Skip to navigationSkip to content
sprinting
Sport Singapore/Action Images via Reuters Livepic
Don’t give up.
BREAK THROUGH

How to get stuff done when you’ve hit a wall

Jason Zook
By Jason Zook

Contributor, Crew

Remember the excitement you felt when you launched headfirst into your latest project? That bliss of knowing every door was open and the opportunities were endless. But then, if you’re like most people, something happens as you near the finish line. You trip. Fall. Get a cramp and take a break. And all that momentum and drive that got you to that spot seems to just disappear.

Too often we want to focus on the big to-do item, the big project goal, the end result of work. This could be writing a book, launching a new website, building an app, etc… It’s been said many times over before, but you simply can’t write the big item down on your to-do list.

That item should be written down on a completely separate list called something like “Big Awesome Things I Want To Do!” Go ahead and write that list. Now, put that list somewhere where you won’t see it every day, it’s time to do a couple things that will actually help you finish your work/projects/etc.

Start with lots and lots of small to-do lists

What you and I work on isn’t rocket science, but you better believe we can learn a thing or two from rocket scientists.

A rocket scientist can’t just build a rocket, they have to start by building each component. There are tanks, injectors, pumps, housings, chambers, nozzles, and a myriad of other parts that need individual focus and completion. The sum of the completion of all those parts leads to a rocket. And yes, I had to Google how to build a rocket.

But the same thinking should be applied to whatever you’re working on. Don’t focus on any large items. Focus on much smaller items that you can complete one-by-one. It’s helpful to write down individual to-do lists for individual parts of a project. The smaller and more mundane the items are on your lists, the easier they are to scratch off.

I used to struggle with to-do lists. But once I tried a few different things, I found a method that worked for me.

Instead of using a fancy app, I use good ol’ pen and paper. Each day I write out that day’s to-do items and break them down into the smallest tasks possible. Throughout the day I look back at my list and mark things off as I get them done (it’s amazing how empowering crossing off a to-do list with a sharpie can be).

The next day, when I sit down to write out my to-dos, if I have any leftovers from the previous day I rewrite them. The task of rewriting to-dos became my least favorite part of the day.

Despising rewriting daily to-dos helped me focus on getting all my tasks done each day as to avoid the rewriting process. I finally broke my habit of letting tasks carry over each day and it only took about 30 days.

When all your small to-do lists are done, you should have a fully functioning rocket! Or blog. Or web app.

The pacing of a project is incredibly important

Let’s face it, at the core of it we’re animals. We have survival instincts. Whenever we start working on something, it’s hard for us to stop. It’s just our nature. I envision some part of our brain saying “get this thing done before a sabertooth tiger eats us!”

But we don’t live in survival mode anymore. You must resist your instinctual urges and pace yourself when you’re trying to work on (and finish) a project.

We’ve all been there: An approaching deadline. Too much work to be done. Sleepless nights and copious amounts of caffeine help us reach a mediocre finish line. We end up with work we aren’t proud of because we didn’t give ourselves ample time to get the job done right.

This isn’t the way work has to be done if you plan to pace yourself.

In 2014, I had a hard deadline for my book launch (my birthday, May 15). But out of nowhere there were complications with the book printing, and some really ridiculous hurdles in dealing with Amazon.com as a self-published author.

As May 15 crept closer and closer I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. I was angry for about a day when I realized something: That deadline to launch my book on my birthday was a deadline I had made up and one that, in the grand scheme of life, could easily be moved.

I remember sending an email to my list letting them know the release date had to change and I was met with overwhelming support. More often than not, if you’re honest with yourself and your audience, changing a deadline is not that big of a deal.

Not everything needs to get done on day one, and you certainly shouldn’t try to get everything done on the last day of your project. Build a plan for your project and be disciplined in your (small) daily work.

Breaks are essential

Piggy-backing off of pacing, you must remember to take breaks. If you’ve ever felt like your brain is fried and you simply can’t get any more work done, it’s because you’ve overworked yourself.

I’ve personally found that forcing myself to take many breaks throughout the day is critical to working efficiently and without the feeling of my brain being turned to a pile of useless mush. These breaks are not breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These breaks are time throughout the day when you’d normally be working, but when you force yourself to take 10-30 minutes to step away.

I find that nature provides the absolute best brain-refueling. I leave all technology behind and I go on a walk or a hike. I take time to enjoy my surroundings and breath deeply. For some, this might be meditation. For me, I look at it as releasing my tension and stress out into the world.

There’s one small caveat when I say I “leave all technology behind.” I bought a Garmin Vivosmart activity band for the sole purpose of its inactivity alarm feature. This little device I wear measures how active I am and alerts me if I’ve been sitting for more than 40 minutes.

Wearing this for almost a year now has trained me to get up and move around before the 40-minute inactivity alarm even has a chance to go off. And when I need to focus for a longer period of time? I just take it off and leave it on my desk.

Just like you want to create habits for your daily to-do list creation and completion, make time for breaks that re-energize you.

Remember that the last 10% usually takes help

Whether you’re a solo founder, one-woman shop, or prideful entrepreneur (like me), a little bit of help can usually give you the little push you need to get to the finish line.

This can be done in a few different ways:

  • Create a trust circle that can keep you accountable
  • Make your deadline public on social media and ask your friends, followers, family, for their support and encouragement
  • Use a tool like followup.cc or boomerang and write yourself future letters of encouragement

The first two should be fairly self explanatory. The last one is a nice little trick that works wonders.

Take time to write an email to yourself that encourages you to “keep going!” and schedule this email to arrive a week or two before your deadline. If you want to get serious, write multiple emails and schedule them to arrive in your inbox one month, three weeks, two weeks, one week, three days, and one day before your project deadline.

Your own encouraging words can give you that extra nudge. Plus, you’ll likely forget about them if you write the emails far enough in advance, which becomes a fun surprise.

When the finish line is near

When that finish line is in sight all of those doubts you pushed aside tend to creep back up. It takes a little bit of grit. It takes a little bit of courage. It takes digging deep and pushing through the moments of wanting to quit. If you remind yourself of why you’re doing the work you’re doing, it can help push you to the finish line.

Most importantly, you’ll never accomplish the last 10% if you’re working on projects you don’t want to be working on. This comes with experience. I have at least 30 projects under my entrepreneurial belt, and the ones I struggled the most to complete were the ones I should have quit working on.

Ask yourself: Am I not getting this project completed because I need more discipline, or because I don’t actually want to work on this anymore? If you answer was discipline, read this article again. If your answer was because you don’t want to work on it, now’s a great time to take a break and think about what you want to do next.

Crew publishes regular articles on creativity, productivity, and the future of work. Enter your email here to get their weekly newsletter. You can also follow Crew on Twitter and Facebook.

Subscribe to the Daily Brief, our morning email with news and insights you need to understand our changing world.