place to start may be to acknowledge your grief, notice what’s changing and, instead of expecting yourself to do things alone that you used to do with your daughter, start noticing and dealing with your true feelings about not having your daughter around as much.

ask-yourselfChange Your Questions

Give yourself time to come with more helpful, agile questions to ask yourself that will facilitate you in making better decisions.  For example…

Instead of  “I only have 15 minutes, it’s pointless trying to clean this right now.”

The “agilizer’s” version of the question might be more like this:

“What small thing could I easily and quickly do in the 15 minutes I have and with the energy level I’m feeling right now?

Clarify 3-5 options for starting.

In my experience, it usually doesn’t matter where we start.  What matters is starting.  That said, if you aren’t getting any ideas for feasible starting places, a great place to start is to ask a different question.  When we get stuck, 80 – 90 % of the time, the questions you are asking or the statements you are making to yourself aren’t helping you generate ideas. Reframing the questions we ask ourselves helps us shift perspective so we can see new possibilities.

Innovator's hypothesis cheap-experiments-ideas

From the Book, The Innovator’s Hypothesis

Try on your options. Listen to and USE the feedback from yourself.

Since the MOST important thing is to get started, when I can’t quickly decide on a place to start, I sometimes start by writing down my options for starting. Once I have a few options, then just pick one randomly and “try it on.”  If I find I don’t like what I picked, I rule that out and move on to the next option.  I just keep trying on options till one works or till I realize I perhaps need to ask a different question so I can design a new option that I am ready to get started on.

still the mindExperiment with giving yourself permission to do nothing and just breathe DEEPLY.

Sometimes, I have trouble deciding where to start because I am thinking of too many options at once and they all seem equally urgent. This is usually a sign that what I really need is a break and to clear my mind.  I remind myself that it is impossible to do everything at once, so what I really need is to clear my mind and make room for what really needs doing to bubble up.  Most of the time once I relax, it becomes clearer what I really need.  I’ve observed myself do this so many times, I now find that one of my best productivity strategies for getting into action to is to R.E.L.A.X. first, clear my mind, give myself permission to be still, say no to everything, and wait for clear thinking to return.


USE DECISION FILTERS to Rule out Options and Narrow the list of possibilities.

Sometimes I have trouble thinking of options for starting but usually I’m thinking of too many possibilities. More than 5 options is too overwhelming, less than 3 may be too “limiting” and get me stuck in a vicious cycle.

In that case, I ask the questions:

“What ARE my options for starting?

“How can I filter or narrow down my options to just 3 – 5?”

Decision filters are a super power tool for making better decisions on getting started.  Filters are criteria we use to rule out options.

For example, one of the filters I use is to take care of my primary emotional, physical, and mental needs first so that I can then make better decisions.  If I’m feeling overwhelmed, chances are high that I’ve been neglecting my needs.  So, if I haven’t had enough water, or rest, etc. I take time out to take care of myself before trying to make any other decisions.    Then I ask, filtering questions like:

  • How much time do I have?
  • What’s coming up in the next few hours or day or two?
  • What really needs doing today and what can wait?
  • Of those tasks that need doing today, which fit the time I have?

When I use this agile approach, I find that my inner wisdom kicks in and starts speaking to me. The key is to truly listen to yourself with the goal of leading and coaching yourself – not pushing yourself.

Lead Yourself

Listen to Understand and Lead Yourself, not to Control or Push Yourself.

If you aren’t in the habit of listening to your inner wisdom, you may have trouble distinguishing it from your inner critic.  If you are in the habit of trying to boss yourself around, telling yourself what to do, arguing with yourself, or comparing yourself to others and criticizing yourself, that is not listening.

If so, a better place to start may be to practice deeply listening to the part of that is procrastinating.  Listen to your inner resistance and use the feedback it’s giving you wisely.

For example, if your resistance is saying, “that will take too long”, or “I’m too tired”, or “what’s the point?”  or “I don’t want to do that without my daughter”

Listening to yourself means hearing the feedback objectively and validating it – even if you don’t like or approve of it.  Validation is like respect.

