Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” A common sentiment, especially when you’re stuck before you’ve even begun. We’ve all been there. So much so that we’ve named the dilemma. Writers get blocked, athletes have the yips, and creatives often lack inspiration.
What can we do to get unstuck? I recently encountered one approach of the avian kind, which caused me to remember two more terrific strategies, so I’m sharing three tested methods for sidestepping “stuckness.” Let’s start with individuals and work toward teams.
Getting unstuck at work – If you’ve ever found that you’re talking to yourself when working through something, you’re not alone. There’s a common approach that involves verbally working through a solution, and it’s called “rubber-duck debugging.”
Andrew Hunt and David Thomas coined the phrase in their book, The Pragmatic Programmer. The coauthors describe a programmer who debugs code by explaining the sequences out loud, line by line, to an inanimate object on the desk.
In this particular case, it was a rubber duck that was the “listener.” The concept is based on the premise that explaining a problem in simple terms to another—even if it’s a nearby object—can reveal what you might be overlooking in your head. Breaking the problem down, step by step, in terms an uninvolved bystander can understand helps you reveal faulty assumptions.
This approach actually taps into neuroscience. It’s called “ongoing perceptual processing,” which means saying the word “desk,” for example, instead of just thinking about it actually increases brain activity and awareness of the desk.
This approach is consistent with what educational psychologists have studied in schools. In fact, students who mutter or talk through a problem in class perform certain tasks better than kids who don’t.
Getting unstuck in life – Author, Buddhist guide, and ordained nun Pema Chödrön is another teacher I recommend. She’s authored one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to: Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.
In Chödrön’s book, she explores how to break your habitual patterns by exploring what reinforces our cravings and addictions. Addictions include food, social media, video games, shopping, you name it. Anytime we turn to something again and again because it helps us feel temporary pleasure or relief from pain of our current condition, it can be considered addictive behavior.
For instance, I don’t love that I do this, but one of my regular go-to habits is a big bowl of popcorn and a great TV show during the evening when I’m super stressed or feeling anxious about the world. It helps me tune out, and I find the steady intake of a crunchy, salty snack soothing. But then I get mad at myself that I didn’t journal about my stress, meditate and process it, or just sit with it instead of the extra calorie intake!
When we are distracted by these addictive patterns, they prevent us from evolving and living a more fulfilling life. If you’ve ever had an itch and not scratched it, Buddhist tradition says that by refraining from your urge to scratch (succumbing to limiting habits or addictions), you find greater happiness and unlock what’s holding you back.
Getting unstuck as a team – While authors Hunt, Thomas, and Chödrön provide us with ways to unpack our roadblocks as individuals, working in teams presents a dynamic and a host of additional factors to navigate.
Lisa Laskow Lahey is yet another thought leader whose body of work with teams is incredibly helpful. Her new book with coauthor and psychologist Robert Kegan is called Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.
When you consider how much we are creatures of habit and then multiply these tendencies by the number of people on a team with different needs, skills, and worries, it’s remarkable how much potential we truly have in spite of these challenges.
In their book, Kegan and Lahey step up to the challenge and address the collective inertia. Immunity to change is an inability to change because of deep-rooted assumptions and conflicting commitments. Together, they explore five steps for overcoming immunity to change in depth. Here’s a brief list that follows. I’ve added Step 2A:
1. Commit to a change goal.
2. Describe the behavior you need to change.
2A: If willing, list all the fears around making the change. What are you (and the team) worried about?
3. Uncover your hidden competing commitments.
4. Tease out your big assumptions.
5. Test your assumptions.
Feeling and being stuck is normal, but staying stuck can be frustrating, especially if we have a strong inner critic. I hope these quick tips can help in the future. If you find that your “stuckness” has a certain pattern or consistency to it, it might be time to explore your inner saboteur or unconscious fears around the sticky bits. We’ll explore this in future conversations. Stay tuned!