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Sticking Point

Psychology expert Dr Alice Boyes suggests ways to ease through those times when you’d usually ‘get stuck’ 

By Dr Alice Boyes

You know that feeling. There is something you really need to do, but you keep putting it off, whether it’s appeasing your mother-in-law or sorting our your bills, somehow you can’t move forward. Patterns of ‘getting stuck’ can be self-perpetuating. Once you’ve experienced getting stuck, you’re more likely to procrastinate when you do that activity in the future. Not getting started then becomes a form of self-sabotage. The good news is that a few simple strategies can help you disrupt this cycle. 

Writer’s block
Acceptance can be one of the most useful ways for dealing with writer’s block. Sometimes writing will feel easy and sometimes it will feel hard. That said, the more practise you’ve had at getting yourself unstuck, the more you’ll understand how you work your way out of that hole. Possible options include: working out of sequence (if you’re writing an essay try skipping ahead to writing the reference list), getting feedback from someone else, or utilising online technology (such as Portent’s Content Idea Generator). A technology trick I use in my writing is to turn it into an mp3 on my Mac. As I listen to it I can often “hear” bits of clunky or confusing writing that I’ve missed when reading it. 

What works for one person might not be as effective for you, so developing self-understanding is key. Find your go-to strategies and develop a personal tool kit that contains a variety of techniques for different situations. 

Making decisions
When you write something down, your brain processes that information differently to when you just think something through. There can even be a difference between writing by hand versus typing. Different methods of processing information can stimulate different thoughts. If you can’t make a decision, quit thinking and try jotting down a pros and cons list, or talking it out with a friend.

If your mind is frantically whirring, step away from the decision for a while. After a few hours, check to see if your instincts have clarified. Getting out of your normal environment can stimulate different thoughts. The age-old advice to take a shower, go for a walk, or sleep on a decision can work well.  

In The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin distinguishes between satisficers and maximisers. Satisficers make a decision as soon as they find an option that fits their criteria. Maximisers want to make the absolute best possible decision so they exhaustively research all of the options first. If you’re exhausted by decision making and you’re naturally a maximiser, you might want to switch to the satisficer method for decisions of lower importance. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Ask yourself if the decision you’re making will matter in a year. If it won’t you can feel more relaxed about the possibility of making a “wrong” decision.  

Repetitive patterns
Do you keep doing the same things even when you know that behaviour isn’t useful? Falling into repetitive traps can sometimes be due to having unrealistic expectations of yourself (such as you try to completely cut out sugar). It’s often about being unwilling to experience a particular set of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations (such as you’re unwilling to tolerate a craving for chocolate so you break your diet). 

Ask yourself what internal experiences you would have to be willing to tolerate if you changed your behaviour and what might be the benefits. Then ask yourself what obstacles there are to changing, and how you would overcome those obstacles. For example: you’d cope with guilt trips by staying calm and repeating some reassuring words. 

You can use a similar three-question process to deal with other common repetitive patterns like staying up late and then yawning your way through the work day. Don’t skip planning how you’d overcome obstacles, such as  how you might overcome the obstacle of wanting to watch TV late at night? Planning how you’ll get past obstacles is the important step in the process.

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