Often, people stand between themselves and success.
In our work with large organizations and individuals, we've learned that the number one impediment to success is not lack of time, limited resources, or a difficult boss or team. It's you!
So how can you get out of your own way? We asked 40 respondents this question in a Design the Life You Love survey (all quotes, unless otherwise noted, come anonymously from survey participants). Here are the inventive and effective ways leaders, entrepreneurs, freelancers, managers, and designers get out of their own way to do their best work:
1. Have a routine
When you're anxious or fearful, or the work looms large, have a routine. Brian Koppelman, producer and writer, has a routine he developed to get out of self-doubt quickly. It includes morning pages à la Julia Cameron, meditation, long walks, and going somewhere to write (as discussed in an interview with Debbie Millman for Design Matters).
"By managing fear and rejection, you gain power over them." --Brian Koppelman
Other favored routines of survey participants included having a drink, going on a bike ride, laying in the sun, remaining in the moment rather than letting your mind race to outcomes that don't even exist yet, taking deep breaths, setting aside five minutes every morning after waking up to think about your day, reading something inspiring, listening to podcasts, learning new skills (skiing, calligraphy, karate), listening to people with empathy, visualizing your process and where you want to get to, and going to a spa to soak and clear your mind completely.
2. Positive interaction
Engage with other people in a positive way, which in return will help you be more positive about yourself.
"Little acts of kindness help you feel more positive about yourself, which makes you feel less fearful, more confident."
"I try to add kindness into everything--whether a smile to a stranger in the elevator, thanking the parking attendant and asking him about his day--the positive interaction always puts a lift in my day."
Another survey participant uses a private Twitter account to write down extreme feelings, both positive and negative ones, to be more rational and analytical than impulsive. She says, "I think it's all about developing habits to stay positive about myself. It's a muscle; I need to work on it constantly."
3. Time management
Approach your work with good time management: Put it in your calendar, use a focus technique like Pomodoro, have deadlines, do lists for every little thing you need to do, cross items out when you're done.
"If I want to or have to do something, I just start doing it, because the more time I spend thinking about it or getting ready for it the more discouraged I get."
4. Break tasks into smaller pieces
It is often the enormity of the task that scares us--the book, the report, the big idea. Instead of thinking of the end game, stay in the moment, define a small chunk of the work, and accomplish that--500 words, three sketches, 20 minutes of research. Plan to do a little each day and have them add up.
"Starting anything is the hardest part. I start by making a list. For me, a list breaks everything down into small tasks and achievable goals (I make a list every day). If you just focus on some big obstacle that's in front of you, it can easily become too daunting to take on. But if you break it down into smaller pieces--what you can do in the next hour, the next day, or the next week--before you know it you will have chipped away at what you once thought was too big to take on and it won't be so big anymore."
Having too many things to accomplish is itself an impediment to doing your best work. List what you need to do, put names next to the tasks, and assign, collaborate, outsource. You will realize that you don't need to put your name next to everything, and that there are people who can help you.
"Creating lists, tediously updating my calendar, and delegating everything are the techniques that I use often."
6. One out, one in
Cross out one project before you add a new one. This is similar to what organizational expert Peter Walsh recommends--if you buy a new shirt, be sure to throw out an old shirt--to avoid overstuffing your closet. We all have constraints of time, energy, and resources. Be mindful of how much you can manage at a given time.
As a participant noted, "I started keeping a list of new shiny things and projects, but I only get to indulge in one if I cross something off the existing project list. One out, one in. It keeps me honest with myself about what I can handle and makes me choose more thoughtfully the new thing to tackle."
7. Get it out of your system
Talk to your friends, discuss it with your colleague, write in a journal, make lists, to get it--your fear of failure, the complexity of the work at hand, your limitations--out of your head and into the open. As one person put it in the survey,
"I connect with people, through a phone call or a coffee meeting, and try to verbalize what is holding me back. I break through the fear of starting, whatever the root of it is, by acknowledging it, and through conversation I always learn again that everyone faces challenges, and that they only pass if we continue to put one foot in front of the other."
8. Do the hard thing first
Instead of leaving the difficult stuff to the end, do it first, when you have the most intellectual energy. Resist the pull of easy stuff. It will drain your brain without giving you a sense of accomplishment. In the morning, when your brain is rested, work on the hard questions, the "knotty or wicked problems," as we call them in design, not on email.
What is hard changes from person to person, which is why this response from a participant is so refreshing. "Start talking with a stranger in the morning. The whole day gets easier."
9. Say yes!
Say yes to things. Yes is an invitation to learning new skills, to experimenting, to showing up. No is a closed door, a nonstarter. Often, we stand in our own way by simply saying no and thinking I am not good enough, I don't know enough, I am terrified of failing. It is so easy to say no--out of fear and self-doubt--but say yes!
"If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes--then learn how to do it later!" --Richard Branson
10. Embrace negative thinking in doses
Ask yourself, what is the worst possible thing that could happen if I do this? Use negative thinking to put the situation in perspective. This will allow you to recognize possible consequences and choices you have to either move forward or adjust your plans. More often than not, you will find that most of your fears are in your head and don't reflect reality.
"I always say to myself, 'What's the worst that can happen?' Since I never know the answer to that question, that's when I know I am tripping myself."
11. Advertise it
Tell others what you're doing until it becomes public knowledge. When you state publicly that you are doing something, the bird is out of the bag so to speak. At our studio, Birsel + Seck, when we want to try something new, we announce it as a public workshop and start taking reservations. As soon as the first reservation comes in, it is too late to back out. It is our way of getting over the fear of the new and to constantly experiment.
As one survey participant put it, "What always works is committing to something in a way that makes it harder to back out."
12. Reward yourself
Try any one of these tricks, and when you get out of your own way and get things done, celebrate! It not easy to leave your fears behind, to get beyond procrastination and self-doubt. Recognize what it takes to do your best work and give yourself a much-deserved pat on the back. Give yourself flowers, have a drink with a friend, buy yourself that pair of shoes you've had your eye on. Jump in the air, and do a crazy dance, and mark the moment. It was hard, but you did it!
You can model badminton world champion Saina Nehwal, who has a reward that may resonate with many of us.
"After I win a match, I celebrate it by having an ice cream."
We continue to make an inventory of habits and tricks. If you have other ways of getting out of your own way, write to me. I would love to hear from you. And thank you to participants of our survey for sharing your experience and knowledge!
Design the life you love.