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Get unstuck

Overcome your inner critic and generate new ideas to get yourself unstuck.

Ondrej Markus
Ondrej Markus
6 min read
Get unstuck

This happens to me all the time:

  • I get stuck on a problem.
  • Whatever I’m trying doesn’t work.
  • And I don’t know what to do next.

Actually, I’m stuck right now. So I’m writing this for myself as much as anyone.

Getting stuck is not your personal failure. It happens to everyone all the time. We just don’t talk about it very often.

But we should. It’s a normal part of living and working, so we don’t need to be embarrassed. We just have to learn to deal with it.

Today, we’ll learn how to overcome your inner critic and generate new ideas to get yourself unstuck.

These are the three most common places where we get stuck:

  1. Having no ideas
  2. Being stuck on your first idea
  3. Dealing with an anchor problem

Let's look at them one by one.

No ideas

Until I was 25 or so, I thought: “I’m not a creative person.”

I was wrong, of course, because everyone is creative.

Sure, some people are better at coming up with new ideas than others, but that’s because it’s a skill they’ve learned and a mindset they have.

If you believe you can’t come up with anything original, you won’t. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Everybody has ideas. Some of us are just too critical about them (including me), so we need to practice ways to overcome our inner critic and get them out of our head.

How to get unstuck from having no ideas:

  1. Accept that creativity is a skill you can learn, not a talent you have to be born with.
  2. Learn an ideation technique to overcome your inner critic. (We will do that in a few minutes.)

First ideas

Just around the corner of being stuck with no ideas is the ditch of being stuck with your first idea.

The first idea is rarely the best solution to your problem. Actually, It's often not even good, but you don't see it because your brain puts pink glasses on your senses.

You are so happy you have some idea. So your brain refuses to let go of it because it's afraid nothing better is coming.

You get stuck on an idea that doesn't work, unable to let go of it.

How to get unstuck from first ideas:

Always force yourself to come up with more than one idea.

Don't go, “AHA! This is it!” but continue generating more ideas because something much better is probably close.

Anchor problems

This is a tricky one.

If you get through your first idea, but you still feel stuck, maybe the problem is not the idea, it’s the problem itself.

Anchor problems are too difficult to solve. And trying to solve them the way you've chosen will bring you only frustration.

Anchor problem
Anchor problem

You need to learn how to recognize when you’re trying to solve a problem that’s too difficult.

However, it’s hard to say what is or isn’t an anchor problem. Because something not working is normal. Things not working yet is nothing you should panic about.

But if you are making next to no progress at all for a while, you might be anchored to a problem you cannot solve, and it’s time to rethink your options.

How to get unstuck from Anchor problems:

Zoom out from the problem to the meaning behind it, and find a different way to get what you want.

  • What do you want from this?
  • What do you do this for?
  • How else could you get it?

Sometimes we focus too much on a specific idea, and we forget what we were trying to achieve in the first place.

If this happens, you need to zoom out of the daily mess, think about the bigger picture, and find a better way to get what you want.

Create mindmaps

Mindmapping is a simple ideation technique that helps you come up with new ideas whenever you feel stuck.

You don’t need to be a professional creativity wizard to use it. Anyone can do it by writing on a piece of paper for a few minutes. Zero magic or hypnosis involved.

This would be cool if it worked like this.
This would be cool if it worked like this.

We will create three mindmaps building on what we reflected on over the last three sessions:

  1. Areas of your life
  2. Joy (engagement and energy)
  3. Meaning behind what you want

The purpose of this exercise is to give you new ideas and perspectives. And it's something you can do anytime you need those. It can be your go-to hack for finding new ideas to try.

Now, here is one of my mindmaps to show you how it works:

How to create a mindmap step by step:

Mindmapping

  1. Choose your starting topic and put it in the middle of the paper.
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes. (You want to do this quickly, without thinking too much so you avoid self-censoring.)
  3. Start writing any associations you have with your starting word around it, and connect them with lines. (The association can be anything that comes to mind when you see the word: concept, activity, person, feeling, place,..)
  4. Continue writing and connecting associations with every new word you have. Do at least 2-3 associations with every one of them. (It will create a spreading web of associations.)
  5. Continue doing this for 4-5 layers or until you run out of time (5 minutes).
  6. Then look at your finished mindmap and highlight anything that surprises you or seems interesting. (The surprising stuff is often on the edges because it's a few layers away from your conscious thinking.)

The trick behind this technique is speed. You want to write your associations quickly to bypass your inner critic who holds the door to new ideas.

Inner critic holds the door to your unconscious mind.
Inner critic holds the door to your unconscious mind.
HodorMindmapping breaks through your inner critic.
Mindmapping breaks through your inner critic.

Do this exercise three times with different starting topic:

  • First mindmap topic: Choose one area from your life you want to improve because it's not going as well as you'd like. (Or any other where you feel like something interesting might come up.)
  • Second mindmap topic: Choose one activity or event from your Good time journal which was very engaging and/or energizing for you.
  • Third mindmap topic: Choose one value that's important for you in your life and gives your work meaning.

When you finish all three (it only takes 15 minutes or so) and highlight whatever surprises you or seems interesting, unexpected connections and ideas might start appearing.

You might have enough material to make a list of ideas for things you want to improve, projects you might want to start, and jobs you might want to do.

This is what came up for me. (I'm sharing only one of the three.)

My finished mindmap with a few top ideas.
My finished mindmap with a few top ideas.

That's it for today.

Feel free to make as many mindmaps as you want. It's simple to do and you never know where a life-changing idea might come from.

We will continue building on the insights from your mindmaps on Thursday when we start designing your future lives.

Life design

Ondrej Markus Twitter

I write about designing your life around meaningful work you enjoy.


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