Validation means accepting your resistance for what it is – it’s real – whether you like it or not.  


Listening to resistance means you need to dialogue with yourself, hear your concerns, show some compassion for own feelings, and then try to address your concerns.  For example, if you are concerned it will take too long, ask yourself how you could modify what you are trying to do to take less time.  If tired, allow yourself to take a break till you feel less tired.  If your resistance doesn’t think it’s worth doing, ask why or ask yourself what would make it feel worth it.  Addressing the reasons why doing the thing doesn’t feel worth it right now is a highly valuable exercise because it not only addresses your concerns now, it trains your brain to trust you to listen to it and eventually the resistance goes away and stops coming back.

Listening to resistance enables you to learn, grow, and break free from the vicious cycle of struggling with yourself.  

Other filtering criteria for narrowing decision options include:

  • What feels easy to me?
  • What small thing is frustrating me right now that I could clear out of my way?

Sometimes the little frustrating or annoying things get my attention and motivate me into action more easily than something I “want” to do.

Cultivate Self-Confidence and self-Trust by Strengthen Your Inner Guidance System

The “best” place to start is ALWAYS relative to everything else going in your life at that moment.  Your inner wisdom is the part of you that is holistically processing all the physical sensations and emotions that your logical mind tends to ignore and when you have trouble making decisions, it usually means you need to pay attention to that you.  If you develop the habit of listening to all parts of yourself, and negotiating with yourself rather than pushing yourself, you will become better at assessing what is really needed, what your options are, and deciding what you are “ready” to start on.

So, let go of the ideal of finding the “best” place to start, and focus on listening to your inner guidance system to help you decide on a realistic and feasible place to start. Keep proposing options to yourself until you get a “hell yes, I can do that” feeling.

Looking for a “best” starting point is a cognitive thinking habit that feeds indecision and procrastination, not productivity.

questions change what you are looking for

Change what you are looking for, and you will change your life.

Instead of looking for the best answers, look for more helpful questions. Answers constantly change. What worked in yesterday’s situation may not work today. Helpful questions are the ones that turn your attention from agonizing or complaining to agilizing and creative problem-solving .  Helpful questions are those that inspire answers that might work for the situation you are in NOW.

quote-an-approximate-answer-to-the-right-question-is-worth-a-great-deal-more-than-a-precise-answer-to-the-john-tukey-274189Try changing your question from “where is the best place to start?” to agilizing questions like

  • What are my options for starting?
  • What would naturally motivate me right now to make a decision and start?
  • How could I make this task super small?
  • How could I take some of the pressure of and just do it because it needs doing?

Convert “I don’t have enough time to finish.”  into “What can I reasonably do to make a little progress with the time I do have?”

What if I just do what I can do in 15 minutes instead of feeling like it ALL has to get done in 15 minutes?

For example, in my garden if I only have 5 minutes…I can make it seem like I did more work than I did by pull as many of the biggest weeds as I can in 5 minutes instead of just doing one small area for 5 minutes.

I scan the whole garden to pick the BIGGEST weeds to pull and thus get the most impact for my 5 minutes of labor. Instead of having it end up looking I started and didn’t finish, the overall impact is that there are a lot less weeds and I feel like I really accomplished something.

inner conflict - cognitive dissonanceLearn from Yourself

In closing, I suggest learning from your own successes to develop your own strategies. Take time daily to reflect on what you DID accomplish and notice  all the things you normally don’t pay attention to, like what you did NOT have trouble getting started on. How does that work?

What do the things you DO get started on easily have in common? My guess is you don’t have to pressure yourself to do them. What can you learn from your successes that you could try to apply to this situation?

Clearly I can’t address your situation fully in one article, but I hope this discussion helps you find your own way to get started : )

Significantly updated March 2015. Originally published in August 2011

One thought on “Where do I start? 12 Ways to Get Unstuck

  1. Pingback: Agilizing, Resistance and the Art of War | Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed

Comments are closed.