On Being Stuck, Part 3

Ever have to clean up a “junk room”? One of these rooms that has disorganized itself out of control, and it needs fixing? I’m not naturally very good at junk-room–style problems. I love to fix things, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by projects that have, let’s call it, “too many variables.” I can get stuck before I even get started.

Lucky for me, my wife has skills and perspectives that are complementary to mine. To my wife, a junk room is just a project that you start working on, and you figure it out. Eventually you get done, pretty much no matter where you start. But to me, a junk room is a million problems that my brain tries to optimize all at once. Of course, if I allow it to think that way, the decision tree explodes to trillions of branches, and I’m paralyzed.

The star of the show is, now for the third straight story, ask for help.

When I ask my wife for help with a junk-room–style problem, she’ll suggest, “First, you should throw that away and then move this over to here.” My reaction might be something like, “Hm, well, I can’t throw that away coz [reason], and this has to go over there coz [other reason],” at which point she’ll dust off her hands and say, “Well, it looks like my work here is done.”

And it is done: I’m underway. Unstuck.

The process is so predictable you can make a tool out of it. For example, when I’m stuck on some million-variable problem, I can simulate (in my mind) asking my wife for help, and I can likewise simulate the response: “Just get started, you’ll figure it out.” And it actually works. I can get unstuck by pretending to have a conversation I’m not, in actuality, having.

Brains are weird.

What I’ve learned from working on junk-room–style problems:

  1. It’s ok to ask for help when you need it.
  2. Sometimes, simulated help can be just as helpful as actual help.
  3. Whether you’re naturally wired to do the “Just get started, you’ll figure it out” thing on your own, try to remember it when you get stuck. Write it down if you have to. It’s a tool. Practice it.


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